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The backstory of This Is Not a Film is far more interesting than the film itself. The Iranian documentary, shot on an iPhone and a basic digital camera, had to be smuggled in a cake to premiere at Cannes in 2011.
The reason? The co-director and subject, Jafar Panahi, is under house arrest, having received a six-year prison sentence and 20-year ban from directing another film (or even taking part in an interview) because of his support for Iran’s opposition party in the 2009 election.
So at his apartment in Tehran, Panahi enlists his friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb to record him not actually making a film but reading from and acting out his new screenplay, a drama based on a short story by Chekhov—certainly violating the spirit of the ban, but not the letter of it. We see but a few scenes of the not-a-film, centered on a suicidal teenage girl. Mostly we see Panahi’s lulling day-to-day: talking on the phone with his lawyer, his wife. Making tea. Feeding his daughter’s gigantic iguana, Igi.
After Mirtahmasb arrives, Panahi’s conversation often veers into the political/rhetorical: How, really, is his acting out a screenplay that much more benign than simply making a film? He wanders the apartment, sometimes becoming upset by his situation, frequently peering from his balcony or a window at land riddled with gunfire. After dark, he speaks on the phone with a friend, who had to hang up and call back because he was stopped at a checkpoint for having a camera in his vehicle. (“Why do you have a camera?” he was asked.) His friend is worried about Panahi’s wife and daughter getting home safely, but Panahi insists they’ll make it back OK. There are fireworks in the air, false bursts of cheeriness in a politically combustible region.
Panahi stares off.
The last segment of the 78-minute This Is Not a Film shows Panahi riding in an elevator with a garbage collector, who recalls being in present “that night” that militants raided the director’s building. (Or so we assume; it’s not explicitly stated.) Outside there’s a small fire, and the garbage collector tells Panahi to hide his camera.
“If I sit here and read, it will bore everyone,” Panahi says at one point. He speaks the truth, though what little he does beyond that proves pretty monotonous, too. But his situation is anything but.