Director Jafar Panahi appears on screen for almost the entire duration of his latest film—making breakfast, getting bad news from his lawyer, staging an impromptu read-through of a script the Iranian government has forbidden him to shoot. Panahi is not directing, though—at least he’s not supposed to be. As his cameraman and collaborator reminds him, even yelling “cut” would be considered an offense. The resulting footage is just as ontologically coy. The feature, which makes its U.S. debut this week, is titled This Is Not a Film.
Like the René Magritte painting it calls upon, Panahi and collaborator Mojtaba Mirtahmasb’s “effort,” as it’s billed, draws attention to the slippery line between artifice and actuality. In this way, Panahi keeps true to his usual M.O.—the hall-of-mirrors style for which he and his mentor, the great Abbas Kiarostami (Certified Copy, Ten, Taste of Cherry), are renowned. What’s real, what’s not, what’s staged, and what’s spontaneous is never quite clear in these directors’ films. As Kiarostami has said, “We can never get close to the truth except through lying."
The lie in the film’s title gets at the truth behind its inception. In 2010, Panahi became an international cause célèbre after the Iranian government convicted him and colleague Mohammad Rasoulof of conspiring "to commit crimes against the country's national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic." Panahi and Rasoulof had been working on a feature focusing on the events surrounding the contested 2009 re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which sparked mass protests in support of the opposition Green Party. Partway through shooting that film, Panahi and Rasoulof were arrested in Panahi’s apartment, their footage seized, and both filmmakers were sentenced to six years in prison with a 20-year ban on writing screenplays, leaving the country, speaking to foreign press, and making films. They were released to house arrest pending appeal, time that Panahi used to create This Is Not a Film.
The Iranian government has only itself to blame for Panahi’s latest bit of intransigence. What else could happen when you tell an incorrigible director—especially one unafraid to take on sexism and misogyny (The Circle) and socioeconomic inequality (Crimson Gold)—that he can’t make films anymore? Shot on an iPhone and a digital camera wielded by Mirtahmasb, the film was smuggled into France for consideration at Cannes last year on a USB stick concealed in a cake. Some months later, authorities arrested Mirtahmasb at the airport in Tehran, preventing him from attending the film’s release in France and its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival. He and six other Iranian filmmakers were subsequently charged with “collaborating with the Persian BBC” and jailed for three months in Evin Prison.
“Take a shot of me in case I’m arrested,” jokes a prescient Mirtahmasb in This Is Not a Film. “At least there’ll be some images left.”
For high drama, the film can’t beat its own backstory. Shot almost entirely inside Panahi’s apartment, This Is Not a Film documents small-scale moments: the director gazing off his balcony, mulling his past work; attempting an unexpectedly funny and tender rapprochement with his daughter’s gigantic iguana, Igi. Yet the film’s formal limitations—and resulting artistic ingenuity—only underscore its emotional impact, particularly when Panahi attempts to block out scenes from his latest screenplay. The script centers on a young woman who has gained admission to an art institute but is locked in her room by her conservative parents to keep her from enrolling. While Panahi isn’t allowed to direct, he and Mirtahmasb slyly note that the authorities didn’t say anything about acting. Ever alert to when allegory tips into irony, Panahi “stars” as the girl, moving about in a tape-demarcated space that seems half stage set and half prison cell.
This doesn’t satisfy Panahi in the slightest, though, and he says to Mirtahmasb, “If we could tell a film, then why make a film?” He pulls up different pivotal scenes from his films, each of them capturing a moment where his nonprofessional actors (a man suffering from paranoid schizophrenia was cast in the central role in Crimson Gold, a defiant little girl in The Mirror) take over a scene or abandon the film entirely, or when the location of his shoot seems to direct the scene. For a filmmaker like Panahi, it becomes clear that making films is not so much about directing action as it is about embracing unpredictability, surprise, and serendipity. Panahi, unlike the government officials who have attempted to cage him, is continually seeking out his actors’ resistance, trying to foment his own authorial overthrow.
Despite working without a set, a screenplay, real actors, or access to film, Panahi and Mirtahmasb have made a very Panahi-esque work—uncompromisingly political and marked by the deliberate unsettling of narrative and directorial structure in favor of the possibility of being unseated by the unexpected. As with The Mirror, which takes a sharp left when its child actor screeches that she doesn’t want to act anymore and decides to head home, this latest work is strongly Brechtian in its insistence on revealing the method of its production—the director continually onscreen, the direct address, the artifice of its staging. Panahi is a feature filmmaker, Mirtahmasb a documentarian, and this film is a curious hybrid of both directors’ genres, purporting to be shot in a day even though time markers indicate otherwise, and continually interrupted by surprises that are so perfect they seem plotted. As in Panahi’s Offside, a film ostensibly about soccer that shows no soccer at all, This Is Not a Film deploys its fair share of narrative frustration when the recounting of the director’s original arrest is continually interrupted and never completed. But most notably, the film is still fueled by Panahi’s enthrallment to the vagaries of people, place, and even pets. Igi the iguana and a neighbor’s yapping dog Mickey are the undirectable variables, the lizard clambering over bookcases, couches, and even Panahi himself (“Igi, your nails are too sharp!”) and the unwelcome dog unleashing fits of barking that drown out dialogue.
The film’s final minutes come alive when a university student happens to come by to collect trash. (Or is the interruption staged? It’s seems too good to be unscripted, but as with much of this film, questions of artifice become irrelevant.) A grad student in arts research, he’s a friendly and photogenic fellow, and Panahi’s excitement at having a real subject to interview and film is obvious. They ride the elevator together, chatting about the building’s tenants, how to survive while finishing a dead-end degree, and, in a truncated fashion, Panahi’s plight. The footage captures pops and crackles from the street outside the building. It’s the Persian New Year, and young people are setting off fireworks despite the government ban on “pagan” celebrations. The streets are livid with bonfires, and the film’s last images capture the irrepressible hope, fury, and sense of peril behind Iran’s Green Revolution and Panahi’s own filmic revolt. This is not a film. It unreels like real life and, perhaps, a future foretold.