This is Not a Film is a documentary about not making a movie. Jafar Panahi, after all, was barred by the Iranian government from directing movies following a recent arrest for "colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic." He's appealing his case but could face six years in prison; for now, he's under house arrest. So, in his latest movie, shot over the course of a day, he invites over his friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb to video record him while he reads, acts, and goes about his daily life—including fielding phone calls about his case and dog-sitting for 20 seconds—thus circumventing the 20-year ban on directing. (At one point Panahi tells Mirtahmasb to cut but he playfully refuses, noting that Panahi cannot direct the movie.)
Because Panahi can't make movies but he's still been writing, he tries to read his most recent un-produced screenplay on camera. He blocks off his living rug with masking tape, displays scouted locations on his cell phone, and describes the first scene in detail—the shots, the dialogue, the emotion—until, abruptly, he stops. "If we could tell a film," he asks, sullen, "then why make a film?" Instead, he pulls out DVDs of his past films and performs some live commentary. "The film must first be made before you can explain it," he says.
Panahi also engages in quotidian tasks: he makes tea, he collects the apartment building's garbage with the porter, he feeds his daughter's iguana. (His family is out visiting relatives.) But even these details suggest a sly design: after Panahi explains that visual metaphors in films emerge from locations, we see his iguana exploring the apartment's limits, echoing Panahi's own confinement and boundary-pushing; his unproduced screenplay, about a girl prevented from studying at university by her conservative parents, obviously parallels his situation; the prolonged trash-collecting episode ends with a poignant image that highlights the director's isolation. There's method to Panahi's ostensible randomness—he sort of escapes his imprisonment through filmmaking, at the same time delivering a sharp and bitter critique of state suppression. Subversively, brilliantly, This is Not a Film most certainly is—a great and important one at that.