The DVD menu of This Is Not a Film is preceded by two disclaimers. The first is SOP boilerplate, imploring the viewer not to publicly screen, bootleg, or otherwise seed the film into the public without permission (itself a bit ironic, considering that the film was originally seeded into the public without permission—smuggled into Cannes in a USB key baked inside a cake, like something out of an inverted prison movie). The second states that the views expressed in the film do not reflect those of its distributor, Palisades Tartan. One following the other, they constitute a weird ideological double-bind that gets at the heart of Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb’s masterpiece, amounting to, basically: “We own these ideas, even if we will not own up to them.”
It’s a borderline absurdist catch-22 that reflects the utter farcicality of Panahi’s imprisonment and 20-year ban from scriptwriting and filmmaking. Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation drove at the stubborn arbitrariness at the administrative heart of the innately bureaucratic Iranian legal system and, in this way, serves as a nice bit of table setting for Panahi and Mirtahmasb’s more urgent incitement. (That Farhadi’s film’s piercing critique escaped Iran without boycott only further testifies to the apparent haphazardness of the nation’s autocratic censors.) The contradiction coursing through the heart of This Is Not a Film is simpler: Panahi is a filmmaker who cannot make films.
In the film’s opening scenes, Panahi’s clever workarounds for his ban seem like pranksterish acts of defiant hair-splitting. He asks a family member to turn on a camera before he leaves the house or invites over a friend and fellow filmmaker (Mirtahmasb), so that he’s not technically shooting; he stages and reads an already-written script (which did not pass the government censors) so that he isn’t technically script-writing; he revisits and recontextualizies scenes from his own films (The Mirror, Crimson Gold), such that he’s creating (or recreating) their meanings without technically engineering anything new. If this were all This Is Not a Film was, it’d be a vital, necessary, if slightly smirking, political intervention. If it were just a day-in-the-life document of Panahi enjoying his breakfast and preparing some greens for his pet iguana, it’d be remarkable, if admittedly a little dull.
This Is Not a Film pushes further in its uncompromising daring, revealing itself as a piece of high modernism at least on par, if not exceeding, anything in Panahi’s canon. Its structure is fractal-like: Each scene contains in its minuteness the bigness of its maker’s predicament, and the predicament of modern Iran. Acting out his censored would-be movie about a young girl driven to suicide because she’s forbidden from attending university, Panahi breaks down. It’s as if he’s recognizing, maybe for the first time, the scenario’s similarity to his own house arrest and (failed) creative neutering.
Unfolding against the backdrop of Persian New Year and, specifically, the Fireworks Wednesday celebrations, This Is Not a Film subtly details the celebration’s shift from exuberant festivity to political protests. Only after it’s revealed on screen that the government has deemed Fireworks Wednesday “unreligious” do the snaps and crackles of innocent pyrotechnics explode into outright protest, with the not-film’s final scene showing revelers leaping over bonfires in the street, evoking another Panahi film: Offside.
Even the fineries of the mise-en-scène play back into This Is Not a Film’s larger themes of both the artistic struggle against censorship and, conversely, how such constraint can serve the demarcate the lines that great art (and artists) can color outside of. The seemingly deliberate placement of a DVD of Buried, a film that takes place entirely within a coffin that Ryan Reynolds must writhe in for an hour and a half, articulates in a seeming throwaway joke much of what This Is Not a Film is about.
Such extraordinary, carefully deployed details pronounce both This Is Not a Film’s mastery and its abounding sadness and outrage. In just over and hour, Panahi and Mirtahmasb communicate more than most filmmakers, all while vigilantly minding what they say.
Obviously, this isn’t a going to be a benchmark test for your fresh-out-of-the-box home-theater system. The film was shot on digital video, both on Jafar Panahi’s own high phone and a commercial-grade camcorder, and the DVD retains its fluctuations in quality, with no apparent enhancement or aliasing issues. The stereo soundtrack similarly captures the feeling of muted claustrophobia inside Panahi’s apartment, with the bangs of the fireworks erupting outside barely audible (that they sound like gunfire in places is, all things considered, likely intentional). Some of the subtitles suffer from clumsy Persian-to-English translation, but it’s nothing too distracting.
There’s not a lot here, save for an interview with Panahi and a pretty lousy commentary by Iranian film professor Jamsheed Akrami. The commentary suffers from an almost laughable literalness, as if Akrami were offering audio captions for visually impaired viewers, offering little in the way of insight. Better is the interview—also conducted by Akrami, who appears off screen—which has Panahi taking candidly about the political culture of censorship in Iran. Here, Panahi notes that to simply make films to satisfy the nation’s harsh cultural tribunals would only amount to self-censorship, which he considers an even more dismal fate than being banned from making films altogether.
This Is Not a Film brilliantly marries high-modernist artistry with urgent political provocation. A masterpiece.