‘This Is Not a Film’ documentary review: Jafar Panahi’s timeless protest against authoritarianism and censorship

With cinema fighting to come out of its shackles and with a new movement against oppression taking hold of Iran, Jafar Panahi’s timely masterpiece keeps his spirit alive

February 26, 2023 04:47 pm | Updated 04:55 pm IST

A still from ‘This Is Not a Film’

A still from ‘This Is Not a Film’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

This Is Not a Film is not a film; it is something bigger — a searing critique of the Iranian regime through a camera lens stuck in the house of a prisoner.

In December 2010, Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof were sentenced to six years in prison for alleged “propaganda against the system” and were put under a 20-year ban on directing any movies, writing screenplays, giving interviews with Iranian or foreign media, and leaving the country. In the wake of his sentence, Panahi directed the 2011 docu-feature This Is Not a Film.

Twelve years after the film was smuggled out of Iran — in a USB drive stuck inside a cake — to be premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, its relevance continues to grow while giving a voice to the oppressed silently fighting violent regimes. In 2022, after the protests set off by Mahsa Amini’s murder at the hands of the country’s morality police seared the streets of Iran, prominent public figures and dissidents of the government were put behind bars. Panahi was one of them. In the light of a new movement taking hold of Iran when oppression is the rule of the law, his 2011 masterpiece keeps his spirit alive.

This Is Not a Film (Persian)
Directors: Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Jafar Panahi
Runtime: 75 minutes
Cast: Jafar Panahi
Synopsis: Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi makes a video diary in response to his government’s threats against him.

Documenting a day in his life, Panahi curves around the law by roping in his friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb to direct him while he plays the role of an actor, showing how intangible and fluid a life immersed in celluloid is. On occasion, when he yells “cut” out of habit, Mirtahmasb is careful in reminding him of his character.

Throughout the 75 minutes, Panahi stretches and plays around with the meaning and definition of cinema. In an age when cinema struggles to survive within the confines of rules and permissions, Panahi makes the medium his message.

A still from ‘This Is Not a Film’

A still from ‘This Is Not a Film’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

He constructs and breaks down what constitutes a film. In one sequence, Panahi narrates the screenplay of a film he could never make — a film about a student who got accepted to a university but is unable to pursue her dreams because the dogmatic family she’s born into forbids her from reaching for freedom. His screenplay presents itself as an allegory to his own condition of being imprisoned in a house plagued by the sounds of police sirens and gunshots, but he is resilient in his need to get the story of the young girl across. He tries to set the scene with the help of a rug in his living room and some tape to help the audience envision her room and begins to narrate the screenplay. Overwhelmed by the inability to exercise his craft, he is moved to tears and asks out loud “if we could tell a film, why make a film.”

Calls from his lawyer interrupt his filming and, most often than not, the news pushes him into further despair. He lounges around in his empty house with his pet iguana, eats meagerly and revels in talking about cinema. He plays his films on television and remembers moments when his actors improvised to define their characters and how he let them; he finds solace in the past when cameras could roll.

Towards the end, we see a student who is the building’s temporary ‘trash collector’ inquire what Panahi’s doing with his phone and why an expensive camera is lying on his table recording — he slyly prompts Panahi to go pick up the film camera and in the process, the director leaves his house and walks into the elevator with the student. The student paints a picture of the lives the people in the apartment live by looking at the contents and quantity of their trash bags.

While Panahi does not cross the boundary wall of his apartment, the film camera gives him the courage to move out of the confines of his house and understand the people he lives around.

This Is Not a Film is currently streaming on MUBI

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