Jafar Panahi is in danger of being reduced to a cause. Arrested in 2010 on nebulous charges that he was engaged in making a propaganda film attacking the Iranian government, Panahi was sentenced to six years in prison and received a 20-year ban from directing or writing any new movies. Panahi’s arrest galvanized the international film community, eliciting petitions and symbolic acts of protest (Panahi was made an honorary member of the 2010 Cannes jury, and an empty chair was reserved for him at the festival). Lost in all of this advocacy, however, are Panahi’s movies themselves. If he deserves to be called one of the world’s great filmmakers—and he surely does—it is on the basis of his extraordinary oeuvre, not because of the oppressive actions of an autocratic regime.
For Panahi, though, filmmaking has always had a political dimension. From his debut feature, The White Balloon, through 2006’s Offside, Panahi has explored contemporary urban life in Iran through intelligent and humanistic narratives that touch, ever so delicately, on issues of class and gender. Never a didactic or polemical filmmaker, Panahi puts character and story first, thus allowing the political realities that structure his characters’ lives to reveal themselves slowly, lending an authenticity that a more direct approach might compromise. To lose a filmmaker of this caliber at the peak of his career is a staggering blow for world cinema. All of which is to say that This Is Not a Film—which Panahi made while under house arrest awaiting sentencing, collaborating with his friend, the documentarian Motjaba Mirtahmasb—is more than a great, devastating piece of moviemaking; the movie (smuggled to the 2011 Cannes Film Festival on a USB drive inside of a cake) is something of a cinematic miracle. Read Chris Wisniewski’s review of This Is Not a Film.