The boy warns Jafar Panahi not to come any closer. He tells him that people outside, who celebrated around a blazing bonfire welcoming the New Year, might see him. This might cause him trouble. The boy pushes the trash barrel and heads out. Panahi stands, his camera staring at the dazzling flames outside the shut gates, once again confined in a bubble. That is perhaps the strongest message the Iranian filmmaker leaves behind – the pangs of repressed isolation, the agony of creativity in exile. The credit roll is mostly blank, except the slates where we see the names of two filmmakers – Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb – and the one where it states that this piece of art is dedicated to the Iranian filmmakers.
Panahi's heart-wrenching video journal, often deemed to be Magrittean, does not break the law that restricts him from making films. However, what it does is a lot more radical than an obvious cry of revolt. The very title of the film is heaped with irony. By claiming that "this is not a film", Panahi brings to sight the plain contradiction between what is happening and what is being said. An evident outcome of the restrictions imposed by a repressive regime that shows you a very different picture of the reality and tells you a different story about its people. The filmmaker does not follow a script. Instead, he lets the camera follow him around his Teheran apartment where he has been compelled to remain under house arrest following the Iranian government's decision to ban him from making films for the next 20 years. A style he will later develop in other riveting works such as 'Taxi'.
Panahi, who is not allowed to interact with the media at any point or leave the country, also makes sure that this is not an interview. No one asks him to say the things he says. However, he does tell us quite a bit about a script he was working on and how he planned on shooting it – pretty much the content of any directors' interview. Followed by Mirtahmasb, Panahi goes around marking out the boundaries of a room with a cellotape and enacting the dialogues of a girl whose room it is supposed to be. As meticulously as he does it, one cannot help but notice the ardent desire of a filmmaker to do what he is supposed to do. It is in this very scene that Panahi draws a reference to the title of the film when he claims, "If we could tell a film, then why make a film?" We at once realise that this might be of the length of any feature movie (around one hour and sixteen minutes) but it is nothing more than a reminder of the difference between the aesthetics of a film and a casually shot conversation.
Over the course of the day, Panahi is visited by several visitors. There's a time when the delivery boy arrives with the food and the filmmaker asks him about what is going on outside. His neighbour comes with her yapping dog, and Panahi is worried that the dog and his pet iguana might not get along well. Towards the end, there is a starry-eyed university student with whom Panahi makes the daring decision of stepping outside but is warned by the student to stay in. Somehow, with every person who comes and leaves Panahi's life for the day, a dubiety in the pattern of the story begins to take shape. It suddenly begins to feel like a film and an omnipresent script seems to give it a direction. All these people, regular in their chore and conversation, translate into a gamut of rather intriguing supporting characters with Panahi as the protagonist. Even Mirtahmasb, who is constantly following Panahi in his daily errands, gives the impression of a deuteragonist. Towards the end when all's said and done, and Panahi has to come to terms with the fact that he cannot make films anymore, Mirtahmasb – like the Jim to Panahi's Huck – bids farewell. Although promising that he would be back the next morning.
It becomes even more interesting when Panahi begins to look through his own films; some of them being 'The Circle' (2000), 'Offside' (2006) and 'Crimson Gold' (2003). He points out the exact moments which are the defining qualities in a film, giving the viewer enough time to notice the resemblance between the artist and his work of art. In case of 'The Circle', the location determines the character's state of mind – a striking parallel to Panahi's own state of existence in confinement. 'Crimson Gold' highlights the actor's spontaneity – a reminder of Panahi's spontaneous decision to record a day in his imprisoned life. On the other hand, 'Offside' as a film recounts the filmmaker's day-to-day life – watching the world from a peephole (in Panahi's case, his iPhone and camera).
By the technicality and all the theories taught at any film school, 'This is Not a Film' is certainly not one of the usual films we are familiar with. But isn't that the core charm to any of Panahi's works? The director, who became one of the most prominent voices of the Second New Wave of Iranian cinema, has always done everything beyond the conventional. Right from telling stories about the plight of an Iranian woman to confronting the Iranian class system on its face, he has challenged the regime in every single shot. 'This is Not a Film' is perhaps the most silent complain to ever come out of the director's mouth. While most of his films are a loud knock on the door of a repressive authority, this one film is perhaps that subtle conversation he would strike once someone opens that door.