Still from This Is Not a Film (2011) — Image via thisisnotafilm.net

This Is Not a Film

Directed by Jafar Panahi & Mojtaba Mirtahmasb (2011)

A couple months ago, I reviewed Mohammad Rasoulof’s Goodbye, the director’s first film since he was arrested on suspicion of conspiring against the Iranian government. Arrested at the same time as Rasoulof was his much more internationally famous colleague Jafar Panahi, and This Is Not a Film (In film nist) — made with the help of documentarian Mojtaba Mirtahmasb — represents Panahi’s response to his arrest and punishment.

The title This Is Not a Film is almost certainly a nod to René Magritte’s famous surrealist painting La trahison des images, an appropriate reference from a director who has been convicted of attempting to make a treasonous film. It is also a reference to the central conceit of the film (as I will call it), which is that Panahi must figure out how to continue his artistic work without violating the letter of a 20-year ban on filmmaking that was handed down as part of his sentence. At the beginning of the film, we see Panahi enacting scenes from his life (having not been banned from acting) in front of a camera that has been set up and turned on by family members at various locations in his apartment. Losing patience with this approach, he calls Mirtahmasb and asks his friend to come over and operate the camera. At a number of points, Panahi also captures footage with his iPhone (which apparently does not qualify as a movie camera). Banned from writing new films, Panahi reads from a screenplay he wrote before the ban, blocking scenes in his living room.

Still from This Is Not a Film (2011) — Image via thisisnotafilm.netPanahi’s frustration with his current state of affairs is the film’s driving force. Having been sentenced to six years in prison, he is, at the time of filming, under house arrest while awaiting the outcome of an appeal. On the surface, his life is very comfortable. He lives in a spacious ninth-floor apartment in an upscale part of Tehran, with beautiful furniture, multiple flatscreen televisions, and many other amenities. But he is driven by a desire to know what is going on, not only in his own case, but more broadly in the outside world, and to express himself artistically. While Panahi is being filmed inside his apartment, the people of Tehran are celebrating Fireworks Wednesday, a traditional, pre-Islamic Persian celebration that has recently taken on a tinge of opposition to the regime. Panahi tries to capture the festivities on his iPhone, but he is too far away, and the lighting is too poor. At various points, Panahi loads his previous films into his DVD player to show examples of how actors, locations and all the other elements of a film add up to an experience that he cannot hope to replicate by reading his screenplay in his apartment.

It is highly unlikely that the events portrayed in the film happened as spontaneously as they are made to appear. This particularly becomes clear in the final scene, which strongly suggests that Panahi will not ultimately be willing or able to comply with the regime’s insistence that he stop making films. As in Abbas Kiarostami’s classic Close-Up and Panahi’s own The Mirror, one gets the distinct impression that many if not most of the “real life” events portrayed in the film have actually been orchestrated for dramatic effect. In this case, Panahi’s goal appears to be to highlight both the absurdity and the intolerable nature of the situation in which he finds himself, and he does so with intelligence and humor.

After This Is Not a Film was shot, Panahi’s appeal was denied. Apparently, he is not currently incarcerated or under house arrest but is awaiting “execution of the verdict,” which means the authorities can take him into custody at any time. It remains to be seen whether Panahi will be able to continue practicing his art under these chilling conditions, but This Is Not a Film sends a clear message that he does not intend to go quietly.

Originally posted on The 400 Blows

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.

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