-- Everything about "This Is Not a Film" is cleverly deceptive, from the title that's so self-deprecating, it sounds like a shrug to its long, first take to its many quiet moments to the peaceful demeanor of its central figure: acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi.
But ultimately, in the span of just 75 minutes, it reveals itself to be a powerful statement about nothing less than the paramount importance of freedom and the driving urge for artistic expression.
The documentary takes place entirely in Panahi's Tehran apartment (with a few shots at the end in the elevator) over the course of a single day. This is the place where he was forced to dwell under house arrest while appealing a sentence of six years in prison and a 20-year ban on filmmaking and conducting interviews with foreign press.
Panahi received this punishment for openly supporting the opposition party in Iran's 2009 election. He's no longer under house arrest but remains in limbo while awaiting his fate. "This Is Not a Film" was smuggled out in a cake just in time for screening at last year's Cannes Film Festival. His imprisonment has become a bit of a cause celebre, but its significance far transcends glittering Hollywood trappings.
And so we see Panahi sitting at the kitchen table, having breakfast. He talks to his lawyer on speaker phone. He invites a friend over – whom we later learn is fellow filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb – but is cryptic in his instructions. He smokes a cigarette out on the balcony and surveys the construction cranes that are altering his surroundings.
But he punctuates these moments with interludes of obvious longing, as "This Is Not a Film" becomes both a tutorial and a celebration of moviemaking.
With Mirtahmasb behind a digital video camera, Panahi takes us through the latest script he was hoping to shoot – blocks off part of his living room with tape, acts it out, explains the motivations of the young woman who's his lead character. He shows clips from previous films and tells stories from behind the scenes.
At one subtly poignant point, he gets choked up from the sheer frustration of being restrained, from having his voice silenced. You don't have to be familiar with this man's body of work to feel a sympathetic connection with him.
"This Is Not a Film" is simultaneously depressing as hell and brimming with hope and defiance. With its stripped-down aesthetic, it finds poetry in the mundane and even boring details of daily life. And it's an inspiring must-see for anyone who feels the urgent need to create something beautiful and meaningful, no matter the cost.
"This Is Not a Film," a Palisades Tartan release, is unrated but contains nothing that might be considered objectionable for children. Running time: 75 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.