In 2010, internationally celebrated Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi was arrested at his home and sentenced to six years in prison for "[participating] in a gathering and carrying out propaganda against the system." The sentence included a 20-year ban on directing and writing films, giving press interviews, and leaving Iran. Billed as "an effort by Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb," This Is Not a Film was shot entirely on the grounds of Panahi's Tehran apartment in March 2011 while Panahi was under house arrest. It's a dispatch from Panahi's life behind closed doors. In its most thrilling sequence, we see Panahi brainstorm ways to express himself using his filmmaking talents without actually violating the ban against filmmaking itself. But after excitedly reading aloud and blocking out a screenplay's first scene, Panahi's enthusiasm wanes. "If we could tell a film, why make a film?" he frets. If "Why make a film?" is one question that haunts the movie, "What is film?" is the inevitable follow-up. The title is a literal description of method—shot on a video camera and iPhone, this "effort" could exist only in a digital age. This is pointedly not cinema, but it's breathtakingly cinematic. It's a political statement, an act of defiance, a master class in one auteur's body of work and process, and a document of a life unseen. But above all, it's a gripping entertainment, swinging wildly from manic highs to somber lows, every moment of levity shadowed by anxiety.
Panahi makes the best of his one-room location.
Runs Fri., April 13-Thurs., April 19 at Northwest Film Forum. Not rated. 75 minutes.