By Eric Kohn | Indiewire May 19, 2011 at 3:47AM
Jafar Panahi has taken risky circumstances and turned them into art. "This is Not a Film" delivers a sharp, measured critique of the conditions that now find him on his way to jail. A first-person account of the Iranian filmmaker at home awaiting news of his upcoming prison sentencing, it puts a human face on Iranian censorship. Aided by his friend, documentarian Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Panahi muses on the state of affairs that led to his six-year prison sentencing and 20-year ban on making movies. Miraculously smuggled into Cannes just before the festival began, "This is Not a Film" is a moving expression of frustration, as well as an eloquent indictment of Iranian society.
Unlike fellow Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami, Panahi generally uses genre to tell widely accessible stories. Despite its microbudget format, "This is Not a Film" falls in step with that tendency. His self-portrait has plenty of details, but never feels slow. Panahi gradually introduces viewers to his routine with a stationary camera that watches him to prepare breakfast while he speaks on the phone with his lawyer. As the day continues, his actions range from the energetic to the mundane. He feeds his friendly iguana, discusses his legal woes, reminisces for the camera about his past projects and mentions others that went unrealized. Overall, he's a likable presence, which deepens the discomfort surrounding his looming fate.
From the first scene, Panahi acknowledges that he will almost certainly go to prison and that none of his peers can help out. "If they make the slightest move, they'll be banned as well," he sighs. The only man capable of doing something about Panahi's conditions is the man himself.
Proving the personal connection he has to his work, Panahi uses his existing films to analyze his situation. He plays a scene from his second feature, "Mirror," in which a young girl decided she didn't want to act anymore and removed the cast her character was supposed to wear. "I think I'm in the same position," Panahi says. "I must remove the cast and throw it away." By that he means he wants to tell the truth, complaining that he came across in earlier scenes as more character than the real thing. Panahi wants to get real and quickly does.
Arranging his living room as though it were a movie set, Panahi reads aloud the screenplay for a project rejected by governments officials, in which a young girl is banned from attending university by her traditionalist parents. After explaining the opening scene for several minutes, Panahi eventually grows exasperated. "If we can tell a film," he says, "why can't we make a film?"
Mirtahmasb continues to record Panahi, and the latter director can't help but take control. "Go on, cut," he says to his colleague. "You can't direct," Mirtahmasb tells him. "It's an offense." Panahi smiles, revealing the clever ruse of the movie's title. "I hope this works," he says.
Throughout "This is Not a Film," Panahi comes across as a restless creative mind enlivened by dire circumstances. (He briefly mentions another screenplay he wrote that was also shot down by officials, "Return," which criticized the Iraq war.) The production goes beyond the limitations of an extended monologue. At one point, Mirtahmasb's camera captures Panahi's iguana wandering up a wall, a prolonged bit that contrasts with a phone call Panahi makes to his lawyer on the soundtrack. It's a thoughtful moment, conveying the continuity of life in its simplest terms regardless of what sort of unpleasantness may come.
The movie is also a record of its making: "Listen, Jafar," Mirtahmasb says. "What matters is that this is documented. It matters that these cameras stay on." So they do: As the day winds down, Panahi settles onto his couch and watches TV. He flips through reports on the March tsunami in Japan and settles on a newscast about the president's declaration that fireworks are illegal. To underscore the irony, Panahi grabs his iPhone and films the fireworks outside his window.
The movie continues to expand its reach. A young college student living in the building drops by to take out Panahi's trash and the director follows him into the elevator to ask him about his career plans. ("All of a sudden, I've jumped into your film," the guy says.) It's hardly a meandering climax: Panahi displays Iran's potential future, implying the persistence of individualism under oppressive circumstances. This explains Panahi's inner resolve as well. He ends on an eerie note: "Please don't come outside," the college kid says to Panahi. "They'll see your camera." But the director doesn't listen, and this project's existence shows he continues to ignore the safest bet.
Still, there's a constant sense that the two creators have worked out a loophole to make this happen. According to Mirtahmasb, speaking from behind the camera, the seed for movie came from an interest in making a behind-the-scenes document of "Iranians not making films." Credits identify it as "an effort by" Panahi and Mirtahmasb, rather than calling them directors. Other credits are left blank, and the final end credit includes a dedication to Iranian filmmakers. It's an appropriate venue for that message; no matter the constrictions on its existence, "This is Not a Film" is, in fact, a great one.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? How can it play? Panahi is still awaiting his sentencing, and rumors floating around Cannes suggest that the only copy of the movie exists on a flash drive. But if somebody managed to smuggle it to Cannes, it will almost certainly receive a warm (if not commercial) welcome around the world. It's just a question of the steps required to get it there.
criticWIRE grade: A