Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film, shot covertly in Panahi’s Tehran apartment and smuggled out of the country in a cake, refers to itself as “an effort” instead of a film—partly in order to raise teasing questions about what films are/are not, but also, it seems, for legal reasons. After running into numerous conflicts with the Iranian government over the course of his career, Panahi has been sentenced to house arrest and forbidden from making films for twenty years. This Is Not a Film, then, becomes an act of artistic nose-thumbing, a snapshot of Iranian life so mundane and uneventful that it seems incapable of giving offense, yet one in which every incident is so loaded with political weight that it ends up being even more excoriating a critique of its government’s politics than if it had been twice as pointed. It’s a clever, beguiling piece of political cinema as well as an experiment in film theory, a meditation on what and how films mean, in every sense of that term.
A scant seventy-five minutes, This Is Not a Film follows Panahi over the course of what appears to be an ordinary day. We see Panahi watch television, feed his daughter’s pet iguana, and take phone calls from his lawyer, his wife, and his friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, who eventually stops by the apartment. It’s then that Panahi begins describing his idea for what was to have been his next narrative film: if he cannot shoot it, he will at least explain what it would have looked like. He tapes off the living room rug into sections to create a makeshift set, dictates camera movements, demonstrates the blocking of the actors. Finally, frustrated, he turns to Mirtahmasb, who has been shooting this with a shoulder cam: “if we can tell a film, why make a film?” A crucial question—except that Panahi and Mitrhamasb have, in effect, already begun making the film in the very act of pretending not to. The true artist, the film suggests, is powerless to give up his art: he will find a way to continue it, even if he has to use the crudest and most commonplace tools to do so (much of This Is Not a Film was shot on Panahi’s iPhone).