This is Not a Film (2011)

aka In film nist

2014 #97
Jafar Panahi & Mojtaba Mirtahmasb | 79 mins | DVD | 1.78:1 | Iran / Persian | U

This is Not a FilmYou know the kind of people who wait ages and ages for something and really want it and pre-order it or whatever and then when it finally arrives they… add it to a pile and don’t get round to watching/reading/listening to it for even longer than the ‘forever’ they were waiting in the first place? If you don’t, you do now — that’s me.

I first read about This is Not a Film when it premiered at the 2011 Cannes film festival (coming up to four years ago now). “Films where people sit around in rooms and talk to themselves in a foreign language” isn’t among my favourite of movie genres (it is for some people though, so each to their own), but nonetheless this one sounded like an intriguing must-see. My personal hype for it built further through multiple praise-filled reviews, the slow crawl through distribution deals being signed, and the long wait for a UK cinema or DVD release… Finally, a British DVD debuted in March 2013. My copy arrived and I put it on a pile. Just over 18 months later, I finally watched it. (Because it was going to be on TV. That’s often a catalyst for me.)

Jafar Panahi is, I suspect, not the kind of man who waits ages for something and then when it arrives does nothing with it. Quite the opposite, in fact: he’s the kind of man who’s told by law he has to wait ages to do something, and instead does it straight away. After being banned from filmmaking for 20 years, and while waiting for a decision on his appeal against the sentence, Panahi invites his friend and fellow filmmaker Mojtab Mirtahmasb to his house, where the latter films the former as he reads and enacts portions of the screenplay for his intended next project, as well as chatting about the nature of filmmaking. This is not an iguanaTo be precise, Panahi’s ban is from filmmaking, writing screenplays, leaving the country, or giving interviews, so they conclude that reading aloud an existing screenplay while someone else films him doesn’t contravene any of those rules. Nonetheless, the edited (not-a-)film was smuggled out of Iran on a USB stick hidden in a cake in time for its Cannes premiere.

That result is certainly an atypical film viewing experience. The form has a natural looseness, a wavering focus, a lack of structure — all of which is deliberate, and yet not deliberate. It’s not the raw footage — it has been edited and shaped; but only to an extent. After some preamble where he checks in with his family and his lawyers, Panahi starts to describe the film he wanted to make, but is frequently distracted by the futility of the exercise — cue the film’s famous quote, “if we could tell a film, then why make a film?” — before returning to it regardless, because that was the goal of the exercise. In the end, he never really finishes it; certainly not the whole film, anyway. This is Not a Film is not a film told by a man in his own front room, but that is part of it.

So what is it, then? It’s a statement, I suppose, but not so bluntly as an actual statement would be. It’s main message, perhaps, is that art and artists will find a way — you can try to suppress them, but if they want to speak out they will continue to try, and they will find the gaps in your rules that allow them to do so. But it’s also about the nature of movies. What is a film? Is this a film? And if it isn’t a film, what is it? The screenplay Panahi is describing isn’t a film, it’s a series of ideas and concepts that he’s explaining. Does him explaining it make it a film? No, because it lacks the input of important filmmakers like the actors (in one sequence, Panahi demonstrates how the improvisational style he uses generates unpredictable results) or the cameraman (Panahi attests he knows nothing about technology). This is not nothingIn fact, despite the singular input and focus put into this ‘project’, it could be used quite successfully as part of an argument against auteur theory. But that isn’t what it sets out to do either.

What does it set out to do? Nothing… and yet, obviously, not nothing.

By this point you have probably got the gist that this is not a mass-appeal movie. It’s one for students and fans of film, or for those interested in artists working under oppressive regimes. It’s a behind-the-scenes documentary for a film that doesn’t exist; a polemic that never polemicises; a portrait of the artist that has to eschew most of his art… yet, in the spaces around what can be shown and what is shown, it is all of those things. (Just to get a bit pretentious about it.)

For those on the fence about whether This is Not a Film is deserving of an hour-and-a-half of their time, I think the whole exercise is worth seeing for the climax alone. As Mirtahmasb leaves to go home, the stand-in maintenance man for Panahi’s apartment complex arrives to collect the trash. They get talking and, with nothing better to do, Panahi comes out with him on his rounds. A bizarrely captivating elevator ride follows, Panahi holding the camera as he just chats with the guy about his life, his work, his goals; not an interview, but an informal polite natter. It lasts, unbroken, for many minutes, and ends with them emerging outside, to a stunning, unexpected, though equally logical, and no doubt highly allegorical, final shot. The whole sequence makes you begin to question: was this staged? Or a genuine serendipitous event? Questions you may ask about the whole film; This is not a setquestions that are always worth asking about purported documentaries.

Whether This is Not a Film is a film or isn’t doesn’t really matter. It makes you think — and actually, all that oppressive regimes ever really want is to stop you thinking. Unfortunately for them, that’s one thing they can’t control so easily.

