Behind the Camera

Towards the close of This Is Not a Film (2011), a despondent Jafar Panahi is cajoled by his friend and fellow filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb to continue filming on his iPhone, despite the low-grade quality of the image and the unlikelihood that the footage will ever be used to make a film. Mirtahmasb tells Panahi that the most important thing is the act of documentation, that the cameras remain on. During the course of This Is Not a Film—the precise film both men lament will never be madeMirtahmasb films Panahi in his Tehrani family home as he awaits a verdict on the criminal charges pressed against him by the Iranian government. Remaining within the confines of Panahi’s home as a consequence of the director’s house arrest, the men use a handheld camcorder and an iPhone to record one another, a lighter and cigarette packet as a makeshift tripod. This simple scene toward the film’s end, with the two men saying their farewells to one another after their day’s work, is a profound testament to the political power and resonance of alternative filmmaking practices in 21st century Iran.

Panahi, one of Iran’s leading contemporary filmmakers, was arrested in March 2010 and charged with producing propaganda against the Iranian government and the Islamic Republic. His arrest coincided with the highly disputed re-election of the fundamentalist candidate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the 2009 Iranian presidential election. Panahi was convicted for his involvement in the Green Movement, which emerged in the aftermath of the election to dispute Ahmadinejad’s presidency, as well as his politicised cinematic oeuvre, which includes films such as Offside (2006) and The Circle (2000), both of which deal overtly with female subjugation in contemporary Iranian society. Panahi received a six-year jail sentence and a 20-year ban on filmmaking, and, following his release from prison on a reduced sentence, was placed under house arrest and prohibited from traveling abroad or giving interviews with either Iranian or foreign media. Since his arrest, Panahi has illicitly directed, produced and distributed three feature films—This Is Not a Film, Closed Curtain (2013) and Taxi (2015)—with the aid of several prolific Iranian filmmakers, including Mirtahmasb (co-director of This Is Not a Film) and Kambuzia Partovi (co-director and lead actor of Closed Curtain), as well as an assemblage of participants who remain uncredited as a protective measure against government retaliation.

In the years preceding Panahi’s arrest and incarceration the filmmaker was a renowned proponent of the Iranian New Wave, a film movement that arose in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and featured a number of celebrated filmmakers including Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf. The Revolution saw the pro-Western Pahlavi dynasty replaced by the Islamic Republic, led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, ending 2500 years of monarchy in the country and establishing one of the modern world’s official theocratic states. The regime immediately set about eradicating the Western values promulgated by Iran’s strong affiliations with the US under Pahlavi rule. Cinema, considered a Western art form and ideologically opposed to the Islamic faith, has endured extreme censorial restriction since the Revolution.

From 1979, Iran’s cinematic landscape has been indelibly marked by draconian censorship laws that have consistently restricted artistic expression, production and distribution throughout the country. The New Wave emerged as a cinematic rebuke to state censorship and became eulogised globally as one of the most innovative and progressive film movements in the world. The artistic measures taken by filmmakers to bypass censorship laws that thwarted honest depictions of Iranian life and experience—such as the compulsory veiling of women—led to a new cinematic grammar characterised by reflexive formal technique. While artistic reflexivity has to a great extent become depoliticised in the context of postmodern Western society, reflexive filmmaking continues to retain radical and transformative potential in contemporary Iran. In a country where government sanctioned propaganda is ubiquitous, and candid explorations of society and culture are routinely repressed, reflexive filmmaking allows Iranian filmmakers to examine how narratives are formally and ideologically constructed. The deconstructive impulse of reflexive filmmaking dispels the illusion of a ‘fixed reality’ by confronting and destabilising cinema’s narrative, directorial and generic authorities.

A key scene from Panahi’s pre-ban film The Mirror (1997) elucidates the reflexive mode in post-Revolution Iranian cinema. For the first third of its runtime The Mirror is ostensibly a children’s film typical of the Iranian New Wave, which follows its child protagonist Mina (Mina Mohammad Khani) as she journeys home from school alone. After Mina discovers that she has boarded the wrong bus she angrily proclaims that she will no longer act for the camera and proceeds to remove the cast she has been wearing as a prop on her arm. Panahi can be heard offscreen telling the camera crew to cut and he then enters from the left of the frame to ask Mina what is wrong. Mina exits the bus and the camera turns one hundred and eighty degrees to where the film crew are speculating over why Mina has refused to continue shooting the film. This scene functions as a radical, albeit jarring, turning point at which the structures that conventionally maintain cinematic verisimilitude, and thus allow audiences to suspend their disbelief in favour of the storyworld, break down. The spectator becomes aware of the physical framing of the scene as Panahi enters from offscreen and the film moves from a fictional narration into a documentary-style real time as the director, camera crew and equipment become visible and audible. In the aftermath of 1979 this style of reflexive filmmaking became a powerful political act, as Iranian filmmakers began to challenge the very structures of cinematic representation. Within the confines of such extreme censorship restrictions, directors found themselves unable to explore Iranian society and their people with veracity or integrity, and they turned to reflexive filmmaking as a means of deconstructing the limitations of artistic representation itself. In doing so, directors were able to obliquely criticise the Islamic Republic through the formal elements of filmmaking.

