In December 2010 Jafar Panahi, director of Offside (2006) and The Circle (2000), was sentenced by a court in Iran to six years in prison and banned from filmmaking, writing scripts, travelling abroad and giving interviews to the press for 20 years, all on the charge of making anti-state propaganda.
However, Panahi quickly realised he was not banned from appearing on film, and This Is Not A Film is therefore a video diary, shot by cameraman Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, of Panahi’s life under house arrest as he awaits the result of an appeal against his conviction. We witness Panahi on the phone with friends, family and with his lawyer, looking after his pet iguana and (his creative spirit can’t be caged for too long) enacting on his living room carpet how he would shoot his next feature if he could.
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This Is Not A Film is not like any previous work by Panahi in the sense that there is no narrative structure – just snapshots of the filmmaker’s life taken over a ten-day period in 2011. And despite Panahi’s predicament, there are no diatribes against the regime, no recriminations or defences given. The film is more subtle than that, and simply gives an insight into the director’s thoughts as he contemplates life, unable to follow his creative urges. It remains optimistic; Panahi’s humour and resilience shine through, and by the end Panahi has taken charge of a camera so as to film a conversation with his building’s caretaker.
The resultant film was smuggled out of Iran on a USB stick hidden in a cake, and announced as a surprise entry at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. It is now showing at the British Film Institute, in a retrospective of the films of Panahi and fellow director Mohamed Rasalouf, also persecuted by the Iranian authorities for his work.
Panahi’s three previous films (Offside, Crimson Gold and The Circle) had all been banned in Iran. Although he could have followed other big names in Iranian cinema to pursue a career abroad (Mohsen Makhmalbaf now lives in Paris, while Abbas Kiarostami shot his last film in Italy and has said he may never make another film in Iran) he chose to remain in his homeland, stating at his court hearing in November 2010: ‘I am Iranian and I will stay in Iran.’ This may cost Panahi dearly – his conviction was confirmed by the court of appeal, and his fate now lies with Iran’s supreme court. As for his co-director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, he was one of six filmmakers arrested in September last year on charges of espionage, spending three months at the notorious Evin Prison. The hope and resolve of this film speaks for them too.