Film festival documentaries take on the big issues

Jafar Panahi deals with house arrest in “This Is Not a Film.”

Documentary filmmaking has experienced a renaissance in the last decade. Since Michael Moore’s commercial breakthrough, films that explore social issues, cultural differences and unique real life journeys have been reaching wider audiences. There has simultaneously been a technological revolution, sparked by handheld cameras, digital production and phones that make it possible for almost anyone to be a citizen journalist and communicate globally.

Of course, the trends have met resistance in places where critical thought and free artistic expression are deemed threatening. In Iran, for example, director, author and producer Jafar Panahi was sentenced to six years house arrest and banned from filmmaking for 20 years. Panahi, who openly supported the opposition party in Iran’s 2009 elections, is not even allowed to conduct interviews with foreign press. Under the Islamic Republic’s draconian rules, he could be jailed at any moment.

But necessity often creates the conditions for creative invention. In Panahi’s case, the need to express himself despite the severe restrictions has produced a film that challenges rules of storytelling to convey a visceral sense of what it is like to be denied freedom of movement, expression and contact with the world.

“This Is Not a Film,” screened on Sunday at the Vermont International Film Festival, never strays further than an elevator ride to the ground floor of Panahi’s apartment building. There is no story in a traditional sense, no script or plot. But there is tension, and a growing sense of restriction.

Panahi is waiting for news about the appeal of his sentence. He talks about it on the phone, films himself and his surroundings with an iPhone and DV camera, and invites over another filmmaker, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, to film him deconstructing previous projects, recreating scenes from a film the government censored, and reflecting on art and literature.

At times it feels almost like eavesdropping. Panahi shuffles through his comfortable digs – a gilded cage for an established artist who had already made shorts and documentaries before his feature-length directorial debut, “The White Balloon,” won the 1995 Camera d’Or in Cannes. His attempt to describe one aborted project, a film in which a young woman is imprisoned in her bedroom for trying to attend college, becomes a catalyst for his own frustrations.

Eventually, a trash pickup by a young neighbor leads to some amusing dialogue, a long ride in a very small elevator, and a final glimpse of the outside world, where flames of protest rise on the street just beyond his house arrest. As filmmaker Mira Niagalova put it in her introduction before the screening, “This is not a film, it is a cry.”

Since his detention in 2009, Panahi’s cause has generated widespread support from the film community. In October 2011, after the film was finished, his appeal was denied. However, “This Is Not a Film” was smuggled into France, reportedly in a cake, for a last-minute submission to Cannes. It reached Burlington by more traditional means.

Leading directors have signed a letter of support calling for Panahi’s release. They include the Coen brothers, Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme, Robert De Niro, Curtis Hanson, Jim Jarmusch, Ang Lee, Richard Linklater, Terrence Malick, Michael Moore, Robert Redford, Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone and Frederick Wiseman. Scorsese, Sean Penn, distributor Harvey Weinstein and others have signed an Amnesty International petition.

Not long ago, Mirtahmasb, who is credited as co-director on “This is Not a Film,” was detained at the Tehran airport while heading for the film’s premiere in Toronto. Like Panahi, he stands accused of producing anti-government propaganda; in other words, sedition.

But the target of this non-film is larger than Iran’s absurd, fundamentalist regime. Transforming what seems at first like a video diary into an engrossing cultural exploration, “This Is Not a Film” is a personal, yet also global act of defiance that reveals the power of artistic impulse to overcome any form of repression.

Breaking down barriers

Mira Niagolova’s movie about identity and diversity, “Welcome to Vermont,” has been a work in progress for more than two years. As she explained at a screening on Saturday, the project emerged in tandem with “The Vermont Movie,” a multi-part series on state history and culture set for release next spring.

Parts of “Welcome to Vermont” will be incorporated into that film. But it is now also a 70-minute documentary that effectively challenges assumptions about immigrants, especially those with cultural or religious traditions that are unfamiliar to most Vermonters. As the festival opened, Niagolova’s film won the Ben & Jerry’s Award, which goes to a filmmaker who has “raised awareness of an important social or environmental issue with verve and ingenuity.”

