BANNED MEDIA MONTH #4: This is Not a Film, by Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb (2011)

Type of Media: Not Film

When an artist cannot create, what do they do? Some sit idle, waiting for their circumstances to change. Others will abandon their creative pursuits altogether, in favor of something less punishing. But others, like acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, will struggle to keep creating. Because they know that the truth is if an artist is determined, clever, and reckless enough, it is impossible to stop them from working.

This is Not a Film is a kind of documentary, crude and made by Panahi out of necessity. It opens with an explanation that Panahi, who since the 90s has used his films to criticize the Iranian government's policies, had been arrested in 2010 and later convicted of "assembly and colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic." He was sentenced to six years in prison and, more importantly, banned from making films for twenty years. He was not allowed to direct, write screenplays, give interviews, or leave the country, and he was placed under house arrest. 

Panahi begins documenting his life with his iPhone, and later a digital camera after he invites his friend Mojitaba Mirtahmasb over to help him. It's clear that the ban and house arrest are taking a toll on Panahi, who becomes increasingly desperate to scratch his creative itch. In between talking with his lawyer and watching the news, Panahi discusses his old films, describes a screenplay he was working on by using tape to block out scenes on his living room carpet, and interviews his apartment's garbage collector. He and his collaborator Mirtahmasb take joy in testing the limits of the filmmaking ban. In one scene Panahi tells Mirtahmasb to cut, prompting Mirtahmasb to joke that since Panahi can't direct anymore he doesn't have to follow Panahi's orders.

Not only does This is Not a Film give insight into Panahi's drive to tell stories, it also shows a bit of what it's like to live in Iran. Set during a New Year's Eve festival where people traditionally set off fireworks and light bonfires, Panahi checks in with his family and friends who worry about staying out after dark and complain about getting stopped at checkpoints. Like Panahi's other films it's sometimes hard to tell whether what's happening is real or just staged to look real, though in this case the stakes are higher. Certain scenes' believability might make the difference between Panahi getting away with his mischievous work and him getting detained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

When This is Not a Film released, it didn't leak out quietly onto the Internet. It premiered at Cannes in a surprise screening, after being smuggled out of Iran on a flash drive hidden in a cake. Though quiet and slow-paced, This is Not a FIlm is brash, open rebellion against censorship. It is a director taking a ban handed down from a theocracy that considers him dangerous, and using it as a challenge to stretch his own imagination and go outside the boundaries of his normal work. 

This is Not a Film came out five years ago, and Panahi is still free and still making movies. His last one came out in 2015, and involves him driving around Tehran in a taxi cab and interviewing his passengers. If you're curious about seeing a side of Iran you won't get on the news, check it out. And if you'd like to see his fiction work, I recommend starting with Offside, which is about young girl sports fans dressing up as boys to sneak into a gender-segregated soccer match.