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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 and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

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