In 2010, the internationally celebrated Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi was arrested at his home. A neorealist who has been a vocal opponent of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's regime, Panahi was accused of "[participating] in a gathering and carrying out propaganda against the system," sentenced to six years in prison, and banned from leaving Iran, giving press interviews, and writing and directing films for 20 years.
This Is Not a Film, made in March 2011 while Panahi was under house arrest awaiting the result of an appeal, is billed as "an effort by Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb." This dispatch from Panahi's life behind closed doors was shot entirely on the grounds of his Tehran apartment. In the first scene, Panahi calls Mirtahmasb — an Iranian filmmaker who has been most active as a director and producer of documentaries — and, refusing to state the purpose of the visit over the phone, cagily invites him over. Panahi mentions that Mirtahmasb had expressed a desire to go "behind the scenes of Iranian filmmakers not making films," and when he arrives at Panahi's place, the two do just that. Structured as a documentation of a single day of Panahi's life behind closed doors, This Is Not a Film examines how a filmmaker such as Panahi — who has spent his career, as he told LA Weekly in 2007, making "films constructed around the notion of restriction, limitation, confinement, and boundaries" — attempts to communicate through a muzzle.
It might be fair to describe This Is Not a Film as a blatant act of rebellion, but it also stands as a good-faith attempt to work within Panahi's politically imposed boundaries. In its most thrilling sequence, we see Panahi brainstorm ways to express himself using his filmmaking talents without actually violating the ban against filmmaking itself. He plays excerpts from his earlier films including The Circle and Crimson Gold, naturalistic dramas with non-actors and real locations that powerfully demonstrate that Panahi's artistry has always been defined by his ability to adapt to life happening in front of the lens. He starts to read aloud from a screenplay — written, he says, before the arrest — telling the story of a would-be art student trapped in her own house by her conservative-fundamentalist parents. But after excitedly blocking out the script's first scene, Panahi's enthusiasm wanes. "If we could tell a film, why make a film?" he frets.
If "why make a film?" is one question that haunts This Is Not a Film, "what is film?" is the inevitable follow-up. The title functions as an ironic declaration, a clear-eyed provocation, and a literal description of method; shot on a video camera and iPhone, this "effort" could only exist in a digital age. It's pointedly not "cinema," but it's still breathtakingly cinematic. It's a political statement, an act of defiance, a master class in one auteur's body of work and process, and a document of a life unseen. But above all, it's a gripping entertainment, swinging wildly from manic highs — such as Panahi's breathless explanation of the first shot of his would-be narrative — to somber lows, every moment of levity shadowed by anxiety.
For what is essentially a video diary, the stakes are incredibly high. In between Panahi's invitation and Mirtahmasb's arrival, Panahi is seen talking on the phone with his lawyer. He tells her that if any Iranian filmmaker were to be seen supporting him, "they'll be banned, too." This Is Not a Film was infamously smuggled out of Iran for its première at the Cannes Film Festival on a flash drive hidden in a cake, but it didn't stay hidden from Iranian authorities for long. In one scene, Mirtahmasb makes a joke that what they're doing — which amounts to two friends sitting at a kitchen table, videotaping their conversation — could get him thrown in jail. It's an aside that proved to be prophetic. In September 2011, Mirtahmasb was detained in Tehran on his way to Toronto for the North American première of the collaboration. (After three months in prison, Mirtahmasb was released; Panahi is still under house arrest, waiting for the Iranian Supreme Court to weigh in on his latest appeal.)
This Is Not a Film is set against the backdrop of Persian New Year's Eve, referred to several times on screen as Fireworks Wednesday, which happens to also be the title of a 2006 film by Asghar Farhadi, director of the Oscar-nominated A Separation. Farhadi has managed to make internationally successful movies dealing with the restrictive nature of Iranian society without stirring alarm among the authorities who have made it impossible for Panahi and other filmmakers to work. This Is Not a Film is so directly concerned with the working conditions for filmmakers in Iran that it's hard to imagine the choice to set a day-in-the-life film (which Mirtahmasb has said was actually shot across several days) on the same holiday as Farhadi's day-in-the-life film was a total coincidence.
But this isn't mere Iranian-film-industry inside baseball: The fireworks and bonfires glimpsed through windows and a doorway and the near-constant booms and sirens on the soundtrack all emphasize Panahi's isolation from everyday life and his practiced profession. The new year and the possibility of rebirth it represents for most of us becomes a specter of everything Panahi is locked away from.