“Cinema is my expression and the meaning of my life. Nothing can prevent me from making films.” – Jafar Panahi
In his diaristic 2011 documentary This is Not a Film, Iranian director Jafar Panahi takes on the challenge of making a film (or is it just a digital video?), even as he is on house arrest and appealing his six-year prison sentence and twenty-year ban on filmmaking. To overcome the seizure of his extant footage and elude the state’s suppressive restrictions, his strategy is to reflexively question the ontological notions of film itself. Can he still read his screenplay on camera and describe it visually to the viewers? Can he document the mundane realities of his confinement if someone else holds the camera? Where does a film begin and end and who gets to make those determinations?
Such issues particularly materialize in one scene in which Panahi brings sections of his unproduced screenplay to life and stages a riveting movie within a movie. Establishing a kind of shadow topography, Panahi projects an alternative, imaginative architecture onto the surface of his living room. His rug becomes his protagonist’s home, pieces of masking tape delineate the walls of the bedroom she inhabits, and a pillow symbolizes her bed. As the director excitedly details the angles and durations of shots he envisions and even embodies the character's actions, it is clear that his spatial and legal constraints have not dampened his need to create. He also exhibits shaky smartphone footage that he shot of the real location in Isfahan, employing another form of recording (which may or may not qualify as a film) to transport viewers to a parallel mediated space and expand this shared cinematic life-world.
Therefore, by tactically playing with the definitional boundaries of filmmaking, Panahi finds a dimension of liberation in his unjust arrest. By taking severe risks and arranging for This is Not a Film to be smuggled out of Iran, he also ultimately makes his project a testament to the enduring power of film. While cinema, like any other medium, can be manipulated, repressed, or marginalized, the reflexivity of this documentary dares to dig up new escape routes and, in the process, revitalizes the potentialities of dissident art and cinematic metacriticism.