“Directors”: Jafar Panahi, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb
Which kind of begs the question “well what the hell IS it, then?” One thing I’m fairly sure it’s not, at least not entirely, is a documentary, at least in a conventional sense; apparently it was filmed over a number of days rather than actually being the “day in the life” it purports to be, for one thing. So what is it? Well, basically, it’s a filmmaker making a film he’s not supposed to be making… Jafar Panahi is now one of the most famous cases (outside of Soviet-era eastern European cinema) of a government (Iran) cracking down on one of its national artists; in 2010, after years of run-ins with Iranian censors, he was not only sentenced to six years in jail but also banned from making films for 20 years. In the meantime, he’s under house arrest, which is how we first meet him, and I have to be honest and say house arrest for Panahi frankly looks… not uncomfortable (I mean, I don’t have a wall-mounted flat-screen TV). But, obviously, it’s still a narrow and limited world for him. So what’s a filmmaker to do when he can’t make films? Make a non-film…?
There’s a key moment early in the film where Panahi watches a scene from one of his earlier films, Mirror, in which the child actress ostensibly has a bit of a freakout and refuses to act any more, whereupon that film suddenly turns “real”. Which I gather it wasn’t, but anyway it opens up the question of how much of This is Not a Film can necessarily be called real. Cos there’s an undeniable air of artifice to proceedings, which the film partly acknowledges when Panahi declares his unhappiness with the shots of his daily routine at the start of it. But what about after that? How much of the film becomes “real” once co-director Mirtahmasb joins Panahi? Well, one thing at least: Mirtahmasb jokes at one point about falling foul of the authorities himself, which would in fact happen to him a few months later on another production… and there’s one hilarious bit where Panahi’s neighbour asks him to babysit their dog for an hour or so and the dog goes into a clearly unscriped rage at being on camera… A certain portion is taken up by a real film that isn’t, Panahi describing the script of another film he was banned from making, but it’s hard to tell if even this is 100% authentic or contrived to enhance the point about censorship.
It’s the last scene, however, when Mirtahmasb is leaving and the garbage collector comes in to collect Panahi’s waste, and the latter decides to follow him down in the lift. Something about this seems so natural, partly because most of it plays out in one extremely long uncut shot, that it’s hard to believe it’s not an actual moment of reality… at least until it gets to the bit where the young man encounters the aforementioned dog, and something about that felt just a little too neat. Maybe it was, maybe not. On the whole, a strange and not entirely satisfying experience that I clearly don’t know how to fully process, though one helped by its brief runtime…