On March 1, 2010, while making a movie in collaboration with Mohammad Rasoulof, Jafar Panahi was arrested and subsequently charged with making propaganda against the government of Iran. The following December, he was sentenced to six years in prison and forbidden to make any more films, write any screenplays, speak to the press, or leave the country for twenty years.¹ According to the Guardian
, Panahi is currently “in a judicial phase known as ‘execution of the verdict,’ which means that his prison sentence can start at any moment.”² Nevertheless, since his conviction, Panahi has managed to make two movies on the sly. The first of these, This Is Not a Film
(2011), which he co-directed with Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, is a fictionalized account of one day in Panahi’s life in March, 2011, while he awaits the ruling of an appeals court regarding his conviction.
The movie begins with Panahi taping himself eating breakfast, feeding his pet iguana, and talking on the phone to his lawyer. After hanging up, he turns to the camera and says that what he’s shot so far is no good because he’s behaving like an actor. His next idea is to have Mirtahmasb, a documentary filmmaker, run the camera while he describes an unfilmed screenplay. Placing strips of yellow tape on a rug to represent the protagonist’s home, Panahi gives a walk through of the movie’s opening sequence before stopping again: “If I could tell a film, why make a film?” As the title suggests, the movie’s subject is Panahi’s inability to make a satisfying film given his current situation. So while his scenario sounds like it might’ve made a good movie, he’s correct when he says that reading the script is no substitute for the finished work. (Indeed, it’s a bit of a relief when he stops talking as I was beginning to worry that he was going to go through the entire story.) And whether he’s acting or not, watching Panahi sit in his apartment all day with nothing to do isn’t particularly interesting or revealing. To put it bluntly, the film is notable primarily as an act of defiance; as a movie, it strikes me as being rather thin.
The first thing one notices about Zeki Demirkubuz’s Yeralti
(2012) is the deliberateness of the film’s style. Unlike many directors nowadays who employ handheld camerawork to create the impression of spontaneity, as if the camera operator didn’t know what the characters were going to do next (Panahi’s The Circle
 is one accomplished example), Demirkubuz frames his actors so carefully that, during a long restaurant scene in which the protagonist and three of his former classmates are seated at a round table, the director never has to move in for a close-up as the men in the foreground are positioned in such a way that they’re not obstructing our view of the characters further back. But while Demirkubuz seems to know exactly what he’s doing, his purpose in doing it is a mystery to me.
The film is loosely based on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground
(1864) but moves the action from St. Petersburg in the 1840s to Ankara in the present. The protagonist, Muharrem (Engin Günaydın), is a spiteful, self-loathing civil servant who invites himself to a going away party for an old classmate, Cevat (Serhat Tutumluer), who’s headed to Istanbul to accept a literary prize. At the party, Muharrem makes an ass of himself and then follows his classmates to a brothel with the intention of slapping Cevat, who he thinks insulted him, but on arriving finds that they’ve given him the slip and spends the rest of the night with a prostitute (Nergis Öztürk). However, in lieu of the episode with the officer in the park, which doesn’t lend itself to being filmed, the movie adds a minor subplot about Muharrem throwing a potato through one of his neighbors’ windows when they play their music too loud, as well as a major subplot involving his cleaning woman (Nihal Yalçın), who’s having problems with her landlord, which has no equivalent in the book. In other words, Demirkubuz has found some creative solutions for adapting an unadaptable novel, but I’m not sure why a film was necessary in the first place. Needless to say, no movie could approximate the experience of reading the book (and what would be the point when we already have the original?); however, the film isn’t different enough from the novel to completely escape its shadow.
1. For more information about Panahi’s conviction, see Bordwell, David, “‘I Don’t Hate Anyone, Not Even My Interrogators’,” Observations on Film Art
, December 21, 2010. Available online
; accessed on March 28, 2013.
2. Brooks, Xan, “Jafar Panahi: Arrested, Banned, and Defying Iran With His New Film,” The Guardian
, March 22, 2012. Available online
; accessed on March 28, 2013.