The reflex is to praise 'This Is Not A Film' simply out of support for its subject, Iranian director Jafar Panahi. The politically outspoken Panahi ("Crimson Gold," "Offside") was sentenced to six years in prison and a 20-year ban on making films, doing interviews or leaving the country after Iranian authorities found him guilty of making "propaganda against the regime."
“This Is Not a Film” is a cry from the bottom of a well, a documentary that films the day-to-day life of Panahi sitting under house arrest in his Tehran high-rise apartment, awaiting his appeal of the verdict. The footage was smuggled out of the country on a USB driver hidden inside a birthday cake, and premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last year.
Many filmmakers and critics have rallied behind Panahi and his plight, and so the right thing to do would be to give a thumbs up to “Film” just to spread the word. But here’s another reason — it’s a fascinating film.
We see Panahi talking on the phone with his lawyer, learning that while his appeal may result in a more lenient sentence, he’ll still certainly face prison time. He’s frightened at the prospect, but keeps himself mostly in check.
To pass the time, Panahi wants to use the film to talk about the screenplay he wrote, the one that the censors forbade him from making. In his apartment, he lays out masking tape on the floor to delineate the set, acting out the parts for the camera. It’s the only way he can make the film, play-acting like a child in his bedroom, and it’s both heartbreaking and inspiring to watch him realize his story, all by himself.
But then, he deflates. What he loves about filmmaking are the moments he can’t control, when something real intrudes into the frame. He cues up his DVD player and shows scenes from a couple of his films where the actors did something he wasn’t expecting. That’s the real world, and that’s the world he is hermetically sealed off from in his apartment. That’s the real punishment.
Late in the film, restless, Panahi comes across a young man hired to empty the garbage in the apartment building. He follows him into the elevator with his camera, interviews him. The young man is earnest and funny (there’s a great bit involving a neighbor who can’t find a dog sitter for her yappy mutt), and frank about his future in Iran.
Finally, Panahi has found a slice of reality to document, culminating in an unforgettable shot where Panahi takes his camera into the building courtyard, right up to the front gates, and spies a raging bonfire set by protesters outside.
The film’s closing credits feature Panahi’s thanks to his fellow Iranian filmmakers, leaving a blank space instead of their names to protect them from the regime. Instead of fleeing the country, or meekly acquiescing to the whims of the regime, Panahi uses “This Is Not a Film” to slyly tweak the nose of his oppressors from within. Creating art becomes an act of courage.