Contemporary Iranian cinema has seen a rise in underground filmmaking following the election of the extremist-conservative government of Ahmadinejad in 2004 and his disputed  reinstatement in 2009. In the context of Iran specifically, underground cinema refers to a collection of films produced without the official authorisation or financial and technical support of the Iranian government. Parviz Jahed, writing for Film International, argues that ‘Iranian underground films contain some of the most crucial, first-hand documentations of the current social and cultural situation in Iran.’ Perhaps the most defining characteristic of underground cinema in Iran is the liberation afforded to filmmakers following the advent of new digital technologies, which has allowed them to produce work without the financial support or artistic accreditation of institutional bodies. While the Iranian New Wave and reflexive filmmaking are important historical and formal legacies from which Panahi’s post-ban work has undoubtedly emerged, the current movement of underground cinema in contemporary Iran is another crucial context within which we can navigate the political and cinematic import of Panahi’s clandestine filmmaking.

Taxi opens with a view onto the Tehrani streets from a camera positioned on the dashboard of a car, the yellow bonnet of a quintessential Tehrani taxi visible in the foreground of the frame. It is not until about ten minutes into the film, following an argument between two of the taxi’s occupants concerning the death penalty in Iran, that the dashboard camera cuts to a shot of the driver’s seat, and Panahi himself is revealed as the driver of the film’s eponymous vehicle. From this moment onwards, Taxi moves into the reflexive mode of filmmaking inextricably associated with the New Wave and the film enmeshes fiction and documentary forms just as the aforementioned scene from The Mirror explores. However, Taxi is fraught with political and social commentary that extends far beyond the obliquely politicised nature of the New Wave cinema. Once the camera has been turned on Panahi the remaining passenger in the car declares that he recognises the director and asks if he is shooting a film, as the conversation between the previous two passengers reminded him of a scene from another of Panahi’s pre-ban films, Crimson Gold (2003). The enmeshment of fiction and non-fiction elements makes it impossible to decipher between what is scripted and what may be improvised throughout the film. While the inseparability of fiction and documentary story-forms is considered a foundational trope of the New Wave, it acquires unprecedented political significance in the context of Panahi’s recent work.

All three of the post-ban films centre around Panahi himself and while This Is Not a Film deals directly with his censorship restrictions, and documents a specific day in which he awaits a legal verdict, Closed Curtain and Taxi negotiate Panahi’s presence within far more narratively fluid and fictionally motivated circumstances. For the first half of Closed Curtain’s runtime Panahi never appears on screen and the film presents itself as an entirely fictionalised storyworld. In Taxi, passengers enter and exit the car within a spectrum of fictionalised contexts, some appearing staged and scripted, while others seem like fly-on-the-wall style sequences of documentary filmmaking. The rapid flux between fiction and documentary impulses—and, in many instances, their complete indecipherability—embeds Panahi’s artistic plight within the many narratives that circulate throughout the films. The question is no longer what is real and what is fabricated, but what sort of stories need to be told, and most importantly how they may be told in new and inventive ways.

Panahi’s post-ban work stands as testament to the malleable power of alternative filmmaking practices in contemporary Iran. What is so formally and politically innovative about Taxi is how Panahi explores narrative layering, or embedded storytelling, within one of the most restrictive spaces conceivable for a feature-length film. The entirety of Taxi is filmed from the confines of the car, which embodies how stories arrive into, and are shaped by, the restricted space of Panahi’s physical and expressive limits (in this case a vehicle continually in motion). The relationship between restricted spatiality and censored artistic expression has underpinned the entire post-ban oeuvre, with This Is Not a Film shot inside the confines of Panahi’s apartment in Tehran and Closed Curtain filmed in his holiday home on the Caspian Sea. While the films visually enact the artistic restrictions that Panahi continues to endure, they simultaneously and conversely celebrate the unbounded scope of narrative expression.

Toward the close of Taxi, Panahi happens upon a close friend who has stopped at a street corner in the city. He gives her a lift and the two converse about the plight of a young girl the woman is en route to visit in prison, who has been arrested for attending a male-only football match—Panahi examined this specific gender inequality in Offside, the last film he made before his arrest. Before she leaves the car, Panahi’s friend places a single rose from the bouquet she is bringing to the imprisoned girl on the car’s dashboard, right in front of the camera. She declares that she is placing it there for ‘the love of cinema’ and for those in film who she can count upon to continue telling stories of the Iranian people. Wittingly, before closing the taxi door, she warns Panahi to omit what she has said from the final film to avoid landing himself in further trouble with the authorities.

Instead, Panahi motors on, telling his young niece Hana to replace his friend in the front seat, and Hana clambers in holding her own small digital camera as she films her own film and carries her own rose. At the 65th Berlin International Film Festival, Hana accepted the Golden Bear award on behalf of Panahi, who was unable to attend due to his restriction on travelling outside of Iran. In a profoundly prescient monologue in Taxi, Hana declares that she must make a film that is ‘distributable’ in the eyes of the Iranian authorities as part of a school project, which she will screen at her school’s National Film Festival in the hopes of winning. She instead accepted one of the highest accolades in contemporary film culture for a resoundingly ‘un-distributable’ film.