Independent film houses like The Belcourt are proving their invaluable worth by screening This Is Not a Film, a message in a bottle from censored Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi. The footage was reportedly smuggled into last year's Cannes Film Festival on a flash drive hidden in a cake. And while theaters may not be under the degree of pressure felt by the bookstores that sold Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses in the late '80s, in defiance of Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa calling for the author's death, let's be plain: An exhibition of Panahi's film is a political act.
After attempting to film a documentary about the civil unrest following the disputed 2009 re-election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Panahi was convicted in December 2010, having been charged with the Orwellian crime of creating "propaganda against the regime." His standing as one of the country's most acclaimed and internationally recognized filmmakers did nothing to shield him. This Is Not a Film documents a day in his life under house arrest as he appeals his punishment: a six-year prison sentence and a 20-year ban on directing, writing screenplays or leaving the country.
At first a stationary camera films Panahi's mundane morning, a seemingly smart-ass attempt to strictly follow the terms of his restrictions. He has an intentionally vague conversation with a friend, asking him to come over but not to tell anyone. He talks to his lawyer for an update on his appeal. (It's not looking great.) By way of a voicemail, we learn that his son is the one who set up the camera — a technicality we can assume will not satisfy the regime.
But Panahi doesn't last long as a mere subject, anyway. His friend, documentarian Mojtaba Mirtahmasb — who was himself arrested months later, accused of engaging in espionage for working with the BBC — shows up, and Panahi is arguably directing from then on. The project's title gains deeper meaning as the two men examine what it means to make a film, with Panahi acting out parts of the screenplay he would have filmed and dissecting scenes from some of his previous films, such as The Mirror and Crimson Gold. Soon the award-winning filmmaker is wielding an iPhone.
The last act of this "effort" — as it's called in the credits, so as not to contradict the title — would be diminished by a summary. Even non-films should not be spoiled. Suffice it to say that here, as throughout, This Is Not a Film is a marvel — an artist's gasp for air in a suffocating political climate.
Panahi's appeal has since been rejected. The most recent reports have him still at home, awaiting prison. In light of his infuriating treatment, Iran's recent gloating over the Oscar-night victory of Asghar Farhadi's A Separation — hailed officially as recognition of cultural superiority — seems not just hollow but hypocritical. But Panahi's triumph is found in the words shared between two filmmakers in the kitchen of his apartment prison: "What matters is, the camera stays on."