This Is Not a Film | Film review
Jafar Panahi tests the limits of his filmmaking ban.
It’s become routine to talk about thrillers as though they have suspense in every frame, but that’s literally the case with This Is Not a Film, a movie created in a state of constant threat to all involved. Shot in early 2011 during a period when Iranian director Jafar Panahi awaited the appeals verdict on a six-year prison sentence—his charge was “assembly and colluding” against the government—This Is Not a Film dares viewers to take its title assertion at face value.
Banned from making and writing movies for 20 years, Panahi asks his friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb to film him in his apartment. Accordingly, the injunction’s limits are both tested and exposed: Panahi reads from a screenplay that wasn’t approved by the culture ministry, mapping out his living room to illustrate how he would have shot it. (Not coincidentally, it’s the story of a girl trapped in a house who does what she’s warned not to do.) He watches DVDs of his earlier movies, looking for an instant in Crimson Gold (2003) when his nonpro star “acted in such a way that was beyond my control.” Panahi says he would never have been able to plan that moment: “The film must first be made for us to be able to explain it later.”
In its radically uninflected, self-reflexive way, This Is Not a Film reveals itself as simultaneously a eulogy and a delivery mechanism for the films Panahi may never get to make. If the presentation initially seems like simple documentation—the director drinks tea, calls his lawyers and views footage of the Japanese tsunami on TV—obvious absences and obstructions become apparent. It’s hinted that the opening scene was staged; mirroring the movie Panahi was forbidden from shooting, the director’s neighbors are heard but never shown. As day turns into night and explosions—either from a holiday celebration or protests—rage outside, the danger escalates. Filming with a camera phone, Panahi almost inadvertently turns a man who comes to pick up his trash into another of his nonprofessional leads. Cannily suggesting artlessness even as it reveals careful preparation, this ingenious formal exercise was reportedly smuggled out of Iran in a cake. (Having since lost his appeal, Panahi is waiting for authorities to carry out the verdict.) One mourns the tragic circumstances that caused it to be made, but the result is a sleight of hand to rank alongside Orson Welles’s F for Fake.