4.5 / 5 stars
In his apartment, with just two video cameras and an iPhone, Iranian director Jafar Panahi has created one of the most captivating movies to hit U.S. theaters in 2012. Panahi, a filmmaker who has received acclaim and admiration throughout the world since the mid-1990s, had his universe limited to the confines of his home in 2010: After having been arrested with others by the Iranian government for a project they were working on, Panahi was facing a six-year jail sentence and a 20-year ban from participating in the cinema industry. So, forced to be at home, he did the only thing he knew how to do. He made a movie.
Well, sort of, as the title of this documentary suggests. This Is Not a Film begins with the minutiae of Panahi’s morning as he eats breakfast, listens to an answering machine message, feeds the family iguana. But he’s got something brewing, an idea that has collaborator and friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb shooting Panahi while he reads aloud and visually plots out his latest screenplay, a work about a young woman who’s being prevented from attending college by her traditionally-minded parents.
As Panahi explains on camera, the screenplay had already been rejected by the Iranian government. But, to his mind, reading it doesn’t encompass the litany of restrictions that he must obey. So, when is a movie not a movie?
The idea is a fascinating one that forces us, as an audience, to acknowledge our own participation in the filmmaking process: Is a film actually a film if there’s no expectation that anyone will ever see it? Does the act of recording–and, obviously, editing–planned footage define the end result as a movie?
And it’s that concept of “planning” that makes This Is Not a Film a tantalizing exercise. It’s impossible not to wonder how much of the film’s 75 minutes was plotted out by Panahi. After a particular monologue about his plans for the day, Panahi asks Mirtahmasb to “cut”. Huh? Is this a guy who’s just used to directing, and had nothing left to say at that moment? Or is he subtly orchestrating a project that’s far more coordinated than one would think?
Well, this isn’t some revolutionary kid with a Flip camera. After starting out as a documentary filmmaker, Panahi directed internationally recognized narrative features including The White Balloon, Offside and Crimson Gold, winning awards at the Cannes and Berlin film festivals. As Panahi’s on-camera patter takes on a poetic tone, and his footage makes pointed visual reference to some of his statements, we start to believe this just might be one of the great bold, clandestine film projects ever made.
An element to Panahi’s “effort” (as it’s called in the closing credits) includes a look at some of his filmography. In his living room, he checks out scenes on DVD from The Mirror and Crimson Gold; the melancholy sequences are part reminiscence, part film-school training, with the master recalling performances, pointing out the value of exteriors, and marveling at the use of bisecting lines in shot composition.
When a later shot of Panahi standing on his balcony shows a construction crane in the distance cutting a path right across the director’s body in the foreground, we have to wonder about how spontaneous this all is. (In a 2011 interview with the New York Times, Mirtahsamb called it “an improvisation” and the “conjunction of two ways of doing films.”)
The final sequence in This Is Not a Film is a potent combination of everything that’s great and somber and frightening about the document. Panahi joins a young man in his apartment building as he makes the rounds to pick up the tenants’ trash. As they slowly drop one floor at a time, the ever-inquisitive Panahi gets closer to danger, eventually witnessing the fiery chaos that’s pulsating outside his limited environs, his own symbolic descent into a hell he perhaps can’t yet envision.
Notes: This Is Not a Film was stored on a USB thumb drive, hidden inside a cake, and smuggled to France where it played at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. The movie opened on five screens in the U.S. in early 2012, and recently played at the Harvard Film Archive, as part of This Is Not a Retrospective, a collection of Panahi’s films.