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September 1, 2012 | 12:00 p.m. CST
This is Not a Film serves as a powerful reminder that freedom of expression is not a privilege granted to all. An internationally renowned film director, Jafar Panahi, barred from making films, uses censorship to construct a work of art and share his story with the rest of the world.
Iranian director Panahi (The White Ballon, The Circle and Offside; Silver Bear award winner of the Berlin International Film Festival) actively supported the Green Movement — a series of political actions that spark protest against the reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the sixth and current president of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Police arrested him in his home for his involvement with the movement and conspiring against the Iranian regime. The government sentenced him to a 20-year filmmaking ban and six years in jail.
The footage for This is Not a Film, shot while Panahi awaits the news of his appeal under house arrest, was smuggled out of Iran on a flash drive inside a cake.
Despite the government’s scheme to keep Panahi from shedding light on the disturbing realities of his country, the world gets the chance to spend a day with him in this “non-film.” We sit across Panahi at the breakfast table. The camera is often so close we can hear him breathe, take in the lines that define his face. We watch him exude an expression of calmness despite the devastating news delivered by his lawyer: She’s never seen an Iranian judge appeal a jail sentence entirely.
Panahi snaps photos and video with his iPhone and feeds his daughter’s giant iguana, Igi. In stifling circumstances, he never complains; but we feel his restlessness. He’s forbidden to do the thing he was born to do — direct films.
In one of the most compelling moments, Panahi looks at his friend holding the camera and laughs to himself — the government outlawed his filmmaking, but “acting and reading screenplays were not mentioned,” he says, smiling.
If Panahi can’t make films, he hopes to somehow create the image of a film, as he outlines the protagonist’s house in one of his screenplays with masking tape on the floor and tells us about the scene he envisions.
Then he pauses — clearly disheartened.
“If we could tell a film, then why make a film?” he asks.
This is Not a Film creates new category of film — a non-film that tells the day in the life of a filmmaker prohibited from speaking the words “action” or “cut” — quiet but profoundly moving.