Depending on your point of view, This Is Not a Film both is and isn’t a film. What it is for sure is the only kind of film its co-director Jafar Panahi can make for now.
Panahi is not just one of Iran’s top filmmakers, he is its most politically outspoken, director of such works as Offside, The Circle and Crimson Gold that deal even more directly than the Oscar-winning A Separation with the restrictions placed on ordinary life by that country’s political leadership.
Partly for that reason Panahi was hit hard by the Iranian government in 2010: He was sentenced to six years in prison and banned for 20 years from filmmaking or even conducting interviews with the foreign press.
Panahi is out on bail but confined to his Tehran high-rise apartment under house arrest while he goes through a series of appeals. (The first one was recently turned down.)
So that limited urban space is necessarily the setting for this potent clandestine documentary, a day-in-the-life video diary shot on an iPhone and a small digital video camcorder by Panahi and his friend and co-director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb. It was reportedly smuggled out of Iran on a flash drive hidden inside a cake in advance of its unannounced screening at the 2011 Cannes film festival.
Playing out this scenario all the way through the closing credits, Panahi labels what he’s done "an effort" (as opposed to a film) and under such categories as "thanks to colleagues" and "many thanks" he’s listed no names. If the government doesn’t want him to make a film, he is not going to make one, and he’s certainly not going to name any names.
Fascinating for what it signifies as much as what it shows, This Is Not a Film illustrates how Panahi is struggling to stay alive creatively and, paradoxically, can’t help but demonstrate how much of a natural filmmaker he is. Even when he turns his camera on the most mundane activities, his passion for cinema enters into and enlarges the picture.
The first part of This Is Not a Film in effect sets the scene of Panahi’s current existence. We see him in everyday activities like eating breakfast and feeding his daughter’s enormous pet iguana Igi, and we also hear, through a series of recorded phone conversations, the details of his life: He’s missing family New Year’s celebrations because of house arrest and, as a talk with his lawyer shows, is still facing potentially serious legal repercussions.
Even in these not especially dramatic situations we can’t help but register that Panahi, with jet black hair and a matching T-shirt worn over jeans, is a man of noticeable intensity who is facing his situation with total sang-froid.
One of Panahi’s phone calls is to fellow director Mirtahmasb, who comes to the apartment and gets behind the camera to record something he jokingly calls Behind the Scenes of Iranian Filmmakers Not Making Films.
Declaring himself unhappy with what he’s filmed, Panahi tries a different tack, reading from the script of what was to be his latest film, which the government has refused to approve, about a girl imprisoned by her parents to prevent her from attending university. Finally, Panahi gives up on this tack as well: "If we could tell a film," he says in a key line, "then why make a film?"
After Mirtahmasb leaves, Panahi more or less stumbles on another story line when a worker comes around collecting trash from the building’s apartments. Camera in hand, unable to resist the new situation, Panahi trails along, interviewing the young man and pulling us into a haphazard situation that culminates in a view of a New Year’s bonfire outside the apartment gates, a fire that inevitably takes on apocalyptic overtones. Even when this director is "not making a film," he is creating situations that we won’t forget.