In December 2010, Iranian writer/director Jafar Panahi was detained and forced to live under house arrest, eventually receiving a 20-year ban on making films. This documentary examines his time locked inside his Tehran apartment and how the filmmaker reacted to his censorship.
'All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun," Jean-Luc Godard once stated, which means Jafar Panahi should be in trouble. Pacing his Tehran apartment, under house arrest for the alleged crime of making a film about Iran’s last general election, the acclaimed 51-year-old director of The Circle and Offside is not only cut off from his art, but facing the very real prospect of a 6 year jail term and a concurrent 20 year ban from filmmaking. Shot in March of this year, when he was still awaiting the edict of an appeal that was subsequently rejected, This is Not a Film reveals itself as a moving invocation of the creative spirit, a wryly sturdy investigation of the cinema’s nature and, finally, a transcendent experience.
Panahi and friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb’s homemade documentary was smuggled out of Iran on a USB drive hidden inside a birthday cake. That sounds like something so ludicrous it could only happen in the movies, and one of the subtle points the picture makes is how notions of real life and what’s on the screen are indistinguishable. At first Panahi toys with your sensibilities; with his wife and son out visiting his mother he’s tasked with domestic chores such as feeding a pet iguana. 'Eat and let’s make up," he tells the lizard and then he cuts to the inscrutable creature’s blank reaction to edit together the simplest of reaction shot gags.
Even as phone conversations with lawyers reveal vaguely worded worries – 'I can’t say much on the phone," notes Panahi – the need to create can’t help but win out over what was intended to be an unproductive sequestering by the regime persecuting him. When Mirtahmasb arrives Panahi insists on acting out the screenplay for what would have been his next film. The story of a teenage girl in provincial Ishaban locked inside her home by a disapproving father – the metaphor is cruelly clear – it moves from a reading to something more as Panahi describes his shot sequence, uses tape to mark out spaces and designates props.
'You are not directing – that is an offence," insists Mirtahmasb, and it’s both amusing to see Panahi have to suppress his naturally dominant director’s ego, and also tragic, because Mirtahmasb was recently arrested and charged by the Iranian government with spying for the BBC. 'If we could tell a film, why make a film," argues an unsatisfied Panahi, whose restlessness take him from the balcony – it’s not clear at first whether loud noises outside are shots of some kind aimed at demonstrators or fireworks – to his DVD player, where he watches a scene from 2003’s Crimson Gold and muses about how he could never have gotten certain elements from a trained actor that came without thought from his amateur lead, Hossain Emadeddin.
On another phone call Panahi admits to 'a certain numbness", but his doughy disposition and flashes of pessimism can never quite win out while he has a camera, or mobile phone with a camera for that matter. When the building’s temporary custodian comes to the door, doing a rubbish pick-up, Panahi is initially suspicious (it’s easy to worry when you’ve been convicted on trumped up charges) and questions the young man, who explains that he’s related to the regular custodian, who went back to – of all places – Ishaban, so his wife could give birth there.
If this is a government stooge, you think, he’s giving one of the great naturalistic performances of all time, and as the two men converse, the cleaner well aware of who Panahi is, the director starts to question him about his situation. Panahi squeezes past bins in the elevator, and the two go from floor to floor, the custodian talking about his degree and lack of employment in between venturing into each apartment, which Panahi shoots from inside the elevator as he catches the exchanges inside the homes. At first you think Panahi has found the subject matter for another movie, but as the doors close and angles change, as the man offers small, telling admissions about himself, you slowly realise that Panahi is making a film, complete with a new Hossain Emadeddin.
It’s hard to think of a more powerfully uplifting and resonant finale in a film released this year. The title’s black satire becomes superfluous, with This is Not a Film revealed as the most heartfelt act of defiance.