This is a film defined by the sheer creative will of Jafar Panahi against the backdrop of an oppressive political regime. The Iranian director, famous for films like Mirror and Crimson Gold, was sentenced to a six-year prison sentence and a 20-year ban on directing, screenwriting and making films in 2010 for the alleged creation and distribution of propaganda against the Iranian government.
His new film, This is Not a Film, which is not a film designed to get him into any more trouble, centres around Panahi, wandering around his flat under house arrest. You see him having disheartening phone calls with his lawyer, surfing the Internet, and watching TV. Panahi’s boredom is acute, trapped in his own house whilst his family are out delivering presents to his mother for New Years. Filmed by documentary filmmaker (and Panahi’s friend) Mojtaba Mirtahmasb on a DV camera and an iPhone, this film at times seems like two mates mucking about filming each other at the same time.
Panahi’s starts by trying to recreate in his living room the film that he would have made if he was permitted, about a girl not allowed by her parents to go to university to study the arts. His living room becomes the set with tape across the carpet, chairs as windows, and cushions representing beds as Panahi excitedly reads through the play. Without warning, he breaks down, wiping his brow, removing his glasses and states: ‘If you can tell a film, why make one’ .
Frustrated and angry he watches two scenes from his past films, showing the viewer how amateur actors have taken roles in his films and made them more than he could have ever asked them. You see a small girl throw a tantrum during one filming, leaving the bus and deciding she is going to sit on the street. A freedom that is poignantly juxtaposed to Panahi’s imprisonment.
Late in the film Panahi befriends a young student collecting trash in the apartment as a favour to his friends. Panahi spontaneously follows him, camera in hand, down the elevator as he picks up trash from the other floors. This seems to be the subject that Panahi really wants to film.
The screenplay is abandoned and for the rest of the film the camera is focused on the student, describing his studies. As his student friend leaves the building to take out the trash, Panahi is not allowed to go outside as people celebrate New Years. The screen fades to black on a fire outside of the gates of his apartment block. His prison.
Panahi is still under house arrest despite the international outcry against his sentence by American and European filmmakers, including Ken Loach and The Cohen Brothers. This film although born out frustration and anguished boredom, is a testament to Panahi as a filmmaker. If a film, any piece of art, needs making it will be made even if you have to smuggle it out the country in a cake.