That one of the most consistently amusing and enlivening movies to emerge from 2011’s crop of festival films should have been made by a filmmaker under house arrest, his hands pretty much tied, his budget nil and equipment minimal, just goes to prove that you can’t keep a good man down. I stress the playful charm of This Is Not a Film by Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb because the circumstances surrounding this singular work (and most attempts to describe it) inevitably portend something grimmer. For allegedly promoting anti-regime activities, in 2010 Panahi was banned from making films for 20 years and sentenced to six years in prison. Idled while appealing his sentence, bored and jittery, he decides to circumvent the ban through a technicality. He will read the screenplay that the authorities had refused to grant him permission to film: as he slyly explains, he was forbidden to direct, write, or give interviews, but not to read aloud on camera. So he invites a friend, the documentarian Mirtahmasb, over to his apartment to record him.
Part of the jest is that Panahi is such a commanding personality, he cannot stop playing at being a director. He tells his colleague “Cut,” but is reminded that giving such an order constitutes directing. Panahi, an auteur with a string of international successes (The White Balloon, The Circle, Crimson Gold, Offside), comes across as an immensely vibrant, moody artist at the top of his form. In his black T-shirt, jeans, sandals, and tinted glasses, he is like a caged animal prowling his opulent apartment with the latest appliances and electronic gadgets, talking on the speakerphone to his lawyer (she pessimistically prepares him for the prospect of doing some jail time), switching on the (censored) cable news to see footage of the typhoon in Japan, and watching snippets from his own movies, as though to reassure himself of his identity. His true co-star is the family pet iguana, Igi, another caged animal, who keeps upstaging him by exploring the apartment and distracting the great man, digging into Panahi with sharp claws as he plays with his laptop. There is also a neighbor who is trying to find someone to watch her dog Mickey while she goes off to see the fireworks. Mickey barks ferociously when he sees Igi, Panahi’s offer is rescinded, and life goes on.
The premise is that we are watching an artless home movie documenting a day in the life of Panahi as he awaits the court’s final decision. In fact, the film was shot over the course of a week—some parts written, some sketched out, and others serendipitous—with a combination of HD camera and low-definition camera phone, and, despite the graininess of the latter, most of it looks pretty smooth. Panahi draws further attention to the film’s artifice by questioning whether all this pretense of straight documentation is phony. Iranian cinema has often traded in such self-reflexive moves, letting meta- collide with neorealism. Panahi conducts a little seminar on using nonprofessional actors in his films, approving the way they often come up with surprising bits that he could never have thought of, or refuse the “lie” of acting. In doing so, they direct him. But this time, he is the actor, directing himself, and he does a good job of animating what might have been an inert situation.
Similarly, despite his periodic protestations that nothing is happening except two men reduced to filming each other, the 75 minutes are packed with incident. Panahi puts tape marks on his rug to block out scenes from his screenplay, lying down and hammily playing his suicidal heroine with tears in his eyes; listens on the phone to his wife issuing instructions about feeding the iguana; impatiently watches the construction cranes from his balcony; answers the doorbell for food delivery; basks in favorite moments from his movies on his flat-screen; or—in what becomes the climax of the film—engages with a young, exuberantly polite art student who is picking up the building’s trash for his brother-in-law custodian.
In the elevator, the student begins to tell Panahi his account of witnessing the police coming to arrest the filmmaker, but keeps getting interrupted by the need to collect trash on every floor, until Panahi, exasperated, gives up on hearing this vignette in which he clearly hoped to be the star, and asks the young man what he plans to do when he graduates with a master’s degree. Self-absorbed vanity yields to genuine curiosity about other people. This is another familiar trope of Iranian cinema: in films as diverse as The Apple, The White Balloon, and Through the Olive Trees, any pretense of plot grinds to a halt as we watch some ordinary shopkeeper or farmer whose craggy individuality is suddenly not to be denied.
For all the scene’s everyday brio, we are reminded in the final shots that serious courage has been involved here. “Be careful, Mr. Panahi, they’ll see your movie camera,” warns the student as they leave the building proper. The filmmaker records, just beyond the building’s gates, a conflagration in the street which seems to have been part of a pro-democracy demonstration. There are no direct discussions about political injustice; the sense you get is it’s too obvious for cultivated Iranians to reiterate—and too sensitive. Panahi’s co-director, Mirtahmasb, is currently in jail, and Panahi, sentenced to prison and barred from filmmaking for 20 years, is still waiting to find out about his final fate. The finished film was smuggled out of Iran (on a USB thumb drive hidden inside a cake) and shown first at the Cannes Film Festival, and subsequently at the New York Film Festival and elsewhere. The final credits thank a series of unnamed benefactors (represented by strings of asterisks). As for the movie’s title, it can be seen as both a bit of faux humility and a cheeky, preemptive plea of innocence. If this is not a film, by all means let us have many more such not-a-films.
© 2012 by Phillip Lopate