I feel like I am stuck in some uncanny valley where the importance of the story behind a particular cinematic effort is mistaken for a legitimately successful movie. The self-reflexive Iranian documentary This is Not a Film was one of the most lauded releases of 2012, even receiving a highly complimentary and thoroughly convincing review from one of my colleagues on this very site. While I understand the impulse to heap accolades on Jafar Panahi for his noble efforts in the face of adversity, it seems to me that encouraging anyone to rush into watching This is Not a Film without first cautioning them to its utter dullness is kind of a jerk move. Pat yourself on the back all you want for watching a politically subversive movie--because that action might be the only thing keeping you awake--just don't kid yourself that This is Not a Film has mass appeal.
Here's the backstory: Jafar Panahi is a veteran Iranian filmmaker who was arrested as part of a crackdown on the arts in his home country, accused of pursuing cinematic endeavors that violated government-approved standards. As punishment, Panahi was sentenced to six years in jail and banned from writing and directing movies for twenty. This is Not a Film, which was shot in secret by Panahi and his friend and fellow filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb over one day, is Panahi's risky attempt at finding some means of expressing himself while awaiting the verdict of his appeal. He was under house arrest at the time, and so the documentary takes place entirely in his apartment, except for an extended sequence at the end where he rides down the elevator with the janitor and catches a brief, on-the-street glimpse of Fireworks Wednesday festivities. This holiday, condemned by religious rulers but still going on all around Iran, makes This is Not a Film sound like it's being shot inside a war zone.
Which it kind of is, though one that is being fought with ideology in this instance rather than guns. Panahi is a man being jailed for what he thinks more than what he's done, for the film he would have made rather than the ones he did. Some of This is Not a Film's brief 78-minute running time is taken up with the director trying to bring to life scenes from the forbidden screenplay by reading them on camera. It's ultimately a futile effort. As Panahi explains, if a moviemaker could tell you about the movie he or she intends to make, there'd be no real point in making it. The sadness we see overtake him at this failure is This is Not a Film's one truly heartbreaking moment, and it's the key to understanding why This is Not a Film exists. At the center of the exercise is the desire to create. Jafar Panahi knows nothing else, there is no other activity he would rather partake in. Directing movies is his life's blood. He even tries to direct Mirtahmasb when it's supposed to be Mirtahmasb directing him.
That is a compelling and defiant statement made under the glare of extreme opposition, to be sure. The project as a whole is one giant fist raised in the air, speaking truth to power. All the details of how and why it exists, including the fact that it was smuggled to the Cannes Film Festival on a thumb drive baked into a cake, is the kind of drama that dances around other filmmakers' heads when they go to bed at night. (Ben Affleck, you working on a dramatization yet?) Even so, let's not get confused, This is Not a Film the film is not all that compelling or dramatic, and no one would confuse it as such if it weren't for the backstory. For every minute of emotional truth buried in here, there are five more of Panahi not knowing what to do with himself, watching the news or feeding his daughter's giant lizard. The screen time, it seems, would have been better spent engaged in a more pointed dialogue. Panahi is searching for some kind of meaning in his struggle, and he even looks at his older films for analogous events, but the self-examination comes to very little.
Watch This is Not a Film as a small act of political protest, but don't expect much of a takeaway. It's important as a historical record, as a document of the time and place in which it was captured, but like many historical records, not all that engrossing when revisited.
Despite its clandestine production, This is Not a Film is a good-looking movie. The digital photography, mostly taken by Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, looks excellent on disc. The natural lighting works very well to communicate the authenticity of the moment, and the high-def elements used to master this DVD maintain the natural color and textures as seen by Mirtahmasb's lens. The transfer is spotless with no blocking, jaggedness, or crushing.
The original Persian soundtrack is mixed in Dolby Digital 2.0. All the talking in the movie is really clear and sharp, and there is also a lot of great background sound that is nicely filtered through the speakers and moved around to re-create the atmosphere in and around Panahi's apartment.
There are English subtitles burned into the picture, and they are so-so. There were lots of typos and clumsy phrasings that worked to undermine the seriousness of the documentary. They really could have done with another proofread and some added finesse.
Film professor Jamsheed Akrami figures in both of the extras on the DVD, including eight-minutes of excerpts from a chat he had with Jafar Panahi before his legal troubles began but addressing many of the issues of censorship that would come to plague the director. In addition to this, Akrami recorded an audio commentary that offers some insight into the film and the context, but far too often lapses into onscreen descriptions. You know the phrase "it's like watching paint dry"? This is like watching paint dry and then having some other guy describe it to you at the same time.
You also get the theatrical trailer.
Listen, I know plenty of folks are going to be indignant about this review. I walked right up to a sacred cow, ripped off its glasses, and stomped on them. I get it. I also get why This Is Not a Film is an important, even incendiary, indictment of government censorship and how it flips the bird at the Man. That doesn't make it a good movie. Jafar Panahi should be commended for standing up against injustice, which is why everyone should give This is Not a Film at least a peek. He still made a dull movie that doesn't say all that much on its own. And no explanation of his noble intentions will change that or make sitting through This is Not a Film any more pleasurable than taking vitamins. Rent It.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.