Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film is a miracle—not only because it’s such a terrific movie but because it exists for us to see at all. Panahi, who was banned from writing or directing films for 20 years after he spoke out against Iran’s regime during 2009’s Green Revolution, is now serving a six-year prison term. In 2010, while he was still only under house arrest, he invited his friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, a documentary filmmaker who has also served time in jail, to come to his Tehran apartment with a movie camera. The two of them spent 10 days seeing what sort of film they could make within the limitations of Panahi’s sentence, and smuggled out the result—I’m not kidding—on a USB drive hidden in a cake.
The resulting “effort” (as the film’s final credits demurely call it, in an attempt to uphold the crossed-fingers promise of the title) is an unscripted experiment, but not a cinema-vérité documentary. It’s easy to see, or guess, the places where Panahi and Mirtahmasb staged conversations or manipulated real-life events in order to condense and shape 10 days’ worth of filmmaking into one semi-fictionalized day in the director’s life. In fact, much of the movie’s pleasure derives from watching the filmmakers perform that improvisational sleight-of-hand, shaping art from whatever comes their way.
This Is Not A Film opens slowly, with Panahi alone in his lovely, light-flooded kitchen, having breakfast, puttering, and eventually talking to his lawyer on the phone about his appeal (it’s possible his jail sentence may be reduced, she explains—in the end, it isn’t—but there’s no hope of having the ruling overturned, since the decision was political and not legal in nature). After his lawyer hangs up, Panahi turns to the camera and begins addressing it directly. Gradually we become aware that he’s brought Mirtahmasb in to be not just a collaborator but a surrogate: If Panahi neither writes a script nor wields a camera, he reasons, then no one can accuse him of “directing.”
But what should this experiment in homebound guerilla filmmaking be about? At first Panahi tries to re-enact the story of his most recent finished script, which was rejected by government censors: The story of a girl from a traditional family who’s locked up by her father so she won’t run away to enroll at the university where she’s been accepted. Panahi tapes off a part of his spacious living room to represent the cramped quarters of the girl’s house, and begins to block out the opening shots, describing to his cameraman the great location he’s found for the shoot in another city (which we briefly glimpse via some footage on Panahi’s iPhone).
Up to this point, This Is Not a Film has been a worthwhile, if slightly pokey, formalist experiment. But when Panahi grows frustrated at the effort to get across his vision for the film without the benefit of actors, crew, or location, things get messier and more interesting fast. He calls a halt to the whole re-enactment idea and gets out some DVDs of his past movies (including Crimson Gold and The Circle). Remote control in hand, Panahi shows his friend moments in which his movies as he’d originally envisioned them were enriched in unforeseeable ways by the spontaneous contributions of actors (often the nonprofessional ones that Panahi likes to cast) or the serendipitous details of a shooting location. Panahi doesn’t belabor the point, but it comes through powerfully: Movies are the products of collective artistic labor. Without a cast and crew and the freedom to work, even a great director is just some guy filming himself in his apartment.
But even in the confines of his flat, reduced to getting out his iPhone to film the cameraman filming him, Panahi can’t stop making movies, finding ways to frame and shoot the world around him. And the world, it seems, can’t stop providing him with stories to tell: An importuning neighbor begs Panahi to mind her yapping dog while she goes out, but he refuses, for fear it will frighten his daughter’s pet iguana (this remarkable creature moves through the apartment cage-free, peering from atop bookcases or crawling onto the annoyed director’s lap). A younger filmmaker phones to recount a close-call encounter with the police. Panahi accompanies the building’s maintenance man in the elevator on his garbage collection rounds; at first alarmed to have the famous director’s camera trained on him, the young man soon warms to the attention, rebuttoning his shirt to look nicer and joking with Panahi, “You’re making an actor out of me.”
I don’t want to give away any of the small surprises and convergences that make This Is Not a Film’s last half-hour so funny, moving, and rich with meaning. So I’ll just say that it’s particularly exciting to get to see an inventive underground work like This Is Not a Film in the wake of Iran’s first-ever Oscar win for Asghar Farhadi’s great film A Separation. It’s becoming clear that the blossoming of Iranian cinema, which has been going on now for at least 20 years, is too strong a force for the government censors to contain. The triumph of This Is Not a Film is not only an artistic one—the very existence of this movie is a gift. No wonder it came to us in a cake.