By Alison Willmore | The Playlist February 28, 2012 at 2:04PM
The title of Jafar Panahi's "This Is Not A Film" is a nod to the fact that the 75-minute feature is shot on a DV camera and an iPhone, and consists mostly of Panahi and his collaborator and friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb hanging out in the former's high-rise apartment over the course of a day. But it's also a postmodern jab at the lousy circumstances that led to its own existence -- this is not a film, because Panahi is banned from making films for the next two decades. He's under house arrest, awaiting news of his appeal of the six-year prison sentence he was given for his actions in support of Iran's opposition movement, forbidden from talking to the press and from leaving the country, silenced. For its premiere at Cannes, which Panahi wasn't, of course, able to attend, it was reportedly smuggled out on a USB stick hidden inside a cake. "This Is Not A Film" is about the realities of being deprived of your voice, and it's funnier and sadder than any summary of its contents suggests, a work that's an act of protest that ties itself into its filmmaker's past before becoming a vulnerable, melancholy ode to carrying on and hoping you won't be left behind as the world you've been denied rolls on outside your gates.
"This Is Not A Film" opens with a three-minute shot of Panahi eating breakfast and calling to ask a friend to come over. He washes up off screen, as an answering machine message from his wife beseeches him to get out of bed, and to remember to feed the family's pet iguana. And he talks to his lawyer, who tells him she thinks it's likely his 20-year filmmaking ban will be overturned but that, though his sentence may be reduced, he's certainly going to jail -- "The rulings are 100% political and not legal, not judicial at all." To this point the film's maintained the illusion that Panahi's alone and shooting himself, but this troubling news causes him to look, ruefully, at the camera, and tell Mirtahmasb, who's operating it, that he feels like the lead of his second film "The Mirror." In that picture, the young girl eventually breaks through the fourth wall and declares that she didn't want to act anymore, that she wants to go home. Like little Mina, Panahi feels the need to cast off all artifice.
Fitting in with this self-referential wheels-within-wheels schema, Panahi has brought Mirtahmasb over with the intent of talking through the last film he'd hoped to make, the thematically convenient story of a girl who's also trapped, whose traditional family has locked her in their house to prevent her from registering for university in Tehran. He uses tape to demarcate the set, "Dogville"-style, on the carpet and, screenplay in hand, gamely walks through the blocking and shots he'd planned, reading the dialogue himself until he breaks down, disheartened. "If we could tell a film, then why make a film?" It's no substitute for being on set, but it may be enough to get the filmmakers in trouble, despite their joking about sticking to the word of the ruling, if not its spirit. And yet, what else is there to do?
There is a story to be told here, and it's one about Panahi himself, about how the boredom and isolation of his existence in limbo is cut through with dread of his verdict, as he navigated the many blocked web sites on his laptop, as he watches news of the tsunami in Japan on TV, as Igi the iguana slinks around the apartment like a fellow prisoner. From the balcony, the sun sets on the Tehran skyline and fireworks for the Persian New Year fill the night, but the director's only other window to the outside is his phone, on which he still has photos of the house he wanted to shoot in and the actresses he hoped to use.
"This Is Not A Film" demonstrates how ingrained the need to make films is in Panahi -- it's not just his vocation, it's part of his very nature. His love of the process bleeds through as he digs through his own work on DVD to highlight scenes in which locations and performers took things in unanticipated directions during a shoot, or as he follows the young man temporarily handling garbage in his building down in the elevator, asking him questions about his life while shooting his responses using the camera on his cell phone. Panahi and Mirtahmasb end up at the kitchen table, shooting each other ("Listen, Jafar, I believe that what matters is it's documented," the latter consoles, "It's important that the cameras are on"), but eventually Mirtahmasb too has to leave and go home.
Beyond the politics, beyond the ideas on art and how it reflects and informs outside life, beyond the embittered but tongue-in-cheek commentary on the terrible absurdity of the situation, "This Is Not A Film" portrays the fear of being forgotten when you can't speak for yourself, when you've been removed from the public eye. As Panahi and his newest companion, the night janitor, make their way through the building we see that it's almost empty, everyone else out on the streets to see the fireworks. It's a spectacular finale, full of longing, as the director and his camera stop short at the gates where people are celebrating and lighting bonfires. It's beautiful and, despite what the label says, it looks and feels pretty cinematic to us. [A]