There have been movies heralding musicians, painters, photographers, and poets who persevered against oppression and restrictions, but this very unusual, deceptively simple documentary passionately reveals the essence of a filmmaker. This soulful portrait poignantly and artfully demonstrates how impossible it is for authorities to suppress the powerful urge to be a storyteller with a camera, though the government of Iran hasn’t stopped trying.
The repression of protest in Iran since the disputed presidential election of 2009 included severe crackdowns on director Jafar Panahi and other filmmakers who dared to make their dissent internationally visible. As Panahi was arrested, imprisoned, beat up, released, and rearrested under vague charges of planning to make an anti-government film, his sentence to six years in detention and his ban from making films for 20 years became a cause célèbre. So This Is Not a Film is not about Iranian politics because that would definitely not be permitted.
Rather, while Panahi waits in the restricted limbo of his drawn-out legal appeal, his friend, director/producer Mojtaba Mirtahmasb brings over a camera and insists it will just record two Persians sitting around talking in Panahi’s comfortable Tehran apartment. (They are nervously self-conscious at first that this documentation could be seen as intended to gain forbidden support abroad, which it did achieve.) The camera stays on to observe Panahi’s daily, limited routine of eating, watching the TV news of the Japanese tsunami, and talking on the phone with his wife and daughter, who are out-of-town for the new year holiday, and with his lawyer to check on the progress of his case—it already wasn’t looking good then, what with legalities not really mattering.
Amidst all this depressing news, his friend tries to cheer Panahi up by getting him to talk about the new work he was in the midst of making, which was not the documentary against the election that the regime accused him of preparing. Initially reluctant, Panahi agrees to read the script out loud—after all, that is not a film. Like several of his renowned features—The White Balloon (1995), The Circle (2000), Offside (2006)—there’s a determined girl rebelling against her parents to reach a simple goal; she just wants to go to school, but the analogies to his own situation resonate. He describes how her parents lock her up, much like his own house arrest, and there’s a boy who wants to help her out, much like his friend here.
Mirtahmasb encourages him to use the living room as a representation of the movie’s main set, the girl’s house. But Panahi simply can’t help going beyond the written word, and the film becomes a fascinating look into how an auteur thinks. He peremptorily instructs Mirtahmasb when to cut and what to focus on. But the screenplay unfolds cinematically as he talks about camera angles and lighting, enthusiastically describes his search for just the right house to use in an area where people have just the right accent. He proudly shows the photos he’s taken of the location and the girl he’s picked to star. And then the frustration overwhelms him and he can’t face the camera. It is utterly heartbreaking.
Against the sounds outside of the upcoming holiday celebrations, a variety of people ring his doorbell, some seen on camera, some just heard, including the downstairs neighbor who figures she can put his situation to her benefit—surely he can watch her annoying, yapping dog while she sees the fireworks. Somewhat out of boredom and loneliness, but even more as a curious artist sensitive to potential material, he can’t help but engage each in conversation and probe for the story they have to tell. When a genial young man comes to take out the garbage, he recognizes the director, who is flattered by his attention, and Panahi impulsively and irresistibly does something simple, dangerous, and forbidden—he picks up the camera and follows him into the elevator. He draws out of the rubbish collector his ostensibly non-political problems (his family), and then that obnoxious dog and owner reappear to nag in the background, and the details of an autonomous daily life take on a heightened significance. This no longer is not a film, but a moving addition to Panahi’s oeuvre.
When Mirtahmasb smuggled out this footage in a cake to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, he found a way to demonstrate that the Iranian regime was stifling more than facts about brutality and corruption. The government could try to silence one of its greatest filmmakers, but they couldn’t stop him creating art. Panahi’s appeal was denied, and it is the world’s tragic loss.