This Is Not a Film: Cannes Review

Jafar Panahi - Portrait - 2006
Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images
Straight talking video document about Jafar Panahi’s life and thoughts under house arrest 

Director Jafar Panahi works within the constraints imposed by house arrest as he awaits the court’s verdict that could send him to jail for the next six years.

What can a talented, award-winning director do after being legally banned from making movies in his country?  In This Is Not a Film, Jafar Panahi works within the constraints imposed by house arrest and, as he awaits the court’s verdict that could send him to jail for the next six years, he reads the script of his new movie. It’s a film that may never be realized, seeing that the Iranian government has asked the court to prohibit him from writing or filming for the next 20 years.

This “effort”, as the non-film calls itself, is the filmmakers’ attempt to go beyond these limitations and find a creative solution. It’s likely to engage the world film community that has supported Panahi and Mohamed Rasoulof after their arrests, most of whom will be found at festivals. Panahi’s empty place on the Cannes jury last year has not been forgotten on the Croisette. While pressure for his acquittal continues to be applied from abroad, repression appears to be mounting inside Iran itself with the fate of Panahi and Rasoulof (who also presented a film in Cannes this year, called Goodbye) lies in the balance.

This Is Not a Film is an unusual documentary that gives viewers a clear feeling for the director’s life trapped inside the gilded cage of his luxurious Teheran apartment, his frustration at not being able to express himself artistically, and the courage and humor with which he faces an uncertain future.

Panahi is virtually the only person on camera for most of the 74-minute running time, until his co-director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb is glimpsed filming him near the end, and an unnamed “assistant doorman” engages Panahi in a dialogue in the film’s final minutes.  The fact that he is not credited, nor is anyone else credited, on the film or in press materials gives a sense of covertness to the whole operation, as though mere association could endanger anyone connected with it.

Left alone in his big apartment on Iranian New Year while his wife and kids go to visit granny, Panahi begins filming himself as he goes about his day. A phone call from his lawyer suggests he will probably have to go to prison but for a shortened term, and the judge may well drop the 20-year ban on writing and directing.  She emphasizes the fact that his case is a “political ruling” rather than a legal or juridical one.

When Mirtahmasb arrives (off camera), he begins reading the film script he is forbidden to shoot about a girl locked in her home by her parents who wants to commit suicide. The poignant story clearly refers back to Panahi’s claustrophobic situation.  In the same way, the boy who comes to remove his trash, and whom he boldly films in the elevator as they chat, apologizes for the offensive smell of the garbage he’s forced to transport.  In a film that is gagged with censorship, even this offhand remark has its symbolic weight.

The tone is never sad or portentous, however, and the directors interject light moments watching the family’s pet iguana climbs up the furniture. The film also boasts one of the most disdainful portraits of a neighbor’s obnoxious dog in memory. The two animals suggest that life goes on, in all its sweetness and irritations, even while compelling events lie around the corner. 


Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Out of competition), May 18, 2011.
Cast: Jafar Panahi, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb.
Directors, producers, screenwriters, editors:  Jafar Panahi, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb.
Sales Agent: Wide Management
74 minutes.