This Is Not a Film
Directed by: Jafar Panahi & Mojtaba Mirtahmasb
Starring: Jafar Panahi
Jafar Panahi is an Iranian filmmaker who was put under house arrest in 2010 and barred from making films for the next 20 years because the government deemed his work “propaganda.” In this extraordinary exercise in silent protest, he documents a day in his life under house arrest while simultaneously illustrating the suffocating effect that a theocratic government has on art.
That’s quite a feat for a 75 minute movie that features just three people and a pet lizard on screen. There is never any effort to sustain a narrative or in any way create to create illusion through technique. Panahi’s friend and co-director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb is not a director, and largely just stands and zooms from one spot unless instructed by Panahi to move somewhere else. It is in that forced lack of a narrative that the movie’s intentions begin to mirror the situation Panahi has been forced into, though. He stages a couple scenes from an unmade screenplay, only to stop in the middle of it, frustrated that explaining a film takes away from the very essence of the art.
That moment is the only real time that Panahi’s anger really seethes to the surface. For the most part, it is a straightforward series of exercises and interviews shot in a shared apartment in the Iranian capitol of Tehran. There is somewhat of a view, and the film takes place on a holiday called Fireworks Wednesday, but it is a deliberately anti-aesthetic experience, much like Godard’s Film Socialisme.
However, this is a work whose only reason for being is digital technology, although Panahi clearly sees himself as an engineer forced to use the tools of a caveman. A sequence toward the end of the film cuts between video he takes on his iPhone and the video that Mirtahmasb is recording on the actual camera. “It’s just important that you document,” Mirtahmasb says to the director after he remarks how terrible the video quality is on the phone.
That is largely what makes this such a fascinating glimpse behind the veil of Iranian censorship. Asghar Faradi’s 2011 masterpiece A Separation was a film made under those censored conditions, though he was initially barred from making films after supporting Panahi in an acceptance speech.
This Is Not a Film was smuggled out of Iran on a flash drive that was hidden inside a cake, and then debuted at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. Panahi never really breaks the law and “directs,” though he clearly is behind some of what’s going on and some scenarios, like a garbage man arriving right as Mirtahmasb leaves, seem a bit too planned out for pure coincidence. The last thing we see before this non-film ends is the garbageman that Panahi decided to follow walk out into the fireworks celebration. He tells the silenced director to not come with him because “they’ll see you with the camera.” Panahi films from behind the gate, the celebration nothing more than something to document from a distance until his fate is decided for him.