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This Is Not a Film

A dispatch about artistic freedom from inside the home of censored Iranian filmmaker Jafa Panahi

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Well, it is a film, though decidedly atypical. This 76-minute movie is a dispatch from inside the apartment of the critically lauded Iranian filmmaker, Jafar Panahi (The White Balloon, The Circle). Panahi was arrested in 2009 during protests against the government for being "in a gathering and carrying out propaganda against the system." By March 2011, Panahi had been released from jail, and was confined to his home awaiting the final dispensation of his sentence; he was also banned from giving interviews, and from writing and directing films for 20 years. So he invited his documentarian buddy Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, and the two recorded this essay, in part on an iPhone camera. (It was smuggled out of Iran on a thumb drive hidden in a cake.)

In the film, Panahi putters around his well-appointed Tehran flat; speaks by phone with his attorney; feeds a pet iguana; and when Mirtahmasb arrives — after being detained by the police en route for carrying a camera — sort of makes a film. Using just tape and a rug, Panahi acts outs — portraying both actor and director — the opening scenes of the movie he is forbidden to film. He's a gifted story-teller, so that even this spare pantomime is oddly engaging.

This Is Not a Film is a protest, both through Panahi's voiced frustrations and its very existence. But it's also a rumination on the creative process and how art responds to strictures. (There's the additional irony of a filmmaker who has used narrative to comment on the harsh reality of his homeland, now using that same reality to create his own narrative.) The hard fact of Panahi's sentence lends weight, but this could also be an articulate artist simply talking about his craft.

It's an odd document, somewhat mundane but pregnant with anger, defiance and fear. After Mirtahmasb leaves, Panahi rides along in the elevator with a young arts student who is collecting the apartment building's trash. In the final scene, the student cautions Panahi not to go any further, as he himself disappears into the fraught, bonfire-lit darkness of today's Iran.

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