Regardless of what its makers wryly call it, “This Is Not a Film” is indeed a film. It is also a marvel.
Addressing his legal situation and reflecting on art, life and cinema, banned-from-filmmaking Iranian director Jafar Panahi, teaming with documentarian colleague Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, delivers a skillfully crafted, contagiously angry video journal, protest piece and filmmaker seminar.
Some background: Panahi, whose films include “The Circle,” is one of the boldest and most accoladed artists in Iranian film, the distinctive stripe of world cinema meshing realist drama with politics-masking poetry.
Arrested by the regime after supporting the opposition party in 2009 elections, he is accused of making antigovernment propaganda. His sentence, under appeal, includes a 20-year ban on filmmaking.
Set in Panahi’s spacious Tehran apartment, the clandestinely made film, which was smuggled out of Iran in a cake, begins with mundane aspects of house-arrest life – eating, talking on the phone with family members and an attorney.
Panahi articulates the film’s premise: If he cannot legally make a film, then he will “tell” one – by reading his recent (and rejected) screenplay aloud and having a friend, Mirtahmasb, record it. With a DV camera and an iPhone, they go to work.
An added dimension arises when Panahi, worried about being boring, moves to another room and applies tape to a carpet to delineate the setting of his forbidden drama (a story about, of all things, a young woman whose parents lock her up to keep her from attending art school).
He describes how he’d shoot scenes, and, bucking the ban, issues directions (“Cut!”). Later, again uncontainable, he accompanies a young janitor into the elevator and interviews him.
In between, Panahi shows scenes from his earlier films and discusses facets of his craft. He jokes nervously with Mirtahmasb about the risk they’re taking. He keeps watch over Igi, a pet iguana (and comic-relief).
Beneath the movie’s DIY look and loose-flowing energy lie vital ideas and pressing purpose – involving art, oppression, cinema, defiance and courage.
Panahi and Mirtahmasb have made a quietly powerful and intellectually rich documentary about censorship, artistic pulse, filmmakers’ psyches, and the Iranian predicament. Capped off by a beautifully cinematic ending, it is at once urgent and significant.
This Is Not a Film
With Jafar Panahi
Directed by Jafar Panahi, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb
Running time 1 hour 15 minutes