This Is Not a Film is the best picture ever to be smuggled out of Iran inside of a birthday cake. Period.
As I write this, director Jafar Panahi is sitting an Iranian prison cell serving out a six-year sentence for supporting the 2009 Green Revolution, and making what was dubbed “anti-Iranian propaganda films.” His most recent film, This Is Not a Film, is a cinema verite documentary shot by his friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, who too has served prison time, and by Panahi himself on his iPhone. The film depicts the director while he is still under house arrest, awaiting a judge’s ruling on his appeal. Early in the film Panahi is informed that judges – in Iran, that is – almost never overturn sentences. His only hope is for a “discount” on the proposed sentence.
But it is not the house arrest or the imminent prison term that confines Panahi. He is also forbidden from making a film for the next 20 years. He is not allowed to write screenplays, he is not allowed to give interviews to the press, he cannot leave the country, he cannot give instructions on how a camera is to be set up, he is prohibited from yelling “action” or “cut.” He is completely divested of the only freedom that truly matters to the creative mind, stripped of his only means of self-expression.
This Is Not a Film is, for all intents and purposes, a video diary. We follow Panahi throughout his sprawling apartment, going about his day. Black fades to a beautiful kitchen aglow with sunlight. A tall healthy pot plant stands beside the entrance to a balcony that looks out onto Tehran. Panahi soon enters and places a small tray of flat bread on the breakfast table. He is a kind-faced, middle aged man. He takes a seat and looks off to the side pensively. He spreads jam on a piece of flatbread and eats it. A sound, like a gunshot, goes off in the background and a siren is heard immediately afterward. Panahi, continues eating, pressing buttons on his iPhone. He calls his friend and turns the speaker on. “Listen…I’m stuck in a problem,” Panahi tells his friend “I can’t say much on the phone. Can you come to my place?” Mojtaba Mirtahmasb agrees to come over to “discuss some ideas.” “Just don’t tell anyone you’re coming over, okay?” Panahi tells him. He reassures him that nothing is wrong, hangs up and continues his breakfast.
Arriving at the flat, Mirtahmasb becomes Panahi’s proxy—using the camera, plotting, arranging scenes, making decisions. He is Panahi’s insurance from accusations of “directing.” He films Panahi read through his latest script—a film he will now probably never make. The script is about a young girl, forbidden by her parents from attending university and locked inside of a room. The two filmmakers try to figure out how they can make the film without actually making it.
Panahi arranges tape on his floor, simulating the main character’s room. He sits inside his makeshift set and plots camera placements and actor movements, all the while growing increasingly frustrated. The artist realises slowly what he has always known, that his art is the result of the majesty of collaboration and concerted effort and cannot be achieved to any satisfaction on his own. Voiceless and insulated in his home, Panahi is trapped at the bottom of a well and it has finally dawned that no one can possibly hear his muted cries for help. So he abandons the notion of being saved.
He instead decides to play DVDs of his previous films and explain the various instances of creative serendipity that he was lucky enough to capture. He muses on the times when an actor’s impromptu decision enriched a shot in an unforeseeable way or how a minuscule detail transmuted the film from narrative to parable. It is simultaneously heartwarming and devastating. “The film must first be made for us to be able to explain it later,” Panahi says.
Throughout the non-film we are introduced to various co-stars: Panahi’s pet iguana Igi, a small dog that the downstairs neighbour, Shima, asks Panahi to watch, a delivery man who brings food to the apartment and a handsome young student who, substituting for the building janitor, comes by to collect the garbage. “You’re making an actor out of me,” he tells Panahi. All of them unknowingly become co-conspirators in Panahi’s act of non-violent resistance.
It is the day of the Iranian New Year, on which it is customary to light firecrackers to celebrate. President Ahmadinejad has banned fireworks, declaring them to be “against Islam.” Panahi stands on his balcony and films the sparking firecrackers with his iPhone—we watch a censored man clutching a morsel of nourishment for his starved and battered soul.
Ultimately, This Is Not A Film, is work that is bigger than the sum of its parts. Incredibly fitting, as it becomes a recurring motif in the film itself. But firecrackers notwithstanding, there is nothing incendiary depicted This Is Not A Film. There is no explicit indictment of the Iranian government, nor any real depiction of the brutality of the Iranian regime. It as much an indictment of the Iranian government as The Diary of a Young Girl is of the Third Reich. It is not a politically-charged celluloid declaration. It is instead simply a document. A dispatch. A record. But it is not a film. Because it can’t be.