REVIEW: Jafar Panahi's This Is Not a Film Is a Potent Message in a Bottle
The annals of filmmaking are filled with stories of people who managed to make movies against all odds, without money, without shooting permits, without proper professional equipment. This Is Not a Film, the 75-minute film directed by Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb that made its debut at Cannes last spring and is now, thankfully, arriving in theaters Stateside, may be the ultimate achievement in stealth filmmaking, considering that Panahi is currently serving a six-year jail sentence and has been banned by the Iranian government from making films for 20 years. And yet somehow he has made a movie that found its way first to one of the world's major film festivals, and now to other parts of the world: This Is Not a Film is a small but extremely significant message in a bottle. That metaphor is almost literal: The picture made its way to Cannes via a USB drive -- which was smuggled in a cake.
The movie covers a day in Panahi's life as he's waiting to hear the results of his appeal. It was shot with a digital camera (manned by Mirtahmasb, a documentary filmmaker, who is also heard asking Panahi questions off-camera) and an iPhone (wielded, slyly, by Panahi, because how much harm can a little home movie do?). Mirtahmasb's camera captures the mundane details of Panahi's life as he makes and takes calls on his cell phone (including one from his lawyer), answers the door for the food-delivery guy, feeds some greens to his daughter's large, and surprisingly personable, pet iguana.
From these mundane details spring all sorts of provocative, frustrated conversations about the nature of filmmaking under a repressive regime. At one point, Panahi reveals that he's going to tell the story of a script that he wrote before his arrest, which the authorities had refused to approve. With masking tape, he marks off a corner of his nicely furnished living room to serve as a makeshift set; he describes the actions of his main character, a suicidal young woman. Then he stops abruptly, realizing the futility of the enterprise: "If we could tell a film, then why make a film?" The moment is piercing for the way it cuts to the heart of Panahi’s plight: Here we have a gifted, dedicated filmmaker being kept from doing the thing he lives for. You may as well cut off his right arm – though Panahi himself is too optimistic for that, never resorting to self-pity, at least here. And the fact that Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation managed to win an Oscar this past weekend – something Panahi couldn’t have known, of course, while this Not a Film was being made – does raise the visibility of the restrictions and outright danger Iranian filmmakers face. In that context, seeing This Is Not a Film today is a slightly more hopeful experience than it was last May.
Still, Panahi’s house arrest is cause for no one’s joy. (No one outside the Iranian government, that is.) In the course of the day, we hear fireworks outside that sound like gunshots, part of a Persian New Year's celebration known as "Fireworks Wednesday" that's supposedly benign and celebratory but which, under current conditions, has the capacity to turn violent. A neighbor rings the doorbell of Panahi's apartment: She wonders if he'll watch her small, noisy dog for a few hours while she goes off to the fireworks, and though Panahi at first agrees, he calls her back just seconds later when the dog launches into a barking tirade. Panahi goes online, noting that his access to sites he might like to visit has been seriously curtailed. He turns on the television to catch news of the earthquake in Japan.
In the film's final section, filmed by Panahi himself (now manning the professional camera and not the iPhone), an impromptu encounter with a young man who's filling in for the building's superintendent becomes a kind of mini-Panahi film. Earlier Panahi pictures like The Circle and Offside are deeply political movies that derive all their meaning from depictions of people's everyday lives, rather than from any contrived arrangement of abstract ideas. By the end of This Is Not a Film Panahi, going from floor to floor with this affable, photogenic guy (he's also a student) as he collects the residents' garbage, has turned the camera away from himself and out toward the world, even if that world is only an elevator and, later, a courtyard beyond which lies a blazing bonfire that may or may not be celebratory. This Is Not a Film is so technically modest that it almost isn't a film. Yet in its simplicity it's as direct as a laser beam, underscoring why Panahi is considered so dangerous by his country's government: The difference between just looking and really seeing is second nature to him.
Editor's note: Portions of this review appeared earlier, in a slightly different form, in Stephanie Zacharek's Cannes Film Festival coverage.