May 18, 2012
By Josh Larsen
This Is Not a Film—which was reportedly smuggled out of Iran in a cake because it was, indeed, a film—is a piece of political art with the added benefit of being artistic. A sly exercise in freedom of speech, the movie also captures the creative impulse that lies in each of us, whether we live under an oppressive regime or not.
For the last two decades, Iran has been a hotbed of world-class filmmaking. The country’s directors have been mainstays at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, while their films have played regularly in art-house theaters across the United States and routinely appeared on respected critics’ annual top-ten lists. Such a global spotlight has been awkward for the Iranian government, which prefers its movies to be positive and benign (neither of which plays well at Cannes). And so whenever officials put their foot down—censoring a script; restricting a director—the whole world is watching.
Such has been the case with Jafar Panahi, the celebrated filmmaker of such titles as The White Balloon, The Circle and Offside. Panahi became a particular thorn in the government’s side, and in December 2010 he was placed under house arrest, banned from filmmaking and threatened with imprisonment.
That’s where we find Panahi in This Is Not a Film: trapped in his high-rise apartment, restricted from doing the one thing that most matters to him, desperately trying to find a way to do it anyway. At first he simply sets up a camera to record his restless wanderings, but he quickly concedes that nothing will come of such an experiment. Eventually, Panahi persuades a fellow filmmaker, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, 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, but that's not the most interesting thing about it. Instead, the movie is most striking as a document of the way injustice can (nearly) crush the human creative spirit. The dispirited Panahi gets a flicker of life when he digs into this reading experiment with Mirtahmasb. Taping lines on his rug to denote rooms and using furniture as props, you can see Panahi’s creative juices beginning to flow as he shares his vision for the story. But then, as the limitations of the exercise become obvious, Panahi deflates. "If we could tell a film, then why make a film?" he sighs. We’re watching a creative animal that’s been leashed.
Well, leashed but still tugging at the collar, for This Is Not a Film has its own sort of creativity, even as its chronicles the dampening of Panahi’s. Moments of humor surface here and there, including a handful of scenes involving the family’s pet iguana, which leisurely crawls across Panahi’s lap or scales the towering book shelves. The creature is comic relief but also a bit of irony: While one of the world's most acclaimed filmmakers is caged, this iguana is free to roam.
Art can be hard to cage, however, as a recent Beirut exhibition of Syrian painters attests. The fact that This Is Not a Film has been making its way through select American theaters this spring means that Panahi’s art roams even as he sits at home. As the story goes, a digital copy of the movie made its way via birthday cake to the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, where it played to great acclaim and bolstered an international movement in protest of Panahi’s legal status. Whether that has any practical effect in Iran remains to be seen. But as a call for justice, the movie has already made its mark.