All of our 2011 New York Film Festival coverage is here.
For the sake of all the Iranian officials who frequent this site, I’ll refrain from contradicting the title of Jafar Panahi’s “This is Not a Film,” which is accurate in a literal sense since it’s shot on digital, but is as true otherwise as it is unremarkable. Panahi would have you believe it is neither as a camera watches him sit down to a breakfast of lavash, cheese and jam that would hardly suggest he’s under house arrest while awaiting to hear if the six-year prison sentence and 20-year-ban from filmmaking he received from the Iranian government will be repealed.
Without knowing the context, there are hints that Panahi isn’t in his dining room by preference in the first half-hour of the 78-minute project, telling Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, the man co-credited with directing “This is Not a Film,” on the phone that he should come over to his house, but to do so without anyone else knowing. Until then, Panahi places the camera in front of him as he consults with his lawyer Farideh Gheyrat, who isn’t bullish on his chances of a complete victory in his appeal, noting that “rulings are 100 percent political, not legal,” and breaks out the masking tape to measure out spaces for a run-through of one of his unproduced scripts that didn’t pass Iranian certification.
But before “This is Not a Film” can become “Dogville,” either in approach or in political stridency, Panahi is joined by Mirtahmasb, who changes the project’s direction physically by becoming Panahi’s camera operator, but also clearly triggers a shift in Panahi’s demeanor just by his presence. The entertainer in Panahi comes out as he frantically moves about the room to reenact his vision for the screenplay and showing locations and the actresses he’d planned to cast on his iPhone. But when Panahi says “cut” to end a scene (i.e. a discussion they have), Mirtahmasb fires back with a laugh, “You are not directing anymore. It’s an offense.”
Knowing his mere presence on screen is a powerful protest enough, Panahi uses the opportunity of this once-in-a-lifetime production to ruminate on what makes a film and a filmmaker, placing in the heart of “This is Not a Film” a dissection of scenes from his films which he records off DVDs playing on his flatscreen TV. After laying out the absurd government rules regarding what he cannot do under his ban – writing a screenplay or filming one is not okay, but he can still read one out loud – Panahi uses scenes from “Crimson Gold” and “The Circle” to explain how he often doesn’t have control as a filmmaker — in “Gold,” the use of an unpredictable amateur actor meant he was “directing” the film and the big public locations in “The Circle” dictated what happened, not the writer/director.
With his son’s pet iguana climbing over him at times and a neighbor’s unsuccessful attempt to unload her yappy dog on him while she goes out, “This is Not a Film” isn’t the somber exegesis one might expect, but it is surprisingly rigorous as the notion sets in that Panahi could be, in fact, controlling how it will unfold. Set during a day when Panahi could hear about his fate, “This is Not a Film” doesn’t have that as a payoff, yet it does follow a natural story arc, the start of its third act marked by fireworks outside his window (New Year’s is drawing near, as his mother informs during a phone call) and a talkative trash collector who shows up just as Mirtahmasb is leaving and inadvertently lures Panahi ever so slightly out of his flat. (There’s also the sneaking suspicion that there’s a clever bit of production design with the all-too-prescient Ryan Reynolds horror film “Buried” peeking out as the most prominent DVD in Panahi’s collection, though it could easily be coincidence.)
Since Panahi’s fate, unlike his camera, is out of his hands, there is no denying that the cruel reality of his situation hovers over the whole proceeding, but he doesn’t let it dominate. Instead, “This is Not a Film” follows in the footsteps of all his other films that have taken on the imperiousness of the government by illuminating the humanity of its citizenry. Gunshots from the street outside can be heard throughout “This is Not a Film,” suggesting that, though forced, Panahi has created a safe haven of his own where his art is far more resounding fire power. And in a medium where we tend to lionize filmmakers for daring to make movies we enjoy, “This is Not a Film” is a true act of courage since it will not be enjoyed by all.
"This is Not a Film" will be distributed in the U.S. by Palisades Tartan. It will play New York Film Festival on October 13th.