Filmmakers, filmgoers, students and academics have debated for years about what makes a film. Is it a series of uninflected images strung together? Tightly choreographed camera moves? One could make a compelling argument that Transformers 3 isn’t a film and that Andy Warhol’s anti-documentary Sleep is.
Those are questions for movie wonks, of course, and This is Not a Film—though its title suggests, perhaps ironically, otherwise—is a film. And it’s a very good film at that.
Jafar Panahi is one of Iranian cinema’s most celebrated filmmakers. His story sounds familiar to American audiences, even if his name does not.
Panahi was given a six-year prison sentence and a 20-year ban from filmmaking following his open support of the opposition in Iran’s contested 2009 elections. When This is Not a Film opens, he’s at home, under house arrest, awaiting a verdict in his appeal to that decision. With the help of a filmmaker friend (Mojtaba Mirtahmasb), Panahi documents a day in his life using his iPhone, a DV camera and lots of ingenuity.
He putters around the house, feeds his daughter’s iguana—his family is out of the house for a New Year’s celebration—watches the news and drinks tea. When Mirtahmasb arrives, Panahi persuades him to shoot Panahi reading a script that the Iranian government would not allow to him to film.
For the next hour or so, Panahi reads from the script, outlines on the floor with tape what the boundaries of the film’s set would be, and shows Mirtahmasb the real-life locations scouted for the movie, stored on his iPhone.
Occasionally, Panahi becomes discouraged by his circumstances and stops reading, at one point saying, “If we could tell a film, why would we make a film?” It’s then that we see his creative mind wrestling with the idea that he may be banned from making movies for 20 years. At that moment, despair sets in. Panahi soon shakes it off and goes back to describing the script’s events for Mirtahmasb. Later, the men even joke, somewhat ruefully, that they may be arrested for making their non-film.
Incidentally, the script Panahi reads concerns a young woman barred from going to an art college by her conservative parents. They lock her in their house so that she can’t leave to register for classes. That the subject of the rejected script is so similar to Panahi’s situation is not lost on him, though he doesn’t dwell on it. If This is Not a Film were fiction, we’d think the coincidence was too cheesy to be real.
As night falls, fireworks explode in the street—even though the government has declared their use on New Year’s nonreligious. Panahi’s inclination to document everything gets the better of him. He leaves the flat with the DV camera—Mirtahmasb advised Panahi to always leave the camera on—and goes to the garage, accompanying a custodian taking out the trash.
The movie’s final images are surprising and arresting. One can almost feel Panahi straining. He wants to go outside and document what’s happening in the street. Of course, even under arrest he’s making art and showing that a creative mind will push through any boundary.
This is Not a Film
Directed by Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb
With Jafar Panahi