4 out of 5

Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape (2010)

2014 #60
Jake West | 71 mins | DVD | 16:9 | UK / English | 18*

Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and VideotapeOriginally produced for the 2010 FrightFest film festival, horror director Jake West’s feature-length documentary with the unwieldy title explores the ‘video nasty’ scare that gripped early-VHS-era Britain. Starting with a primer on the birth of home video, and what it was like to watch movies in those days (because, ladies and gents, we’ve now reached a point where even fans of that (second-)most adults-only of genres, the gory horror flick, are young enough to not recall a time before DVD), West uses archive news clips and a wide array of new talking head interviews to take the story from the UK’s first video recorders in 1978, through a newspaper-led panic, up to the infamous Video Recordings Act of 1984, which irrevocably (thus far, anyway) changed the face of home entertainment releasing in the UK.

In terms of documentary filmmaking, this is not a flashy affair — as I said, archive clips and talking heads. But this is a gripping story — horrifying in its own way, ironically enough — and West and producer Marc Morris have a double whammy of quality components with which to tell it: well researched and selected clips and cuttings, which include key interviews from news and opinion programmes of the time; alongside new interviews with people from both sides of the debate. These include those who campaigned at the time, both anti- and pro-censorship, as well as those who said nothing and perhaps regret it; and now-famous fans who lived through the era and have since gone on to prominent positions — filmmakers and journalists, primarily. It’s this array of informed opinion that makes the film such captivating, essential viewing.

Seize the video nasties!Focusing on the scare rather than the films embroiled in it makes this less a “horror documentary” and more a social history/pop culture one, though the liberal use of extreme clips from the movies in question shuts out anyone without a hardened stomach. (If you did want more on the films themselves, the DVD set that contains the documentary — Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide — includes 7½ hours of special features discussing all 72 ‘official’ video nasties alongside their trailers.) There’s room for little asides amongst the main narrative, though. One of the highlights is the story of an interviewee who was invited on to Sky News in the wake of the James Bulger murder and asked if the film many were holding responsible, Child’s Play 3, should not be available on video… at which juncture he pointed out to the interviewer that it was currently showing on Sky Movies.

One of many fascinating aspects of the documentary is learning how little defence was given to the movies or, more potently, the idea that we shouldn’t be censoring media. It’s the Guardian’s own film critic from that time who highlights that certain papers should have been mounting some kind of defence, or at least counterpoint, but simply didn’t. He explains that they actually found the films a bit extreme and shocking too, which is why they didn’t step in, but — as he says — that’s besides the point: they should have been arguing against censorship; and it was that lack of an intelligent counterargument (or a paucity of one) that helped the ridiculous views take hold and the ill-thought legislation sweep through.

Martin Baker, heroThere was some counterargument, however, which leads us to the film’s best interviewee, and surely a new hero to many: Martin Baker. Baker was one of a few (certainly the first, and for a time the only) critical/intellectual-type voices to speak out in defence of the films that were outraging so many. He’s to be commended not only for his valiant defence of, essentially, free speech at a time when his views were immensely unpopular; but also because he remains one of the most lucid and fascinating commenters in the documentary. He makes the clearest points about the need to not forget both what happened and how it was allowed to happen, lest it occur again.

In a film overloaded with memorable points and sequences, two of the best come near the end. One is the aforementioned, a series of points (including Baker’s) about how the public must learn because politicians won’t. Very true, and surely the main take-away point of the film. Just before that, however, there’s a piece of vintage news footage. Over shots of innocent children in a playground, a reporter tells us that the potential long-term effects of children watching video nasties are not yet known — the implication being we should be terrified that they’ll all grow up either emotionally scarred or to become mass murders. What follows is a near-montage showing successful filmmakers and journalists of today attributing their entire careers to video nasties; and it only scrapes the surface of the tip of the iceberg of those, too.

For those of us not alive or aware during the period in question, it’s a massively informative film. Indeed, even for those who remember it well, this may offer a level of insight and explanation that was absent at the time. It’s important for film fans of all stripes, not just gore hounds, because the legislation passed in response to video nasties still dictates so much of modern British film releasing. And beyond even that, everyone has something to learn from the story of how mass government-sponsored censorship — to a level that, at some points, is reminiscent of Nazism or Stalinist Russia — was not only allowed, but encouraged, in such recent history. Indeed, such issues very much still play out today — after all, this is a country that has recently enacted ludicrous, ineffectual rules Graham Bright, politician - villainthat force ISPs to attempt to censor what we can and can’t see on the internet, and just yesterday rushed through anti-privacy legislation without proper debate. Sad to say, many of the valuable lessons of the ‘video nasties’ brouhaha — lessons made explicit with superb clarity in Jake West’s excellent documentary — have not been heeded.

5 out of 5

A new sequel documentary, Video Nasties: Draconian Days, is released on DVD as part of Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide: Part Two this week.

Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Violence placed 10th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2014, which can be read in full here.

* Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape isn’t actually listed on the BBFC websites, suggesting the makers decided that, as a documentary, it was Exempt. However, the rest of the DVD set on which it is available is rated 18 and, thanks to all the included clips, that’s certainly the appropriate category for the documentary. ^