Reviewed by Mark Deming

There is a small but thriving subgenre of pictures about independent filmmakers struggling to make their movies. While some may ponder the obvious narcissism of an artist with nothing more to share than the details of his or her creative process, filmmakers might do well to consider the fate of Jafar Panahi. Panahi is a director from Iran, where the government has an iron grip on the movie industry and the state determines what sort of projects filmmakers can work on -- or if they’ll be allowed to make a picture at all. Panahi has received international acclaim for such films as Offside, The White Balloon, The Circle, and Crimson Gold, but he made the mistake of talking to a reporter about his support for Mir-Hossein Mousavi and his opposition political party in the controversial 2009 Iranian presidential election. Iranian authorities were not pleased with his opinions, and they passed along a steep punishment: six years in prison and a 20-year ban from writing and directing movies. (He’s also forbidden to talk to the press or leave the country.) While a number of celebrated actors and filmmakers from the West have spoken out on Panahi’s behalf (including Juliette Binoche, Robert De Niro, Sean Penn, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and Joel and Ethan Coen), so far the pressure has had little impact in Iran. So what is an artist to do when they’re not permitted to make art?

Jafar Panahi cleverly does and does not address this issue in a new project called This Is Not a Film (aka In Film Nist). The credits describe it as “An Effort by Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb,” and it has been designed to explore just what someone in Panahi’s position can do with a camera that would not strictly constitute making a film. This Is Not a Film takes place entirely in Panahi’s apartment over the course of one day, as he waits to find out what will become of him. A family member has set up a digital-video camera that spies on Panahi, and he occasionally moves it from room to room, but he doesn’t shut it off -- after all, if he cuts a shot, that would mean he’s directing. Panahi chats with his lawyer on the phone, who is appealing Panahi’s case; the attorney say the sentence is purely a political matter and not justified by Iranian law, but that doesn’t change much -- while Panahi’s prison sentence and the length of his ban from directing could be reduced, it’s all but impossible that they’ll suspend his punishment. As Panahi finishes breakfast, he calls his friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, a fellow filmmaker who is also on the outs with Iranian authorities, and asks him to drop by. Panahi has an idea -- he was working on a screenplay when he was arrested for “carrying out propaganda against the system,” and he wants to read the screenplay for Mirtahmasb’s camera while offering a few thoughts on the visual strategy he had in mind for the picture. After all, the verdict says he can’t write or direct a film, but reading a screenplay and acting? No law against that. Soon Panahi is mapping out his set with masking tape and using pillows and chairs as props while he tries to make sense of his own script, but he tires of this game. Instead, he looks at clips from his old movies, pointing out how an actor’s choices or the architecture of a building where a scene is set has as much to do with the shape of a film as anyone behind the camera, so who is actually directing? Late in the evening, Panahi is playfully shooting images of Mirtahmasb with his smart phone while Mirtahmasb shoots digital-video footage of Panahi. Is either of them making a film? What exactly constitutes making a film? Where does goofing around with a camera end and a crime against the state begin?

This Is Not a Film is a practical joke as much as it is a movie, and while it possesses a deadly serious undercurrent, what’s most surprising is how witty the finished product is. The stakes against Panahi are high, but he seems keenly aware of the absurdity of it all, more bemused than frightened by his circumstances. There’s a playfulness in the way Panahi tries to act out the scenes he isn’t allowed to shoot, and as he sips tea, tries to surf the Internet on his laptop (the government has blocked most of the websites he wants to access), and deals with a large lizard he’s looking after for a friend, his is the boredom of a mind that’s still racing even though his hands have been idled. The simplicity of the film’s visual style could be carefully designed or simply a matter of circumstance, and the images all but beg you to decide which is the case. And the periodic reminders of the outside world -- a deliveryman bringing some lunch, a janitor who has come to pick up the trash, gunshots and fireworks exploding outside, footage of the disaster in Japan on TV -- suggest the folly of believing any of us can truly direct what surrounds us. Adding to the whimsy of the whole enterprise, This Is Not a Film is being shown in the West because a copy of it was smuggled out of the country after being hidden in a cake, like a metal file being sent to a prisoner.

This Is Not a Film is a prank, but a prank with great purpose. In its 75 minutes, Panahi metaphorically plays with the foggy line between making things happen and letting them happen, and in addition to thumbing his nose at a regime that wishes to silence him, he asks a number of pointed and fascinating questions about the nature of film, art, and the creative impulse. As This Is Not a Film opens in American theaters, Panahi’s final appeal has been rejected and he’s stuck in what amounts to house arrest, waiting for Iranian officials to order him to prison with no word as to when that might occur. One wonders what’s brewing inside his head as he whiles away the days in his Tehran apartment. It’s not difficult to imagine some sort of film will come out of it, even if it’s hard to say how.

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  • Released: 2010
  • Review: There is a small but thriving subgenre of pictures about independent filmmakers struggling to make their movies. While some may ponder the obvious narcissism of an artist with nothing more to share than the details of his or her creative process, filmmaker… (more)

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