The one-of-a-kind documentary "This Is Not a Film" was shot partially on an iPhone and smuggled into France in a cake for a last-minute submission to the Cannes International Film Festival. Its centerpiece is the Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who was arrested and imprisoned in March 2010 for "propaganda against the Islamic Republic" in support of those protesting the reelection of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He received a six-year prison sentence and a 20-year ban from filmmaking.
Released from prison in May 2010 after an international outcry, he was ordered not to direct, write screenplays, give interviews to foreign press, or leave the country. As a postscript to this film, his last appeal was denied last October. According to Islamic Republic laws, he can be arrested and sent back to jail at any time.
In September, Panahi's collaborator, director-producer Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, was prevented from leaving the country to attend the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, where "This Is Not a Film" was being shown. Along with six other Iranian filmmakers, he was arrested later that month on the charge of "collaborating with the Persian BBC" and was imprisoned for three months.
A simple description of what transpires in "This Is Not a Film" doesn't begin to convey its power. With Mirtahmasb mostly acting as cameraman, we see Panahi, under what appears to be house arrest, alone in his Tehran apartment – talking to his family and lawyer on the phone; talking to himself and to Mirtahmasb; navigating the heavily censored Internet; playing with his pet iguana, Igi; commenting on his old movies; watching from the balcony the fireworks celebrating the Iranian New Year. (At first we don't know the source of the explosions, which could just as well be bombs.)
After Mirtahmasb leaves for the day, a friendly young man, somewhat in awe of Panahi, comes by as temporary custodian to pick up the trash. Grabbing a camera, Panahi follows him on his rounds as he takes the elevator to each floor. In cramped quarters, the boy good-naturedly pours out his life story to the director, who surely knows that what he is doing, innocuous as it seems, is forbidden by law.
This filmic gesture is nevertheless of immense significance. What Panahi is saying here, what the whole movie is saying, is that his desire for creative expression cannot be quelled. In itself, this is not proof of Panahi's artistry, just his gumption. But he is, in fact, a marvelous filmmaker whose movies, in sometimes semicovert ways, have often circumvented government restrictions and revealed a great deal about Iranian societal injustice. ("The Circle" was especially critical of the treatment of women under the Islamist regime.)
Panahi's airy apartment, decorated with sculptures and curios and lined with books, is a sunny prison. He seems caged in. In the film's most powerful sequence, he lays out with tape on a large floor rug the visual game plan of the feature film he was forced to abandon upon his arrest. Script in hand, he kneels on the ground and describes his film to us. It is about a young woman whose parents forbid her to attend college and lock her in her room. The metaphoric weight of this scene is resoundingly obvious. Panahi seems caught up in his visualization of his movie; for a moment he is transported into a realm where he once again is a filmmaker. But then reality comes crashing down. Disgusted, he says, "If we could tell a film then why make a film?" and walks away from the camera.
Unlike, say, a writer or an artist, a filmmaker generally requires for his craft a vast apparatus of technology. There can be few punishments worse for a moviemaker than being denied the ability to make films. (I once interviewed David Lean sometime after his "Mutiny on the Bounty" project was abruptly canceled. Shot by shot, he described an entire sequence for me, the freezing up of the Bounty as it rounded Cape Horn, and his exhilaration at what might have been was laced with grief.) In statements released to the public, Panahi has attempted to make a virtue of the restrictions imposed upon him. "Our problems are our assets," he has commented. "The reality of being alive and the dream of keeping cinema alive motivated us to go through the existing limitations of Iranian cinema."
While it's true that censorious regimes do sometimes have the paradoxical effect of spurring (often in disguised form) cinemas of great social import – the best example would be the Polish films of the 1970s, such as Krzysztof Zanussi's "Camouflage" – it's also true that, in Panahi's case, he is insuperably handicapped by his current constraints. And yet, despite everything, here is "This Is Not a Film," which is emphatically a film – and an extraordinary one. Grade: A (Unrated.)