As awards season consumes December and my fellow critics pretend they just hate hate hate composing “best of” lists as they eagerly share those hated “best of” lists, I find myself returning again and again to Jafar Panahi's apartment in Tehran, the defining location for the year in cinema, one of the defining locations in all of cinema. All but a few minutes of “This Is Not A Film,” shot in early 2011, take place in this apartment where Mr. Panahi lingers under house arrest on trumped-up charges of creating “propaganda against the Islamic Republic.” He faces a six-year prison sentence and a twenty-year ban on directing, screenwriting, and contact with the press.
When we first meet Mr. Panahi, he is scarfing down a snack at his kitchen table while awaiting news of his legal appeal; he takes his time eating and why not? While his wife and son can leave to run chores, one of Iran's greatest filmmakers can do nothing but knock around the apartment all day long with his pet iguana Igi (who has very sharp claws) and with filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb (who has a very sharp eye) who drops by to keep him company and to shoot a film.
But not a film, of course, because Mr. Panahi is no longer allowed to shoot a film and he would never, ever want to break the law. In one of the most poignant scenes in this most poignant film (indeed, the scene of the year), Mr. Panahi says “cut” to Mr. Mirtahmasb who simply keeps rolling because he can't take directions from a man who isn't allowed to direct. However, not even an oppressive regime can bottle up a good artist down completely. By closely reading the letter of the law, Mr. Panahi believes he is still permitted simply to read from the last screenplay he wrote before the ban. While Igi climbs the furniture, Mr. Panahi kneels down on the floor and sketches out locations with marking tape to show what the room would have looked like and how the actors would have moved and to act out what they would have said if he had gotten permission to shoot the film, which he didn't, and now won't for at least twenty years.
It is infuriating to see the great director shackled like this, and yet inspiring to see him work with crippling restrictions, within these four walls, to create a “not a film” that so vividly captures a time, a nation, and a struggle both personal and universal. Though his internet access is almost as restricted as his daily life, he is able to reach out by phone to others: his lawyer lays out a not so subtle plea to viewers both in Iran and abroad to raise their voices in protest. Since Mr. Panahi cannot make new films (only “not a films”) he revisits his old movies, cuing up masterpieces like “Crimson Gold” (2003) on his DVD player to illustrate a point about the spontaneous moments that are essential to his cinema, and certainly to his “not a film.” He also has a sly sense of humor, demonstrated both in his interactions with Mr. Mirtahmasb (as well as Igi!) and the meticulous decor of his apartment: the most prominntly visible DVD on his shelf is a copy of Rodrigo Cortes' “Buried,” a rather direct reference to his current plight.
“This Is Not A Film” was allegedly smuggled out of Iran on a thumb drive hidden inside a birthday cake, and subsequently played to broad acclaim at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and all other stops on the festival circuit, though it did not receive its all-too-brief theatrical release in the U.S. until early 2012. The Academy recently included the movie on its documentary shortlist. Anyone familiar with Mr. Panahi's work knows that reality and fantasy are barely separated by a fully permeable barrier, and there's little doubt that some of the events and “random” encounters in the film are staged. Some stick-in-the-mud voters might protest that “This Is Not a Documentary,” but it damned sure is a protest, one of the most eloquent and elegant the medium of the moving image has ever witnessed. I hope the Academy voters take notice.
The word “brave” gets applied by critics to all sorts of films that don't really merit the description, but seeing Mr. Panahi marshal his considerable wit, compassion, and insight in an act of brazen resistance to evil is to witness true courage in action. And make no mistake, evil is the right word, the only word to describe the brutish, pig-headed forces acting against him.
To the best of my knowledge, Mr. Panahi remains in that apartment today, still under house arrest, still officially sanctioned by his government though rumors of a new (not a?) film have recently surfaced. I was tempted to write something foolish like “And we are all in that apartment with him.” Of course we are not, but “This Is Not A Film” provides the chance to share just a bit of his experience there, and to be touched profoundly by it in a way that very few “This Is A Films” have ever managed. And as award season drags on and I buff and polish my lists, I think about it over and over again. I started 2012 by watching “This Is Not A Film,” and I've come very close to ending the year without seeing anything that exceeds it.