Jafar Panahi has lead a very interesting life. The Iranian filmmaker, currently under a criminal cloud in his homeland and facing a six year prison sentence and 20 year ban on directing for, as the government put it, "assembly and colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country's national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic," is probably more famous today than when he won the Palme d'Or for his 1995 effort The White Balloon.Though it was the first time anyone from his country earned the prestigious prize, things today are far more infamous. International support for his cause hasn't swayed the ruling powers to reduce or remove the imposed penalties, and as of right now, no one is really sure of his status. Luckily, we have a homemade documentary, shot on cellphones and camcorders, then smuggled out of Iran on a flash drive inserted into a cake. It will stand as his statement, be it final or not. This is Not a Film is really a confessional, an opportunity for Panahi to express his love of moviemaking and how empty his life will be if he is faced with a forced exile from his muse.
A shortlisted entry into the 2012 Academy Awards, this is potent, powerful stuff. We rarely get a glimpse into everyday existence in a tyrannical theocracy, let alone someone who will to openly reflect on it. Since Panahi obviously believes he will die without ever getting the chance to make another movie (he is 53, and in 20 years, who knows if he will still be with us), so This is Not a Film becomes an chance at closure, and to vent. Over the course of the non-linear film, the auteur argues about his past, discusses his childhood, comments on his approaches to story, script, directing, and editing. He also alludes to the reasons why the current regime hates him so. Eventually, he calls his friend and creative collaborator Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, who takes over the camerawork. There are moments of tension, as when fireworks meant to signal an upcoming religious celebration scare the pair (they believe they may be under attack from gunfire). There is also a very human element, as when Panahi befriends a boy in his building who collects the garbage.
Throughout this mesmerizing experience, our host never relents. He never asks for forgiveness or questions his decisions. He's an artist, making art, and last time he checked, no power made junta ever fell because someone wrote a song or made a movie. Of course, try and convince other parts of the world about this and you'll get nothing but blank stares. Russia recently jailed members of the punk rock performance art collective Pussy Riot for offending members of the Orthodox church (they performed an anti-religious song on the altar, causing some on the scene to "faint" over the sacrilege), their reasons just as irrational as those forwarded by the Iranians. In Panahi's case, his cause is more infuriating. It's not just a question of moral outrage - it's a selective attack on freedom of expression. That's why This is Not a Film feels so serious. This is one man's voice being carried across technology, a voice we may never hear from again. It's also a stand on a basic human right, one many of us take for granted.
Of course, some may ask how a movie which basically consists of one man talking incessantly can make for gripping cinema, and the answer is quite simple. This is Not a Film is meta in its meaning. It's the work of a man who is told he cannot, the very reason for his trial and punishment purposefully created to countermand its controls. It was then taken from the country and carried, spy style, for the rest of the world to see. While it may not result in Panahi's release or a relenting on the part of the Iranian government (a high court upheld the verdict a couple of years back), This Is Not a Film will always mark a moment in time, a specific situation where an entire nation tried to stifle one of its brightest lights, and instead, said star burned every brighter. If you are interested in the struggles facing the Middle East, if you want to see how comfortable living can still be a literal jail, you must see this movie. While Panahi may not consider it part of his particular oeuvre, the results definitely countermand the title.
As for added content, we are treated to a commentary track from Iranian scholar Jamsheed Akrami and its decent, if often unnecessary. Instead of providing actual insights, our host will actually point out obvious actions going on right before our eyes. Better is an interview with Panahi (again, helmed by Akrami) which does a good job of outlining Iran's strict censorship laws. While not definitive, it provides some nice background to the film proper.