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Review: This Is Not a Film | Into the Abyss: a Tale of Death, a Tale of Life

Two new documentaries find drama in confinement.

This Is Not a Film (U)
dirs: Jafar Panahi, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb

Into the Abyss: a Tale of Death, a Tale of Life (12A)
dir: Werner Herzog

In 2010, Jafar Panahi was convicted of working against the Iranian system. He was never the regime's pet director but this latest run-in is his most serious yet. Panahi has been sentenced to six years in prison and slapped with a 20-year ban on making films. His response was to make a film. Confined to his apartment in Tehran awaiting the result of his appeal, he employed a friend (fellow director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb) and two cameras (well, one camera and a phone) and shot This Is Not a Film.

The title suggests Magritte, or a comical attempt to distract the authorities. It begins, fittingly, with a shot of an empty chair - the director in absentia. Panahi takes a call from his lawyer, who tells him that, while he is definitely going to prison, she expects the ban to be reduced. He chats to an iguana that plods around the apartment. And he tries to manoeuvre psychologically around his punishment by describing to us an unmade screenplay: if it can't exist on the screen, it can still play in the cinema of our imagination.

The script, about a girl whose family keeps her imprisoned in her home, has become a portent of Panahi's own incarceration, which would be uncanny if the interference of the Iranian government in artistic matters were not perfectly routine. The recent Iranian Oscar-winner A Separation, for instance, would never have been made if its director had not apologised after expressing support for Panahi.

Mapping out the girl's room on his rug with lines of masking tape, Panahi begins to bring his film to life; he talks us through the proposed six-minute opening shot and shares footage of location scouting. But his mood darkens when he is hit by the chasm between ideas and reality: "If we could tell a film, then why make a film?" he fumes, storming off the "set." By way of explanation, he cues up DVDs of two of his own pictures, The Mirror and Crimson Gold, to demonstrate the unforeseen miracles that an actor can bring to a movie. Even as he mourns his captivity, he creates a barbed and instructive film-making masterclass, a Day For Night in miniature. While This Is Not a Film is ultimately a work of defiance, its humour shouldn't be overlooked. (Calling "Cut!" on
a shot, Panahi is reprimanded cheekily by
Mirtahmasb, who reminds him that he is not a director any more.)

Even the manner of the picture's release is farcical: it left Iran on a USB stick stuffed in a cake, reaching France in time to premiere at last year's Cannes Film Festival. It's certainly a slap in the face for anyone who thought the old file-hidden-in-a-cake trick was dead. And the merchandising opportunities are numerous. Some enterprising manufacturer should try adding to the international pressure on Iran by producing a special Panahi aux raisins, or a line of commemorative Jafar Cakes.

Remarkably, humour is not entirely absent from another new documentary with confinement at its core. Werner Herzog's Into the Abyss features interviews with two men convicted of a triple homicide in Conroe, Texas. In 2001, Michael Perry and Jason Burkett broke into the house of Sandra Stotler, whose gleaming Camaro they intended to steal; they shot her dead before killing her teenage son and his friend in nearby woods. The steel-jawed, robotic Burkett got life; Perry, who has the goofiness and huck-hucking laugh of a Tex Avery cartoon, got death. Herzog's interview with Perry was conducted mere days before his execution. The prisoner's hollowed-out, charcoal-coloured eye sockets might be the result of staring mortality in the face.

This strikingly hushed film, like the accompanying four-part television series Death Row, insists implicitly and without recourse to sensationalism that capital punishment is wrong. The director couldn't be accused of putting his thumb on the scales: a large portion of the film is given over to interviews with Stotler's daughter and there is no skimping on appalling detail. Still, Herzog doesn't demonise the killers or canonise the victims; no one who comes before his lens is anything more or less than human.

The director, heard but not seen, is integral to the shape of the movie. It's not just his diction, each wayward stress suggesting the pounding of keys on an obstinate typewriter; it's the nutty thoughts that pop into his head. It sounds impertinent at first when he tells Burkett's wife - who met and married the convict after his incarceration - to describe her husband's hands (the only part of him that she can touch freely). And when Revd Richard Lopez, who accompanies prisoners to their executions, recalls unwinding after work by playing golf and marvelling at wildlife, Herzog intones with judicial severity: "Describe for me your encounters with squirrels." You can see the interviewees thinking: Hands? Squirrels? You're kidding, right? Then they give in to Herzog. We all do.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 02 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, France is my enemy

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide