Jafar Panahi, the subject and co-director of the remarkable stunt This Is Not a Film, has all the trappings of a domesticated intellectual: stylish glasses, tech gadgets at the ready, a book-lined, eclectically adorned home. But really, we’re watching a trapped animal.
Panahi made the film in 2011 – and, yes, it is a film – while under house arrest of sorts by Iranian authorities. Banned from filmmaking and threatened with imprisonment, he paces his home, makes little meals, takes calls from his attorney. Eventually, he persuades a fellow filmmaker (Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, credited alongside Panahi at the end with text that reads “An effort by”) to come to his apartment and record him reading sections of a screenplay that the Iranian government rejected for production. His hope is that “I might create an image from it.”
This Is Not a Film is a political act, of course – smuggled out of the country and screened at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, it’s become fuel for the international outcry over Panahi’s status – but that’s not the most interesting thing about it. It’s not Panahi’s political status that distresses him, we sense, but the creative restrictions that have resulted. Calm on the phone while hearing that prison likely awaits, he’s far more demonstrably upset when the reading exercise – even with the use of props and taped lines on his rug to represent rooms – fails to fulfill his artistic urges. “If we could tell a film then why make a film?” he sighs. Panahi is a creative animal who’s been leashed.
Yet if Panahi is unfulfilled by his endeavor (at least he seems to be while the work was in progress), we in the audience benefit greatly. Aside from its political and personal implications, This Is Not a Film works as an impromptu film class. Here and there, Panahi pauses to watch some of his previous pictures – The Mirror, Crimson Gold, The Circle – and discusses everything from acting to location scouting. During one sequence he points out how the oppressive vertical lines of a building emphasize the anxiety of the character running past them. “Location is doing the directing,” he explains.
This Is Not a Film also has a light touch for what likely sounds like a meta intellectual exercise. Aside from Mirtahmasb’s camera, Panahi’s only other companion is the family pet, an iguana that crawls across his lap and scales the bookshelves. The animal is an amusing oddity, but also offers striking irony. While one of the world’s most acclaimed filmmakers is caged, this iguana is free to roam.