We were filing into the premiere of This is Not A Film, a clandestine video diary made by Iran’s Jafar Panahi while under house arrest, when we heard the latest Cannes bombshell about Lars Von Trier’s “I’m a Nazi” scandal, documented in a previous post (Lars Von Trier: Nazi pornographer manqué). More about the Iranian movie in a moment, but first this bizarre communiqué from the festival brass:
“The Festival de Cannes provides artists from around the world with an exceptional forum to present their works and defend freedom of expression and creation. The Festival’s Board of Directors, which held an extraordinary meeting this Thursday 19 May 2011, profoundly regrets that this forum has been used by Lars Von Trier to express comments that are unacceptable, intolerable, and contrary to the ideals of humanity and generosity that preside over the very existence of the Festival. The Board of Directors firmly condemns these comments and declares Lars Von Trier a persona non grata at the Festival de Cannes, with effect immediately.”
Later a Cannes press official told me this means that Von Trier’s film, Melancholia, remains in competition for the Palme d’Or, but if it wins a prize Von Trier won’t be allowed to accept it. In fact, from here on in, he is stripped of his festival badge and forbidden to set foot in the Palais, the festival’s headquarters.
This overreaction comes as a shock for two reasons. First, Von Trier issued a contrite apology yesterday for that silly lapse of judgment at the Melancholia press conference, insisting he is, in fact, neither an anti-Semite nor a Nazi. Second, anyone who witnessed the director’s comments was fully aware they were sarcastic. Also, there was a context for them: he was musing about the movie’s allusion to German romanticism, its use of Wagner, and reflecting on his disappointment at discovering that he was not Jewish, and that his family was simply German. Thinking that he could joke about Jews and Hitler and Nazis to the world media without harsh repercussions is idiotic and naïve. But we’ve come to expect that from the Danish auteur provocateur, who seems to combine a flair for outrage with a genuine lack of impulse control. Somehow, the same standard doesn’t apply to Mel Gibson, who walked the red carpet this week to promote The Beaver.
But the ultimate irony of Von Trier’s banishment is that the news broke just as we were sitting down to watch Panahi’s This is Not a Film, a wryly satirical self-portrait of a banned filmmaker. For months Panahi has been confined to his high-rise apartment, awaiting the results of an appeal against a six-year jail term and a 20-year ban that prohibits him from writing a film, shooting a film, or leaving the country. It’s one of two clandestine films in Cannes by Iranian victims of censorship and repression. Both premiered in the Cannes sidebar program, Un Certain Regard, without their directors present. The other is Goodbye, Mohammad Rasoulof, who is also appealing a six-year prison term and a 20-year ban on activities.
They’re both strong films. Rasoulof’s is a sombre and powerful drama about a pregnant woman who has been stripped of her license to practice, and whose husband has gone underground after his newspaper was shut down. The woman, who is trying to leave the country, is considering having an abortion without her husband’s obligatory permission. Gradually the noose tightens around her. At one point two stooges show up at her home and confiscate her satellite dish. Next, several thugs coldly ransack her apartment in front of her, methodically tearing apart her bookshelves, one book at a time, in search of incriminating evidence.
Panafi’s This is Not a Film, on the other hand, plays as an absurdist documentary comedy. While co-director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb shoots him on video—and sometimes just leaves the camera running when he’s not there—Panahi reads and acts out scenes from a movie he’s been forbidden to make, about a girl who’s been imprisoned in her house by her family to prevent her from going to university. After all, no one has said he can’t read or act. So Panafi tapes off an area of a Persian rug in his spacious high-rise home to represent the girl’s room, and maps out the action. At another point, he shows scenes from his movies on the living room’s large flat-screen TV. In some of the drollest moments, he just bides his time, eating bread and jam, making tea, and feeding cheese to a large pet iguana, which crawls all over the apartment as if to the manor born.
On speaker phone, we also hear Panahi discuss his plight with his female lawyer, who is pessimistic. She predicts the 20-year ban might be removed, but at best his prison term will just be reduced. Meanwhile, throughout the film, outside it sounds like there’s constant gunfire. In fact, it’s the sound of Fireworks Wednesday, an Iranian fete that brings people into the streets and has been condemned by the country’s revolutionary leaders. Panahi’s film speaks volumes with its deadpan tone. By being so careful not to say or do anything inflammatory, he has created a work of inspired comic protest. And when he starts using his iPhone to shoot Mirtahmasb shooting him, the tragic-comic irony of his Kafkaesque predicament becomes sublime.