I've only watched one other film by Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi and that was The Circle (2000), but I've heard that his other films are excellent. I watched The Circle with a group of students for something we call focus week, where we take students out of the classroom for a week. The Circle tells the story of a group of Iranian women oppressed by their patriarchal Islamic regime. The film was banned in Iran and was one of the reasons Panahi was sentenced to six years of house arrest and banned for 20 years from writing or directing films--surely a harsh punishment for a man who is considered by Martin Scorsese and others one of the world's great directors. I remember discussing the film with my students and an Iranian girl said she thought it exaggerated the difficulties for women in Iran; she said that she went there often and never encountered any problems. I remember doubting what she said at the time, and now when I look back I'm sure she was either wrong or just coincidentally never experienced what most other women do experience in Iran.
This Is Not a Film is a documentary starring Panahi that was smuggled out of Iran to play at the Cannes Film Festival. It was hidden inside a birthday cake. In the film, as Panahi awaits the decision on an appeal, the film gives us a window into his imprisoned daily life. He has a new script and has even selected a cast, but, of course, he is forbidden from actually making the film. Instead, he reads the script himself and acts out the character's parts--or he starts too, anyway.
The film is fascinating for a couple of reasons. One, it makes us aware of the freedoms people lack in countries like Iran. While I may not always agree with political satirists (like John Stewart and Stephen Colbert--though I do agree with them more often than not) or other commentators, at least in this country they can essentially say what they want to say without being imprisoned or captured and tortured. Also, as a cinephile I was struck by how difficult it is for Panahi not to make a film. Filmmaking is his life entire. And if he can't make films, what point is there to life?
Of course, the film's ironic title questions what filmmaking is and what it isn't. While Panahi is not able to make the film he wants to and becomes quite emotional when he realizes this is the case, we are left with something that is possibly more interesting than the film he would have made had he not been imprisoned and had he not lived in such an oppressive country. This Is Not a Film is a film after all.