Under house arrest and awaiting a verdict on his appeal from Iran’s supreme court, filmmaker Jafar Panahi spends much of This Is Not a Film remaking, rethinking, and reconstructing his Tehran apartment as a sandbox of cinema. Despite his isolation and self-doubt, every frame becomes a wondrous opportunity for expression, each corner of Panahi’s posh prison cell a mental trap door from his stifling physical entrapment. Panahi’s equipment is expectantly bare boned, consisting of only a PD-150 digital video camera, a smart phone, and some gaffer’s tape used to create spatial designs on the floor. Walls of natural light flood in from the world outside, often illuminating the empty spaces of Panahi’s rooms with a certain unexpected grace. Throughout the film’s tight 75-minute running time, Panahi perfectly captures the haunting illusion of time, how moments of reflection and fear can seamlessly overlap with the mundane, moment-to-moment process of waiting for one’s fate.
As Panahi sits in his penthouse answering calls from lawyers, feeding his pet iguana named Igi, and revisiting previous films like The Mirror and Crimson Gold, fellow filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb charts his every move. The two friends banter back and forth, even hilariously arguing at times about who’s really directing this film. Like the act of filming itself, their camaraderie feels like an act of resistance. In terms of sound design, Panahi and Mirtahmasb simply shoot long enough to hear the loud cracks of gunfire (and later fireworks) from the chaotic streets below, expanding their restrained and limited location in horrific ways. This Is Not a Film ends in one final long take that snakes through an elevator and into a fiery darkness. For a moment, this masterpiece aching with expected pain and unexpected laughter opens up to the world, finalizing a portrait of an artist subtly rattling his cage with class, wit, and mise-en-scène. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, Panahi still breathes, laughs, creates, and shoots. Considering the deeply saddening circumstances of This Is Not a Film, each is an act of celebration and defiance, something akin to a miracle.
Equally concerned with the threat of mental suffocation is Chantal Akerman’s Almayer’s Folly, a simultaneously taxing and alluring adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel about rotting souls slow-dancing through rotten landscapes. Set in the dank marshes and jungles of Malaysia at a languid trading outpost, Akerman’s film immerses the viewer in the humidity and sweat of its extreme locations, holding on characters for long durations as they mentally and physically wither. The living corpse at the center of Akerman’s film is Almayer (Stanislas Merhar), a disgruntled European merchant who sends his mixed-raced daughter, Nina (Aurora Marion), to the city in an attempt to give her a Western education. Entirely motivated by spite and hatred for the country he inhabits, Almayer and the scenario he constructs bluntly represent the unflinching cost of colonialist ideology and mental stagnation.
Akerman’s barrage of long takes is impressive by any standard, her stoic, meandering camera lurking through the thick foliage as Almayer mutters aimlessly about guilt, regret, and anger. The nighttime shots hovering above black water, only illuminated by reflections of strobe lights, are equally stunning, focusing on the ripples of each wave as they crest in perfect formation. Still, Almayer’s Folly embraces a level of overt symbolism that is both fittingly abrasive yet completely one-note, miring its European characters in a self-made bog that lacks the power of Claire Denis’s White Material, another film concerned with colonialist angst. For Akerman, life in this part of the world is a devastating waiting game that recycles pain and anguish until there’s nothing left but certain madness.
Rulsan Pak’s Hanaan also plays on the intriguing premise of diverse cultures and personalities crashing together, but in a much more straightforward way than Akerman’s descent into the heart of darkness. A unique spin on the police procedural and drug film, Hanaan dedicates itself to hustlers, dealers, and cops all trying to survive the day-to-day rigor of a low-level existence in Uzbekistan. Stas (Stanislav Tyan), a Korean-Uzbek police detective attempting to navigate rampant corruption and drug trafficking in his district, becomes Pak’s symbolic center and moral litmus test. Haunted by a friend’s murder six year’s prior, Stas descends into a debilitating heroin addiction after a big bust brings him face to face with the killer. Hanaan suffers from a dependence on Hollywood genre conventions even as it’s trying to deconstruct them, a problematic approach that ultimately undermines the power of its more character-driven moments. Even worse, late in the film Stas retreats to the mountains to get clean—a far too easy culmination for such a previously gritty ride. Still, there’s plenty to appreciate here, from the film’s measured pace to its singular lead characterization by Tyan. Both prove Hanaan’s cluttered landscape of displaced people has an intriguing human center at its core.
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