recalibrating hope: panahi’s “this is not a film” and davoodi’s “red, white, and the green”

“Will you be voting tomorrow?” “What will you do if you wake up the morning after the election and your candidate has lost?” Documentary filmmaker Nader Davoodi’s Red, White, and The Green revolves around these two central questions. Davoodi’s hour-long impressionistic account of the 2009 Iranian presidential elections maintains a focus on Mousavi voters—the entirety of footage is selectively desaturated, shot in black and white with only green objects retaining their hue–yet he fairly represents viewpoints proffered by Ahmadinejad supporters. Still, the film’s understated bedrock are the cynical, the disillusioned—jaded liberal boycotters who in some eyes lost the 2005 election.

A second striking aspect of Davoodi’s interviews and footage presides in the widespread exuberance shown by young Mousavi supporters. A feeling of inevitability permeated their social circles, a wholesale placement of hope in the perfectly coiffed former prime minister. This outpouring of conviction appears doubly perplexing when one considers that Mousavi did not cut a dashing figure nor factor prominently into the intellectual climate of reformism in Iran. Indeed, several young women effectively sighed, “He wasn’t our first choice, but he’ll do.”

A fascinating consensus emerges between both political orientations that the 2009 election would necessarily require a runoff, a belief that factored into the celerity with which protests erupted in the days after authorities announced Ahmadinejad’s victory.

Enter, then, Jafar Panahi, acclaimed Iranian filmmaker whose daring artistic portrayals of Iranian society earned him house arrest and a working ban in March of 2010. Early in March of 2011, his collaboration with colleague Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, This Is Not a Film, examined what political and artistic repression looks like at its core. Mirtahmasb films Panahi in the latter’s Tehran apartment acting out scenes from a planned film that the censorship board prevented him from making. Panahi’s reactions to his repression swing between hilarity and despondency, but one thing is clear—it is now a part of his life, one he has little hope of escaping in the near future.

Panahi and Mirtamsab try to figure out just what the hell they're doing.

Panahi and Mirtahmasb offer ideas on their film means.

Somewhat serendipitously, Davoodi actually found Panahi in a throng of Mousavi demonstrators (his vocal pro-Green Movement views factored into his arrest) and asked him the same two central questions. What emerges from the dialogue both between Davoodi and Panahi and between their documentaries illustrates the axes of a sui generis Iranian paradox: what hopes can one credibly maintain in such a convoluted system containing unelected reactionaries. Can one base his actions on those hopes? If not, how does one operate within the limitations afforded by powerful unelected forces?

The Mousavi demonstrators and Panahi occupy very different places on these axes of belief, as evinced by his answer:

In the end, Mousavi will be elected but it won’t make a difference. Even during Khatami’s time, my films were banned. When Ahmadinejad came they were banned and I didn’t get to work. I think it will be the same when Mousavi comes. I don’t know where I read that “in the U.S., black people become dear once every four years.” Iran is the same. Women and artists are endeared once every four years and then they’re forgotten.

red white green clip

Davoodi interviews two young women, one of which gives a characterization of the Ahmadinejad campaign.

The tone and substance of This is Not a Film could not be more divergent. It opens with Panahi silently eating breakfast, then failing even to answer his family’s calls, instead leaning on the bathroom door and listening to their voicemails, depressed-looking in his boxers. His initial response to imprisonment is humor: he scolds his daughter’s iguana and wonders with Mirtahmasb whether reading and acting his script could add to his offenses, since he has only accrued 20-year bans on directing, producing, and screenwriting.

The quiet defiance turns to a furious bout of tears as he laments the absurdity of his trying to act out a teenage girl’s scene. Finding refuge in his old films, a sort of wistful nostalgia replaces his hopes for the future that once likely included eventual worldwide recognition of his preeminence in Iranian film. He worries about his family during the Nowruz fireworks celebrations and eventually ends up in Kafka-land, taking out his iPhone to film Mirtahmasb filming him.

I might note that Panahi’s case and that of the Mousavi supporters aren’t the extremes of political activity. On one hand, not all the supporters marched and demonstrators after the elections, and Panahi has by no means surrendered to his imprisonment, producing This Is Not a Film in 2011 and Closed Curtain in 2013—a film about two paranoid Iranians hiding from IRGC and basiji. Hamid Dabashi even bizarrely took him to task for doing so:

He should have heeded the vicious sentence and stayed away from his camera for a while and not indulge, for precisely the selfsame social punch that have made his best films knife-sharp precise has now dulled the wit of the filmmaker that was once able to put it to such magnificent use…He is angry, and rightly so – and anger should never be the paramount sentiment when one stands behind a camera or in front of a keyboard.1

Meanwhile, his oeuvre remains far too radical for the principlists, who pushed for much harsher sentences than those he current serves.

We arrive at a single conclusion from the two films, based on what they both omit, rather than on where they diverge in opinion. Neither film criticizes, let alone mentions, the Supreme Leader and his cabal of unaccountable decisionmakers (or, surprisingly, Islam itself). The conviction that presidential elections don’t strike at the heart of Iran’s problems appears in both films. Fierce Ahmadinejad supporters and Panahi—arrested for “anti-Islamic” filmmaking—agree on that point. One Mousavi supporter actually spoke fondly of Ahmadinejad’s presidency, praising him for “illuminating corruption behind the scenes in the Islamic Republic and making us question the very nature of the revolution.” His rifts with the principlists only became more vicious and public in the aftermath of his re-election.

Taking these two films together, the earliest signs of a consensus seem to be emerging. The disillusionment of Ahmadinejad supporters with unelected institutions have brought them much closer to liberal reformers on a three-dimensional map of Iranian politics. Simultaneously, reformers have begun to recognize their game must necessarily be a long one in the aftermath of 2009 and that their reflexive criticism of the Ahmadinejad bloc serves only the Supreme Leader. Whether these currents have built a nationalist sentiment that can outperform the principlists remains to be seen, but Iran has never experienced anything like it. By capturing and recalibrating the hopes of Iranians, both Davoodi and Panahi have ensconced themselves in the middle of a fascinating sea change in Iranian political expression.

1Dabashi, Hamid. “The tragic endings of Iranian cinema.” Al-Jazeera English. March 21, 2013. Bold, coming from an Iranian expat living in New York City.


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