Directed by: Jafar Panahi & Mojtaba Mirtahmasb.
Jafar Panahi is currently serving a six year prison sentence in Iran – just because in the Iranian elections of 2009, he supported the “wrong” party. He was convicted in late 2010 of "assembly and colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic", given his six year jail sentence, and banned from making any films for 20 years. While appealing his sentence, he made This is Not a Film, over a 10 day span in March 2011, using a digital camcorder and an iPhone. The film was smuggled out of Iran in a cake, and played at Cannes in May 2011, before receiving a theatrical release in North America earlier this year. It may just be the best film Panahi has ever made.
Don’t get me wrong, I like much of Panahi’s other work – at least what I have seen. But I do not think that The Circle (2000), Crimson Gold (2003) or Offside (2006) (the three other films of his I have seen) are great films. They are all very good, but they are also a little on the simplistic side to me. In these films, Panahi never outwardly insults Iran, or its government, but their implications speak for themselves. He makes films about outsiders – often women – who are marginalized in Iranian society, and while all the films are well made, well-acted (by amateurs) and quite good, none of them rise to the level of the best work of some of his country – like Abbas Kiarostami or Asghar Farhadi. His imprisonment and ban from filmmaking however are an affront to anyone who values freedom of expression.
I mention all of this at the top of my review of This is Not a Film, because without knowing the background, you probably won’t know what to make of the film. It is a very strange film – one where boredom plays a crucial role, and overall, there is a sense of futility and resignation to the film. During the running time of the movie – a scant 75 minutes – Panahi sits in his kitchen, talks on the phone to his lawyers about his court case. He tries to read aloud from the screenplay he wanted to direct – even going as far as to map out the house he sees in his head on the floor in tape – before giving up (saying “If you can tell a movie, why would anyone make a movie?”). He feeds his lizard, and briefly watches a neighbor’s dog, until it becomes clear the lizard and the dog cannot co-exist. He re-visits his old films, telling stories of the great things in them that he did not plan. He interacts with co-director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, arguing with him with Panahi tells him to “Cut”, and Mirtahmasb refuses, saying that Panahi cannot direct, because that would be violating his sentence, so he holds the shot longer to show that it is him directing, not Panahi. The film ends with a very strange sequence where a building manager comes to Panahi’s apartment to collect his garbage, and then Panahi follows him into the elevator, and accompanies him down, one floor at a time, where he collects garbage from the other tenants, before reaching the street – at which point the young man walks away and Panahi records the fireworks being set off around the city, even though they have been banned by the government (apparently because they have nothing to do with Islam).
This is Not a Film is an appropriate title for the movie. It really isn’t a film – at least not in terms of what we think of as a film. Panahi is careful not to directly violate his ban – he doesn’t write a screenplay, which he is banned from doing, and he doesn’t act, also banned, but he simply reads aloud from his screenplay. He doesn’t give an interview, which is banned, but simply films himself talking – to himself and others. He doesn’t “direct”, he just shoots video. Yet, it takes extraordinary courage for Panahi to even do these things. Who else when hoping to get his prison sentence and ban on movie making would do this? Once again, Panahi never directly criticizes the Iranian government or their legal system for doing to him what they have done. He doesn’t have to. This is Not a Film speaks for itself. Whatever the hell This is Not a Film is, it is one of a kind.