Humble, clandestine, refreshingly modest, and truly extraordinary in its own quiet way, This Is Not a Film is a courageous act of documentary provocation; a poke in the eye of political oppression; and a small but extremely significant message-in-a-bottle from a restless, persecuted artist.
This Is Not a Film is the complex, heartbreaking diary of acclaimed Iranian director Jafar Panahi (Crimson Gold, Offside), officially banned from filmmaking and under house arrest in Tehran. Shot partially on an iPhone and smuggled into France in a cake for a last-minute submission to Cannes, it depicts the day-to-day life of Panahi as he appeals his conviction, talks with his lawyer, and reflects on the meaning of art and motion pictures.
Beyond definition and virtually unclassifiable, This Is Not a Film is a compelling personal document of a life unseen, a guided career retrospective, a passionate declaration of artistic intent, a forceful assertion of a stifling brand of auteurism, a radical reconfiguration of political potential, a gripping entertainment, and an uncompromising testament to one’s belief in cinema. It’s all of these things and more all at once, with neither paralyzing self-pity nor intellectual elitism to muddy the waters.
Mostly, though, it’s a brave and brilliant act of defiance, a meditation on what film is and can be, and a triumph of creative revolution over repression. Insuperably handicapped by his current constraints, an unquenchable artist has made, against all odds, another piece of art. It is not a film, not even a documentary, but more like a masterpiece in a form that does not yet exist. Deft and ironic, it mixes banal reality with poignant metaphor in a typically Iranian style. More a plea than a protest, This Is Not a Film is a cry from the heart of an international treasure who is compelled to create, tell stories, and respond to hostile, confounding realities.
One must mourn the tragic circumstances that caused it to be made, but the result is a sleight of hand that ranks alongside Orson Welles’ F for Fake. In totalitarian societies, artists have found all sorts of ways – some brilliantly imaginative – to disguise their political dissents. Panahi has no subterfuges left.
Revealing the realities of artistic censorship and contributing to the literature of oppression, opposition, and prison and to the never-ending discussion of art and its relationship to life, This Is Not a Film an exhilarating evocation of how art is stubbornly made, and arbitrary authority put in its place, under the most confining conditions. Deep between the lines of this elusive meta-commentary lies the truth of what is and isn’t.
Unconventional, absorbing, and irrefutably vital, This Is Not a Film is a moving, clever, and devastating statement of defiance and despair, and it ends with a whimper that is a bang. The amazing closing shot brings the volatility of post-Green Revolution Iran home with unforgettable impact. Yet its impressive achievements notwithstanding, This Is Not a Film underscores a more important revelation, a fact inspiring for artists of any medium worldwide: the blossoming of Iranian cinema is too strong a force for the government censors to contain.