THIS IS NOT A FILM
Chinese 1, 11/4/2011, 7:15 PM
Chinese 3, 11/5/2011, 2:15 PM
Egyptian-Spielberg, 11/7/2011, 7:00 PM
By Hye Jean Chung
What to do when a filmmaker can no longer make films? Simple. Make films about not being able to make films. If you are as talented, acclaimed and laureled as Jafar Panahi and Kim Ki-duk, the result is a contemplation on a variety of political and philosophical issues that range from totalitarian regimes, film aesthetics, human rights, human nature, resistance, betrayal, life and death. And their films, THIS IS NOT A FILM and ARIRANG, demonstrate of course that it is not a simple matter to flip a creative block—whether self-imposed or legally enforced—into a rich source of inspiration. For both, turning the camera toward oneself is an act of defiance or a last resort, filled with resolution if not desperation.
Although the two filmmakers are both preoccupied with the common creative struggle of blocked productivity, their circumstances are vastly different. As many might know, award-winning Iranian director Jafar Panahi has been under house arrest as he awaits the verdict of an appeal against a six-year jail term and a 20-year ban on filmmaking, interviews, and international travel (it was turned down last October in a Tehran appeal court). THIS IS NOT A FILM documents a day in his life, as he calls his lawyer, converses with the film’s co-director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb (who has also been arrested after the making of this film), feeds the family’s pet iguana, surfs the Internet, looks outside the window, watches DVDs of his films (CRIMSON GOLD and THE CIRCLE, both banned in Iran), and most poignantly, enacts a verbal and performative version of a script that the Iranian government has prohibited him from making into a film.
The title’s negation of its identity as a film shakes up political, aesthetic, and philosophical issues that filmmakers, critics, and scholars have grappled with since the earliest days of cinema. What is film? How can the filmmaker use film as storytelling medium, aesthetic form, captured reality, or political platform? What are the ethical dimensions of making a film and claiming it as such?
In THIS IS NOT A FILM, Panahi reads from his script, which tells the story of a young girl, Maryam, who is locked in her room by her parents. Rather than simply relying on verbal descriptions, he creates a visual image of the film via video clips of an apartment he found while location scouting and the actresses he cast for the role, and he puts tape on his living room carpet to demarcate the dimensions of the girl’s cramped living space. Absence is as telling as presence in the spectral embodiment of Maryam and her surroundings in the yet-to-be-made film, as well as in the ending credits that name only Panahi and Mirtahmasb, with the rest filled with ellipses (replicated by Panahi’s own absence at the film’s premiere at Cannes earlier this year). It is evident that the girl’s predicament mirrors Panahi’s own. Although his apartment is much larger than Maryam’s tiny room, a cage is still a cage.
As Panahi explains how vertical imagery in a sequence from THE CIRCLE supplements the actress’s mental state, his energetic enthusiasm momentarily wanes, and in a rare display of despair, expresses frustration toward the primarily verbal rendering of his script. (“How can I tell the sense and feeling in this kind of film?”) Seemingly by force of habit, he continuously records interior shots of his apartment and the view outside his window with his iPhone—a ubiquitous presence in the film as one of his few modes of communication with the outside world. As fellow filmmaker Mirtahmasb jokingly remarks, “it matters that the cameras stay on”—whether intentional or not on the part of the translator, the visual emphasis speaks volumes here.
Acclaimed Korean filmmaker Kim Ki-duk would most likely agree, as he demonstrates in his drama/documentary ARIRANG, which won the top prize in the Un Certain Regard section at this year’s Cannes. Here Kim takes on three roles: filmmaker, actor, and spectator. And his three personas do not stay quietly within their separate domains; they watch, converse with, and even laugh at one another—at times jovially, at others derisively. Although he lives in solitary seclusion in a run-down hut, with only a stray cat as company, he is not quite alone. A bevy of ghosts share the space with the filmmaker-turned-hermit in the form of Kim’s memories, movie posters, and DVDs of his films, as well as Kim’s doppelganger and his talkative shadow.
Kim has been amazingly prolific in the past, making 15 films in almost as many years, so perhaps it is not too surprising that he is going through a fallow period of creative energy. ARIRANG was made three years after the release of his last film, DREAM, which was partly responsible in dragging Kim down to his current funk. (An actress almost choked to death while shooting a scene.) Craving inspiration, Kim turns the camera on himself, declaring “I want to make a film now!” Most of the film consists of Kim berating himself for being unproductive, oscillating between self-pity and self-indulgence, and describing his disillusionment with a voracious capitalist system that breeds betrayal and uniformity. Variety’s Leslie Felperin describes the experience of watching the film to “being stuck next to a drunk in a bar who keeps reminding you he used to be famous, all his friends are bastards and he now understands the meaning of life.” In one particular sequence, Kim launches a drunken, profanity-laden tirade, not unlike a Youtube video meltdown in its wincingly raw and embarrassingly honest portrayal of a man struggling to regain control.
It is ambiguous, however, whether Kim ever loses control as a well-established storyteller with a calculatingly canny talent for creating dramatic tension. In the film, he describes his creation as drama, not documentary, and he deploys crosscutting editing techniques to create an unsophisticated but still convincing illusion that he is having a two-way conversation with either his flesh-and-blood doppelganger or his shadow. After one such emotional exchange, he watches the footage of these conversations (reminiscent of Albert and David Maysles’s 1970 documentary, GIMME SHELTER), maintaining enough critical distance to laugh at his “performance.”
The circumstances of his character in ARIRANG, that is, himself, also follow his trademark portrayals of outsiders who are set apart from the rest of the world in a spatial and temporal warp. In a word, he is directing himself, using the film medium to re-sharpen his creative technique and critical eye, and to reinforce to himself and by extension, the audience, the questions every filmmaker asks: Why do I make films? What do I want to say? With whom do I want to communicate? Equipped only with a handheld camera and deprived of anything else readily available to a director on a conventional film set, both Panahi and Kim turn the camera toward themselves as a source of inspiration, and set out to answer these questions as best they can.
Hye Jean Chung is a film scholar/writer who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.