This Is Not A Film comes to audiences already with a high level of notoriety. The famous film behind “cakegate”, it’s constricted production meant that the film was distributed out of Iran on a USB stick concealed inside a birthday cake. It’s the kind of screwball scenario you might find on a Judd Apatow movie, but This Is Not A Film is no laughing matter. As the title would assume, this is not so much of a film as it is a film exorcism.
Whilst under house arrest, and pursuing an appeal against a six year prison sentence and 20 year ban from directing, esteemed Iranian auteur Jafar Panahi (The Mirror, Crimson Gold) invites fellow filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb into his home to crudely document a day in his tormented life.
Shot on a digicam and later an iPhone, we follow Panahi shuffling around his apartment, feeding his daughter’s pet iguana, paying the delivery boy for takeaway food, and calling his tenacious attorney trying to get him out of house arrest. At first, it’s a minor study of segregation and loneliness, but This Is Not a Film is at it’s most enthralling when Panahi expresses his natural directing flare; acting out his latest screenplay from the (dis)comfort of his family living room, discussing camera angles to the most minute detail, and reflecting on how he managed to reach such a raw level of intimacy in his previous works. Whether you are aware of his filmography or not, it’s clear that Panahi is an exuberant cinephile, which makes his current, and ongoing battles with the government even more distressing.
If you were forced to judge this meta-commentary diatribe, one could suggest that Panahi and Mirtahmasb fail to present a bigger picture on the crisis of the state’s dominance over artistic intent. Similarly to 2006’s female equality drama Offside, This is Not a Film is incredibly subtle with it’s political allegories, bordering on the coyly parabolic. Instead of presenting a bigger, ultimately more controversial picture on the crisis of state dominance in the creative industries, Panahi and Mirtahmasb reach a palpable level of verisimilitude in the very smallness of the situation. It all comes together in a final twenty minute sequence where Panahi falls behind the camera and back into storyteller mode (it could cost him his life, but he can’t help it). He follows a young dustman around the apartment block and asking him what his plans for the future will be. The cordial apprentice is unsure, but it’s hopefully going to be a life less frightening than the one Panahi has been dealt.
This Is Not A Film concludes with harrowing sentiment. With the sound of New Years’ Eve fireworks and cheering in the background, the screen fades to black, with the credits and special thanks nods are left blank, followed by a final frame that sets out a humble dedication to all Iranian filmmakers. It may be a non-film but, whatever it is, it’s certainly a riveting watch; and has rightly earned a place in the Oscars’ documentary award shortlist.
Here in the Western world, our access to information, democratic governments and human rights mean that cinema is taken for granted, and filmmakers have it easy. Whilst we bemoan the extortionate prices of popcorn, Panahi and Mirtahmasb are putting their lives on the line to tell the stories they feel they must tell, in the hope that, one day, their nation will be able to have the same sort of pro-democratic freedom as the rest of us.