Rating:Regardless of its technical merits, This Is Not a Film may well be the most important film ever to stake out the meaning of film itself as a genuine force, not merely an instrument of self-gratification and escape. Faced with a six-year prison sentence and a subsequent 20-year ban on filmmaking, the great Iranian director Jafar Panahi responded with this muted howl of anguish and anger, a reminder of the social necessity, even power, of cinema. If film were mere escapist pleasure, would a filmmaker need to be so callously silenced?
But as it happens, This Is Not a Film is a magnificent work of art in its own right, as compelling a piece as Panahi has ever done, and one that fits surprisingly well within his oeuvre and Iranian cinema in general. The people in Panahi’s films are not revolutionaries, but they do not yield to the orders of the theocracy. They chafe against its constricting grip, and none chafe more than Panahi himself. Banned from writing or directing a film, he invites his documentarian friend, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, to direct him as he acts out a banned screenplay. Before they start, Panahi lists all the things he’s forbidden to do in his sentence, then peevishly turns to the camera and notes that reading and acting are not mentioned.
What follows is so unorthodox that Panahi’s title occasionally seems more literal than wry. Mirtahmasb holds the camera as Panahi blocks out what he had intended to be his next film, acting out some of the scenes and meticulously describing each shot, from camera movement to mise-en-scène. Panahi’s screenplay details a protagonist literally trapped in her home by orthodoxy, its subject matter dovetailing into Panahi’s own situation as he slowly loses it in his own apartment. Panahi goes through each shot as an actor, only to turn to the camera and call “Cut” when he finishes describing a planned shot. Amusingly, Mirtahmasb doesn’t always follow that order, reminding Panahi that he’s now the actor, not the director.
Yet there’s an inherent cinematic quality to Panahi sitting around his home, feeding the family iguana and creating a two-dimensional set with tape on his rug. When stress gets the better of him, the director pulls out his previous films and illustrates to Mirtahmasb what he cannot do within the confines of his home. He uses a shot from The Circle to show how the environment communicates mood, as well as a scene from Crimson Gold to note how a non-professional actor gives a spontaneity to film that keeps one from knowing its meaning until the end.
This Is Not a Film, however, makes both points with its own images. The static shots that open the film, taken on a tripod before Mirtahmasb arrives to wield the camera, communicate all the anxiety, despair and claustrophobia Panahi feels as he sits in legal limbo. As for the revelations of non-professionals, Panahi occasionally forgets himself and his script reading to enter into a trance of pure heartbreak as he considers not only the implications of his impending punishment but of this strange project of his. “If we can tell a film,” he asks of no one in particular, “then why make a film?”
Part of the charm of Panahi’s movies are the characters who filter in and out of his narratives with such wells of untold backstory that they feel like people, not props. This Is Not a Film ironically inverts that dynamic; the few people who interact with Panahi are so perfect that it’s almost hard to remember that they actually exist and are not planned, scripted entities. Panahi’s lawyer, heard over the phone, speaks matter-of-factly about the impossibility of Panahi getting a full pardon from the government but also betrays a clear sympathy, even shame, for his predicament. A woman in Panahi’s apartment complex pops up more than once, trying to get someone to look after her dog, pleading even with Panahi himself, who cannot stand the yapping thing.
Most memorable is a young garbageman filling in for his brother-and-law as his sister gives birth. The young man eyes the camera with bashfulness but also eagerness, and Panahi rides the elevator with the kid to keep him on film. The garbageman talks of his plans for the future and of his recollections of cops raiding Panahi’s apartment, pausing when the elevator reaches each floor to act out a little routine. If Panahi ever manages to throw off the absurd yoke Iran’s government placed on him, I hope he seeks this kid out and puts him in something. His combination of nervousness and childlike glee at Panahi filming him is striking, as is his soft but firm warning to the director not to bring his camera outside where someone might see him. Panahi’s characters have always relied on small acts of kindness to maintain humanity, if not sanity, in Iran’s theocracy, and here we see the director on the receiving end of that communal concern.
Mixing camera and iPhone footage, past and present, film and…something else, This Is Not a Film feels like both a summary and a new direction for Iranian cinema. The self-reflexive recollection of the camera, old works and cinematic properties themselves would be intellectual and political if not filtered so honestly through Panahi’s human response to this outrage. Early on, he shows an outtake from The Mirror where the child actress suddenly threw a fit and walked away, only for Panahi to keep filming. That is the spirit of this work, a refusal to let circumstances stifle his voice and a determination to find unexpected beauty and meaning in setbacks. This may not be a film, but it’s damn sure a masterpiece.