Forbidden to write or direct any film for twenty years, forbidden to give interviews for twenty years, forbidden to travel abroad for twenty years, sentenced to six years in prison: these were the punishments that an Iranian court meted out to Jafar Panahi in December 2010 on the grounds that he had been plotting to commit cinematic “propaganda” [see “The Year in Movies,” January 24, 2011]. Since then, not much news of Panahi has seeped out of Tehran. I know that an appeals court upheld the full sentence in October 2011; and I know that sometime in March 2011, as Panahi awaited this ruling, he managed while under house arrest to make This Is Not a Film, an “effort” (as the closing titles categorize it) achieved in his apartment with a digital video camera, a cellphone camera and the help of the documentary filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb.
Some people, marooned, toss bottled messages into the waves. Panahi loaded This Is Not a Film onto a USB drive, which he contrived to have mailed to Paris by concealing it in a cake. The picture arrived in time to have its premiere at Cannes in May, after which it was shown at several other festivals, including New York and Toronto. Mirtahmasb was expected to attend the Toronto screening, but at the last moment he was denied permission to travel and soon after was arrested and banned from filmmaking, on charges that he had conspired to spy for the BBC.
The creators of This Is Not a Film remain out of circulation, but their work continues to make its way through the world. Curious moviegoers who (like Mirtahmasb) had to miss the festivals, and who don’t often find smuggled masterpieces in their baked goods, may want to know that This Is Not a Film is now going into theatrical release in the United States, beginning with a run in New York City at Film Forum (through March 13).
I label the work a masterpiece because I found the experience intricately engaging, intriguing, moving and sometimes droll, and because I don’t know what else to call it. “Documentary” won’t do. Although it’s an authentic record of Panahi in distress (he is almost the sole figure on screen) as well as a survey of his light-filled, comfortably furnished apartment (which he might enjoy, were he not confined to it), This Is Not a Film has the shape, rhythms and irresistible emotional current of a cunningly planned narrative.
The action unfolds from early morning through night on what appears to be a single day, which just happens to be the eve of the Persian New Year. It’s the day when people celebrate the coming of spring with fireworks and bonfires. By an unstated coincidence, it’s also the day of the events in Panahi’s first film as a director, The White Balloon. On one side of This Is Not a Film is the memory of a great beginning, which now goes unmentioned, as if it’s been lopped off from Panahi’s life; on the other side, the physical and spiritual renewal that is promised by the New Year festival, and that Panahi will be denied. The action of This Is Not a Film, though seemingly impromptu, takes place between these two symbolic absences, and upon inspection it includes very little that’s haphazard. You see a carefully timed series of telephone calls, two sequences of explicit playacting, a well-prepared lecture-demonstration on the art of directing and a couple of suspiciously opportune interruptions, by people who might be real passers-by but are more likely minor characters.
I think of an early incident in which Panahi, wanting to wrap up a conversation, signals not once but three times for Mirtahmasb to cut, and Mirtahmasb to the amusement of them both keeps shooting—pointing out (perhaps for the benefit of any government official who should see this footage) that he is not following orders because Panahi is not directing. It’s tempting, at this and many other moments, to abandon the category of documentary altogether and call This Is Not a Film a fiction: the title a transparent ruse, the structure a contrivance and the action (on more than one level) a deception.