This Is Not A Film is an Iranian home movie co-directed by Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb. It is essentially a document of Panahi’s life under house arrest, banned from making films and writing scripts and facing an inescapable prison sentence. The film is dedicated to Iranian filmmakers at a time of increased state censorship. The film was smuggled into last year’s Cannes film festival on a USB memory stick hidden inside a cake.
The film begins with Jafar Panahi consulting his lawyers about the prospect of his six-year prison sentence and his twenty-year ban on filmmaking being reduced on appeal. His son leaves him a phone message saying that he has turned on Panahi’s camera – presumably because Panahi himself cannot. Panahi invites fellow filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb to visit and to help him document his day. He starts by giving a virtual telling of a script he had tried to make before the ban and prison sentence were imposed. The script, significantly, is about an imprisoned girl. Panahi loses heart in the idea – “If you could tell a film, why make it?” Panahi continues to question the nature of filmmaking, particularly considering the question of what makes a film.
The film is set entirely inside Panahi’s apartment – apart from at the end when Panahi accompanies a stand-in caretaker down to the ground floor of the apartment block, itself an absorbing and suspenseful act of defiance. However, the film remains a fascinating piece of work and a devoted statement about the plight of filmmakers under the threat of censorship. Panahi begins filming small details of his life, all possible acts of defiance if they were to be considered filmmaking. At one point, disheartened by his attempt to ‘tell’ his new script, Panahi starts to consult his previous work (The Mirror, The Circle and Crimson Gold), describing how outside events might affect the filmmaking process and, yet, might not be considered as filmmaking proper. Under the microscope is essentially what constitutes filmmaking and what does not. Panahi, and cinema in general, proof adept at finding loopholes in government strictures, creating a work that becomes both a meditation on an art form and an attempt at peaceful demonstration.
This is mirrored throughout the film itself that, for an apparently unplanned work, has a remarkably cohesive nature. A loud firework celebration outside sounds like a demonstration and the film’s staggering final image seems to be one of revolt. Far from being an exercise in filming a diary, This Is Not A Film becomes an essay on the nature of making and receiving film, a valid account of the evils of state censorship as well as a powerful story of a man buried inside his own house. Panahi has a comic sidekick of sorts in a pet iguana, which is also trapped in the house. His attempt at escape involves climbing over everything, at one stage up the back of a bookcase while Panahi watches, almost jealous of his pet’s relative freedom.