Toronto 2011: Banned Iranian director’s film lands a deal

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There will certainly be bigger sales, dollar wise, at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, but perhaps only the deal announced Wednesday can be said to represent a blow against a repressive regime.

That’s when distributor Palisades Tartan said it had acquired U.S. and British rights to ‘This Is Not a Film,’ Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s non-movie movie that he made after being sentenced last year to six years in prison and was banned from making films for 20 years.

‘This Is Not a Film’ was shot entirely in Panahi’s apartment, partially on an iPhone, and the footage was sneaked out of the country on a USB drive hidden in a cake for a last-minute submission to the Cannes Film Festival in May. It played last week at the Toronto fest.

Panahi (‘Offside,’ ‘The White Balloon,’ ‘The Circle’) was a supporter of the protest movement that arose after Iran’s disputed 2009 reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He was arrested, along with another director, in March 2010 on charges of conspiring to make an unauthorized movie that chronicled the movement. They were convicted of national security violations, including propagandizing against the system. He was at home, appealing his sentence, when ‘This Is Not a Film’ came into being.


‘This Is Not a Film’ captures Panahi’s day-to-day life of sequestration. Viewers watch as he talks to his family and lawyer on the phone, discusses his plight with fellow director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, reflects on the meaning of filmmaking and feeds the family’s giant pet iguana, Igi (who amusingly roams around the apartment, over the sofas and even up the walls).

At first it seems like nothing is happening, but slowly it becomes clear that this is a message in a bottle, and one can learn a lot about life in Iran just by observing the minutiae of Panahi’s existence.

The camera captures the sound of sirens and what seem to be gunshots ringing through the city. It later becomes clear that the commotion is part of an event known as “Fireworks Wednesday” that’s supposedly benign and celebratory but that in the tense political climate can become violent and an opportunity for protest. We watch Panahi as he surfs the Internet and encounters blocked sites. When Mirtahmasb comes over, Panahi starts talking about a script that the government refused to approve and proposes reading the screenplay aloud, while his friend records him.

Filmmaking and traveling were explicitly forbidden in his sentence, Panahi says slyly to the camera, but he notes that ‘acting and reading screenplays were not mentioned in the ban.’

Panahi uses masking tape on his living room carpet to block off ‘rooms’ and tries to explain his vision for the movie. The story is about a girl who wants to go to university, but her family is traditional, and they forbid her to do so. They lock her in the house and go away. Her grandmother comes to visit periodically; the girl becomes suicidal. At first he is animated in explaining the project, pulling out his phone to show photos of locations he scouted and actresses he wanted to cast.

Then suddenly, realizing his pantomime can hardly convey his grand plans for the movie, he gets frustrated and halts. ‘If we could just tell a film, why would we make a film?’ he laments.

A friend calls -- he’s driving and gets stopped by the police, who have set up checkpoints throughout the city. They were suspicious, he tells Panahi, when they saw a camera sitting on the passenger seat of his car.

There’s a knock at the door; it’s the apartment building janitor, coming to collect the trash. Panahi strikes up a conversation with the young man, who turns out to be studying for a master’s degree. But he’s clearly dispirited about his chances for future employment given Iran’s high unemployment rate. He tells Panahi what he saw on the night that security forces came to raid Panahi’s apartment.

Panahi, in a risky move, grabs his professional video camera and follows the young man down in the elevator to the ground floor. Outside the gates of the apartment building, small fires are raging in the street.

It’s unclear how Iranian officials might react to the news that the film has landed a distribution deal. Mirtahmasb had planned to travel to Toronto to introduce the film, but Iranian officials revoked his passport at the last minute. Panahi’s wife and daughter, though, were able to attend, and expressed gratitude for the many international filmmakers who have sought to support his cause.

Introducing the film to a Toronto audience on Friday, Panahi’s wife, Taherah Saeedi, said: ‘This painful ordeal had good and bad outcomes.... I always thought I had a family of four,’ she said. ‘But the events of last year made me realize that my family is bigger, it is the family of cinema.’

An exact release date for ‘This Is Not a Film’ was not announced by Palisades Tartan. But in a statement, the company’s president and chief executive, Soumya Sriraman, said: “This film is of undeniable importance today, especially amid the current Middle-Eastern unrest, and we look forward to sharing this powerful and significant film.”


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-- Julie Makinen in Toronto