Film Review: This Is Not a Film

This deceptively simple, day-in-the-life-of documentary about Iranian director Jafar Panahi is an act of defiance against the filmmaking ban imposed on him by Iranian authorities.

At the beginning of This Is Not a Film, a documentary about Jafar Panahi, the Iranian writer-director’s wife calls to remind him to feed Igi. Apparently, Panahi is babysitting his daughter’s pet, and it is not long before the world-renowned filmmaker is perched on a window ledge, offering bits of lettuce to an affectionate iguana. The film, dubbed “an effort” by Panahi and his collaborator Mojtaba MirtahmasbPanahi has been banned from any cinematic work—purports to be a day in the life of the artist who is appealing a six-year prison sentence for crimes against the state. Actually, it was four days in the making, and is shot almost entirely in Panahi’s apartment. Igi, like some aspects of the documentary, may be improvised, but his significance is nevertheless unmistakable.

Panahi’s doppelgänger, Igi is an agitated prisoner, and an anachronistic presence in the well-appointed apartment; his 300 million years of evolution will not shield him from the terrors of an unfamiliar habitat. At one point, the iguana is threatened by a neighbor’s barking dog, his predicament obviously mirroring that of the filmmaker’s: Igi’s hasty retreat from the small, ugly dog is an instinctive act of preservation, as is, the documentary suggests, Panahi’s confinement in response to unwarranted attacks by Iran’s clerics. In a contest between the herbivore and the carnivore, there is little doubt what the outcome would be, yet nature has perfected Igi—at the risk of pushing a metaphor, iguanas continually grow new skin. They have acute vision, as well as a third “eye” on top of their heads, a sense organ which detects predatory shadows.

Mirtahmasb’s handheld camera records Panahi in a progression of eloquent, increasingly abstract expressions of captivity. First, the filmmaker telephones his lawyer to discuss his appeal, and then fields calls from friends and colleagues who, along with Panahi, resort to euphemisms because the calls may be monitored. Next, Panahi discusses the theme of entrapment while projecting scenes from his films The Circle and Crimson Gold on his TV screen. He then conducts a one-man production meeting in which he maps the opening shots of his latest screenplay, not without some irony, on an elaborate Persian rug. It is the story of a girl confined to her room. A roll of masking tape in hand, Panahi creates his set and then explains the placement of the camera and the actress. At some point, he wanders onto the terrace and, using his iPhone, takes pictures of a construction crane that perpetually, and without obvious purpose, lifts a heavy load and then drops it.

Some humor, though not without portent, wends its way into the documentary, primarily through a neighbor who twice tries to persuade Panahi to babysit the dog that threatens Igi. Punctuating the action inside the apartment are fireworks celebrating the Iranian new year and, in the evening, the flames of bonfires just beyond the gates of the apartment building’s courtyard. The government has long frowned on these secular celebrations, and their unfolding is apparently an expression of freedom, a perfect backdrop for the singular act of courage that This Is Not a Film represents. Said to have been smuggled into France on a flash drive imbedded in a cake, it was screened at Cannes along with Goodbye by fellow Iranian Mohammad Rosaul, also under indictment.

In a scene near the end of This Is Not a Film, in which Panahi again raises his iPhone, now on video mode, to record the chaotic evening celebrations of the new year, there is a cut to Mirtahmasb laying down his own camera. It is not clear who says “It matters that the camera stays on,” but in a long and somewhat tedious sequence afterward involving the building janitor, Panahi descends to the bowels of the building and witnesses the seemingly apocalyptic flames beyond the gates of his domestic prison. His desperation is palpable; he will go anywhere to keep a camera running. Like Igi, perfectly suited for survival through millennia of genetic adaptation, who explores the parameters of his strange cell throughout the film, Panahi will drag his third eye anywhere there is enough light to record his private hell.