A late addition to the Cannes 2011 programme after being smuggled into France inside a cake (strange but true), Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s This is Not a Film (2011) is by no means your average political documentary. The 75-minute piece, shot partially on an iPhone, captures the day-to-day life of Panahi during a state-imposed house arrest in his Tehran apartment as he appeals a six year prison sentence and 20 year filmmaking ban for his opposition to the 2011 Iranian elections.
During the course of proceedings, Panahi is repeatedly visited by his close friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb who, armed with a DV camera, hopes to further highlight the director’s plight to the foreign press, following substantial support from the film industry (Juliette Binoche famously unveiled a sign reading simply ‘Jafar Panahi’ on stage at Cannes 2010). Throughout the film, Panahi not only addresses his imminent conviction but also the filmmaking process as a whole, helping to create a multi-layered, intertextual hybrid that’s nothing if not eye-opening.
Panahi himself is an engaging, likeable subject and his cause is unquestionably a worthy one – it’s no secret that the Iranian film industry has struggled in recent years to blossom under such strenuous state restraint, with Asghar Farhadi’s hugely successful Oscar-winner A Separation (2011) one of only a handful of films to make in onto the international stage in recent years. This is Not a Film may not have the subtle moral undertones of Farhadi’s aforementioned effort, but has certainly been deemed just as threatening by the Iranian government (Mirtahmasb was physically detained at a Tehran airport on route to the film’s premiere at the Toronto Film Festival).
Somewhat oddly given the film’s vital political message, This is Not a Film’s best moments come from a chance encounter with the apartment’s jovial young caretaker, with Panahi accompanying him on his refuge collection round. This meeting presents a telling juxtaposition between Iran’s past and future, with a vibrant, free-speaking younger generation destined to take over the mantle of the country’s somewhat uncertain future.
This is Not a Film could easily be misconstrued as an inaccessible, trivial vanity project on behalf of its media-savvy director, an opportunity to drum up support against his wrongful state of imprisonment. Yet, regardless of your political affiliations or stance on modern Iranian issues, Panahi’s latest is an innovative, unmistakable protest piece that demands (and, on balance, deserves) audience attention.