Two Portraits of the Power and Menace of Image-Making, at the New York Film Festival


The films that Iranian director Jafar Panahi has been making since 2011 are exemplary works of personal cinema. He plays the main role in each of them, like himself, and he often exposes his own cinematographic practices. It is precisely for this reason that they are also major works of political cinema: after his arrest and conviction for political acts, in 2010, he was sentenced to a twenty-year ban on making films and giving interviews, and was also under house arrest. Nevertheless, Panahi continued to smuggle films (such as “This Is Not a Film”, “Taxi” and the short film “Life”), even traveling to Iran to do so, and they are among the best films of the past. . decade. Panahi’s latest feature film, “No Bears” (presented at the New York Film Festival on October 9, 13 and 14), is quite their equal, it even surpasses them in a significant way. As of this writing, Panahi is in jail; after his conviction, he was also sentenced to a six-year prison term, which was later suspended. In July this year, between the time of the film’s completion and its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, Panahi was arrested, while protesting against the arrest of two other filmmakers, Mohammad Rasoulof and Mostafa Aleahmad, and was sentenced to serve his prison sentence. “No Bears” dares to face the political repression, the atmosphere of fear, which pervades Iran. It also lays bare the endemic social underpinnings of the country’s repressive regime.

“No Bears” is a film of calmly expressed rage, and the target of that rage is religious dogma – specifically, the part of it that subordinates women to the will of men. It is also a film about cinema which includes an elaborate film within a film and an even more elaborate drama involving its production. In “No Bears”, Jafar (played by the director) has settled in a hilly rural village near the border with Turkey, as a small Turkish town just across the border is the filming location of the movie that Jafar is shooting. (I’ll call the character Jafar and the real-life filmmaker Panahi with trepidation, though of course the film is built around the very erasure of that distinction.) He can’t go there, but rather , runs remotely, which he could do just as easily from his home in Tehran (easier still, because in town the internet connection is strong; in the village it’s a constant problem). But he wants to be close to the action, even if he can’t physically be a part of it. Jafar rents a room from a villager named Ghanbar (Vahid Mobaseri), whose elderly mother (Narjes Delaram) adores the filmmaker, and he takes an interest in village life, photographing its inhabitants.

A romantic drama is brewing in the village and Jafar soon finds himself in the middle of it. A rumor that he had photographed an illicit couple sparks a great brouhaha, in which local tradition, political authority and religious practice intertwine to cast suspicion on Jafar and lead to tense rallies and long negotiations with more consequences. more serious for him, to the villagers, and, above all, to the young lovers at the center of the crisis. Meanwhile, there is also a romantic drama set across the border in Turkey, regarding the fictional film Jafar is making remotely; this film tells the story of a middle-aged Iranian couple, Zara (Mina Kavani) and Bakhtiar (Bakhtiar Panjei), who have been living in Turkey for a long time as refugees while trying to find a way to get to Europe . In Jafar’s film, Zara gives explicit voice to her life as an exile, citing her imprisonment and torture in Iran, even as such threats hang over Jafar – Panahi – and others who dare to oppose to the regime and its policies. (Working near the border, Jafar weighs his options and is suspected of planning an escape.) Yet the drama Jafar stages in Turkey spills over into the private lives of its lead actors and other cast members and the team. “No Bears” highlights the power and danger of images, which correspond to the power and danger posed by the authorities; it is one of Panahi’s fiercest inspirations to lay bare the assumptions and superstitions of sexual control and male supremacy as a fundamental pillar of political repression. (Even the title contributes to the idea, with a bitter irony that emerges from deep within the action.) With its ironic, tender and nuanced take on village life, Panahi focuses on the confluence of tradition and authority to blur the line between the oppressed. and oppressors, and to offer – beyond the drama at hand – an overarching philosophical view of tyrannical mismanagement.

French-Senegalese filmmaker Alain Gomis also tackles the power and threat of image-making in “Rewind & Play” (October 8, 10 and 12), a documentary about making a documentary. Gomis’ confrontational exposition of behind-the-scenes decision-making is also a small masterpiece of historical investigation and is a fervent homage to the subject of the documentary in question: the great period musician Thelonious Monk. Like many luminaries of American jazz, Monk was far more celebrated in Europe than at home; in December 1969, he was in Paris, at the end of a European concert tour, and was filmed for a French television documentary. Gomis was able to source the footage and, scrutinizing the takes, he reconstructed not only the practical processes that determined the finished product, but also the gap between Monk’s experience on camera and the filmmakers’ intentions in it. filming.

The weirdness of being followed by a film crew was something Monk was already somewhat accustomed to – in 1967-68 the Blackwood brothers, Michael and Christian, made a remarkable two-part film about Monk, in New York and on tour in Europe. . But most of the footage from the 1969 French documentary was shot on a stage, at the piano, where Monk performed solo (and brilliantly) and was interviewed by Henri Renaud. From the beginning of the section showing Monk at the piano, the producers claim the synthetic format of their documentary, as they say: “Make it like it’s live”. They also discuss how difficult their decision will be; if they “want to start the play again”, said one of them, then “we stop it”. Monk is a game (“Do it your way,” he tells the filmmakers), but the extreme formatting of the interview robs him of spontaneity and forces Monk to repeat his answers, uncomfortably, like an actor. who plays himself.

The demands of this unexpected acting performance heighten levels of stress, even conflict, which seem to take Monk by surprise. He and Renaud, who was also a jazz pianist, had a history together – in 1954 in New York, Renaud heard and befriended Monk and arranged for him to go to Paris that that year and perform there. (This trip resulted in a wonderful studio album of Monk performing solo, as well as live concert recordings with local musicians.) In the 1969 documentary, Renaud asks Monk if his music sounded too “avant-garde.” for the Parisians during that 1954 visit, and Monk’s response is frank and invigorating: he was not the headliner of the tour, but his picture appeared on the cover of a jazz magazine. “It seemed like I was the star,” Monk says, “and people were coming to see it, but I wasn’t getting the money, though.” Renaud immediately asks producer Bernard Lion to “delete” these remarks.

But the subject of this tour comes up again, and Monk not only repeats his complaint, but goes into more detail, adding, with a sad laugh, “I was getting less money than anybody else.” Renaud looks appalled and again tells the producer to “delete” these “unkind” remarks. Monk gets up and walks away; Renaud cajoles him and tries to silence him and play the piano; Monk reminds him that they were talking about that trip to Paris in 1954, Renaud doesn’t want him to talk about it, and Monk, perplexed, asks: “It’s not a secret, is it?” Renaud infantilizes the great artist: “No, but it’s not beautiful. Monk’s quietly shocked response, and the resignation with which he returns to play the role expected of him, is a distillation, in one fell swoop, of black confrontations with genteel white supremacy and media obfuscation. The rest of the film is more spared from interviews and mostly features Monk playing solo, in gloriously inventive performances – in which his percussive keyboard touch has the quiet fury of an exorcism. ♦


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