The latest cut still has the same focus – making the transition as a displaced person. Forgoing a narrative track, Niagolova lets a series of newcomers to the state from Iraq, Bosnia, Somalia and Rwanda tell their stories in four segments.

The film opens with the director, who doesn’t consider herself a refugee, but emigrated from Bulgaria in 1992 after the fall of communism. Her previous documentaries have looked at sexual trafficking of Eastern European woman and a refugee camp on the Kosovo/Macedonia border. Niagalova came to Vermont a decade ago after living in Canada, and directed the Vermont film festival for six years.

In one section of “Welcome to Vermont” an Iraqi family puts the process of assimilation on visual, verbal and intergenerational display. Many of the newcomers have positive things to say about the state and its people. “Everything is good here,” says a Somali woman who claims not to have experienced racism.

But a middle-aged Bosnian entrepreneur complains about ignorance and stereotypes, saying at one point “we are treated as aliens.” And the film concludes, perhaps a bit ambiguously, with a sober letter from a Rwandan immigrant, a young man who initially resettled in Vermont yet moved away to find his path and escape the immigrant image.

Niagolova is a faithful observer who withholds judgement of her subjects. But the film’s episodic structure does not encourage comparisons between the four groups, and the drama does not build to a climax, or point to obvious conclusions. Instead, “Welcome to Vermont” lets viewers into the households, mosques and personal lives of several open and intriguing people, in the process breaking down some barriers to understanding.

Humanizing the hungry

Alison Segar wants people to “feel something” after they see her 22-minute documentary, “We Have to Talk About Hunger,” shown over the weekend as part of the Vermont Filmmakers’ Showcase. A social worker and currently a Progressive candidate in the special election to replace Ed Adrian on the Burlington City Council, Segar created the film specifically to spark more sympathy for the human beings behind the statistics.

Mira Niagolova’s documentary explores the immigrant experience.

Like Niagolova, she does not use a narrator to provide exposition or make her argument. Instead, she largely follows a single mother and a food shelf employee. Speaking to the camera, they gradually reveal the confusion, shame and stigma surrounding food insecurity. Her point is simple: “the hungry” are no different than anyone else.

Segar’s film, which won the festival’s Footage Farm USA Documentary Award, is an effective, emotional argument for policy change and personal action. It does not pretend to provide many answers. But it sharply poses a tough question: Why can’t Vermont – allegedly the healthiest state – feed all its own citizens?

Both “Welcome to Vermont” and “We Have to Talk About Hunger” will be shown again with other award winners at 3 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 30, as part of the festival finale.

Coming up at VTIFF

Short films will be shown at noon Tuesday-Thursday at Burlington City Arts. On Tuesday, the list includes four British and U.S. films in the category “Taking It On.” A London couple’s marriage unravels at a country wedding in “Tooty’s Wedding,” followed by a U.S. documentary on medical marijuana and synchronized swimming, an experimental film involving disabled dancers, and an animated documentary about the choice to have a labiaplasty.

The Tuesday evening program includes “In Organic We Trust,” which explores the content beneath the labels, 6 p.m. at ECHO; “Raw and Cooked,” a gorgeously photographed culinary tour of Taiwan, 6:30 at North End Studios; and “California Solo,” an independent drama with British actor Robert Carlyle about a former rock star in a downward spiral, 8:30 at ECHO.

One Wednesday highlight will be the 1 p.m. tribute to documentarian George Stoney, who died this summer. Greg Epler-Wood will lead a panel discussion on Stoney’s work and legacy, followed by a 3:15 screening of Stoney’s film, “The Uprising of ’34,”which captured a massive but little known general strike of southern mill workers. Filmmaker and Stoney collaborator Judith Helfand will attend.

Greg Guma

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  • Dorothy Tod

    Compelling review of “This is Not a Film” and thanks for putting Jafar Panahi’s story in a larger context.

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