This Is Not a Film (or In Film Nist in Persian) is a 2011 documentary film (!) by Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi. In December 2010, Panahi was arrested for making a film that had not been approved by the government, and was given a six-year house arrest sentence, as well as a twenty year ban on making films or giving interviews. This Is Not a Film is essentially a day in Panahi’s life living under house arrest as he awaits the result of an appeal. When it was completed, the movie was smuggled out of Iran and into Cannes on a flash drive baked inside a cake.
The film essentially falls into three chapters. After a brief period at the beginning with Panahi alone speaking to his attorney and family members on the phone, he calls his friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, a fellow documentarian, and asks him to come over with his camera. For the first part of the film, Panahi decides that he wants to act out the plot of the film that he had been arrested for trying to make. Marking out a rudimentary film set with spike tape on his living room rug, he proceeds to tell the story, a story that we never really get a clear picture of.
Panahi becomes disheartened with this endeavor, and spends the middle portion of the documentary watching clips from his previous films and reflecting on the process of film creation. He notes that ultimately, any given film project is defined and guided by elements that can not be predicted. No matter what he prepares or envisions in his mind, ultimately there are environmental or human factors that he cannot anticipate that become the enduring legacy of a particular film. He shows a clip of a young child actress in the midst of filming a scene on a bus while wearing a fake cast. Suddenly and without warning, she loses her will to act and demands to be let off the bus, tearing off the cast and throwing it aside. Panahi relates to the girl’s predicament, and reflects that he must follow this girls example and throw off his own metaphorical cast in order to move forward.
Following a poignant scene in which Panahi and Mirtahmasb film each other for an extended period — Mirtahmasb holding a professional camera and Panahi holding his iPhone — Mirtahmasb declares he must return to his family. As Mirtahmasb makes to leave and Panahi continues to film him in the hall, they encounter a custodian collecting garbage in the apartment building. Panahi asks to accompany the man for the rest of his rounds through the building, and they have an engaging and often amusing conversation on a variety of topics. In the final moments of the film, the man leaves the building to take the garbage into the streets, where citizens are celebrating the New Year with rowdy fireworks and bonfires. At first, Panahi makes to follow him, but then, knowing the limitations of his sentence, he stays back.
As a film, the movie leaves a lot to be desired. On a very basic level, although there are subtleties to the interactions to be analyzed, on the surface, nothing really happens. However, as Panahi makes quite apparent, this is not a film.
So what, then, is it, and how should we approach it? This Is Not a Film is a political statement against the restrictions and censorship levied against artists in Iran, and it effectively calls out both the absurdity and injustice of these policies. It is also a stunning depiction of the experience of house arrest. I had never given much thought to the day to day realities of a life under house arrest, but by the end of this movie, the claustrophobia and anxiety are real. As an audience member, you are itching to get out of the building, and there is a palpable sense of hope and dismay as he takes his step outside the building in the final moments. This Is Not a Film is also a meditation on the art of filmmaking, taking a scrutinizing look at the director’s role in the process and how much control he or she actually has.
One of the most unique films (or not films) that I have seen, This Is Not a Film is certainly something to be experienced. It will not have you on the edge of your seat, but it will leave you with a lot to think about, and will certainly elicit an emotional and intellectual response one way or the other. It may not be a film, but you should probably go see it anyway.