The latest from Iranian director Jafar Panahi (“The White Balloon,” “Offside”) is titled “This Is Not a Film.” It certainly resembles one, but, in deference to Panahi's characterization, we won't call it that. The brief closing credits refer to it as “an effort by Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb,” so “effort” will have to do.
This may sound like pure artsy playfulness in the manner of “Adaptation” — where and how does the film we're watching coincide with the film being created by the characters? — and there's certainly an element of that within, but there is much more to it than that. Two years ago, Iranian authorities refused to allow Panahi — one of the best known and most commercially successful of that country's filmmakers — to travel to the Berlin Film Festival; shortly thereafter, he was arrested, clearly for the content of his work, not for anything we would consider criminal activity. The minister of culture says it was for “making a film against the regime and ... the events that followed the election.” Several months later, he was sentenced to six years in jail and was banned from “making or directing any movies ... or writing screenplays.”
Held under house arrest while the case was on appeal and unable to ply his craft, Panahi obviously got antsy. Since he couldn't risk making a film about his situation, he invited his colleague Mirtahmasb over and created this “effort.” The ruling didn't prohibit him from acting in films or reading previously written screenplays out loud, so Mirtahmasb “directed” Panahi's on-camera performance as a filmmaker named Jafar Panahi who is anxiously awaiting the results of a legal appeal.
At one point, wanting to rephrase something, Panahi absentmindedly yells “cut” and then asks Mirtahmasb why he is still rolling. If I followed your instruction, Mirtahmasb tells him, then you would be directing.
As the “effort” progresses, Panahi the Character (and perhaps Panahi the Person) makes himself breakfast, talks on speakerphone to his wife and his lawyer, shows us clips from a few of his films, plays with his daughter's pet lizard, chats with the building's substitute janitor, and acts out a synopsized version of the screenplay he was intending to film when the government clamped down on him.
It certainly feels like a documentary rather than a pre-planned “effort,” but who can tell for sure? It seems a remarkable coincidence that the unmade film he was planning before his arrest concerned a young woman whose devout parents keep her confined at home rather than letting her go to college, as she had hoped. Nor is it likely that he would engage the janitor (who knows of his plight) without arranging permission in advance. (The levels of reality vs. art are muddied even further when the janitor mistakes Mirtahmasb for an actor from Panahi's “Crimson Gold.”)
Panahi played with such notions in his second feature, “The Mirror,” where the little girl in the lead role suddenly announces that she doesn't want to act any more and runs off, while the crew improvises a response rather than cut.
In “The Mirror,” there were very clear hints that this disruption was a planned part of the story. In “This Is Not a Film,” the evidence is less emphatic. But, film or not, there's no question as to the truth at its heart: This past December, the appeals court upheld Panahi’s full sentence.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).