Watching Mojtaba Mirtahmasb and Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film I was left to think about the power and importance of film as a medium as well as art as a means of expression. The “film” is a documentary following a day in the life of Jafar Panahi while under house arrest for propaganda against the state of Iran. While the film certainly has political undertones it mostly explores the stress Panahi faces in not being able to make films and express himself through his art. But those political undertones are extremely important. They set the tone. The idea that even the making of this “film” could be an extreme risk for Panahi pervades every scene. In the background we can hear a steady stream of helicopters, gunfire and explosions, and most ominously those sounds intermingle with fireworks going off. There’s a persistent feeling that the good can lead to the bad and vice versa. It’s unsettling, but also intriguing.
In considering This Is Not a Film, which I had hoped to see for quite some time, I realized that the title is only half-joking. Sure, technically it’s a film. Even beyond the technical it’s a film; it features a structure, an interior context and a narrative of sorts. But really, it’s more of a document than anything else, which makes sense since it’s a documentary. It resembles something like memoir mixed with an article. I can certainly call This Is Not a Film great, and everyone with even a passing interest in the world around them should watch it. That being said, I have difficulty calling This Is Not a Film a “great film.” An odd distinction, I know, but I can’t help making it, and I think it stems from the inherent contradictions of the documentary format.
When I think about the greatest films of all time I almost never think about documentaries. If I’m constructing a Top 20 of any given year I often force myself to include a documentary or two. If I didn’t force myself to consider them I’d very likely forget. This is true even of the most narratively compelling documentaries. Last year I raved about Senna and put it in my Top 20, and that still seems correct to me, but I can’t help the feeling that it got on the list by cheating.
Cheating is a strong accusation, but hear me out. Senna is constructed to present a narrative like other biopics. It’s edited to induce tension and drama. It might use documentary footage and it might be presented in a documentary format, but as with all documentaries it still presents a defined point of view much as any fictional or based-on-a-true-story film would. So it has all the hallmarks of a film, and it’s also great. But in the jump to greatness I cannot deny the context of the film itself. It is presented as document. It may be insightful and compelling, but a lot of the goodwill it gets comes from my own approach to it as representative not just of truth, but of fact.
David Fincher’s The Social Network is a great film and one based on a true story. For some people, that might be a similar context to a documentary. But by being a fictionalized presentation the film sets out that it isn’t so interested in facts as it is in a narrative and a thematic truth. The Social Network is quite liberal with the facts, but that hardly matters. The story can be taken on its own terms quite easily, with the Mark Zuckerberg of the film taken as a character separate from the real Mark Zuckerberg.
This isn’t true of documentaries. In discussing them, critics often refer to the people in documentaries as characters. This is a way of defining the approach to a documentary as ignoring the factual context and thinking purely in terms of craft. A worthy ideal, but I don’t think it fits with how documentaries sell themselves. Those “characters” are actual, live people being presented with a sheen of factuality meant to lend an aura of literal truth that in turn lends the thematic truths more weight.
Now, there’s nothing at all wrong with this. Even in This Is Not a Film Panahi deals with this head on. He begins by staging the set-ups himself, but then decides that there’s something too literally false about this, and that he needs an outside subject to film him instead in order to create a more natural environment. The scenarios in the film need to be more naturally occurring so that they will be more literally true and thus more honest.
Still, I can’t help feeling there’s a cheat here. If I’m watching a documentary that “literal truth” becomes something of a shortcut. Why develop a character and create a story when I can just film a person who will be automatically developed because they are real? Why attempt to discover thematic truth through fictionalization when I can just document an actual event that happens to touch on those themes? And doesn’t this sort of trick the audience into assuming more weight than might actually be there in the craft?
I often think back to my reactions to The King of Kong, the documentary about Steve Wiebe’s attempts to unseat Billy Mitchell as the Donkey Kong record-holder. When I first saw it, I loved it. The film had great “characters”, tons of drama, a view on a world I had never glimpsed before, and it was entertaining and somewhat profound. And then I looked into the real events shown in the documentary. What I learned was that director Seth Gordon had so misrepresented the factual events that he might as well have called it a fictional film. Sometimes it’s good to condense facts, or change around chronology in a documentary in the effort to provide a wider, more digestible view of events. In the case of The King of Kong, Gordon altered the facts in such a way as to completely change not only the dramatic nature of the events, but also the themes and messages to be gleaned from it. Most disappointingly, I’m sure an equally entertaining and more factually insightful documentary could have been made from the same footage without all that misrepresentation.
In retrospect, The King of Kong is a well crafted documentary in cinematic terms, but it kind of fails as a document. I would have totally respected Gordon had he just been inspired by the true story of Steve Wiebe and written a fictionalized screenplay that upped the drama by changing facts. Instead, he changed the facts and relied on the audience believing those facts as shorthand for truth and import.
Though that is an egregious example, I think it highlights the problem. If This Is Not a Film turned out to have fabricated facts, would anybody still call it an important film? If Panahi was in fact allowed to leave his house any time and make films would people call it a good film? I’m not so sure. In this case the film is factual, but the question can still be asked. Without the outside context, the understanding between film and audience that what is being presented adheres to at least some level or factual accuracy, would This Is Not a Film be as powerful? Maybe, it’s hard to say for sure, but the subsequently more informed perspectives on films like The King of Kong or the works of Michael Moore indicate that the power of a documentary is undercut by falsities. And so, if we look at it in reverse, aren’t documentaries cheating, even just a little, when held up against other kinds of films?