This Is Not a Film

opens with Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi alone at his breakfast table, spreading jam on flatbread and talking to a friend over speakerphone. "I'm stuck in a problem," he says. "Stuck" is quite the appropriate word, but the statement hardly conveys the gravity of his situation. He is sequestered in Tehran, on house arrest after being convicted of committing "propaganda against the Islamic Republic." He faces a six-year prison sentence and a two-decade ban from leaving the country, giving interviews or making movies.

As he eats his flatbread, Panahi, who has thick, dark eyebrows and a face that looks kneaded from dough, is awaiting word on his appeal to the state Supreme Court, a body not known for its generous clemency. To fill the time, he calls over his buddy, the documentarian Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, to film him waiting. After all, he can't handle the camera himself, lest he be accused of directing. Confined to his apartment, there is little for Panahi to do. He feeds his daughter's pet iguana. He orders takeout. He refuses to dog-sit for a neighbor. He watches the news. What he is not doing—because, of course, it would violate the terms of his conviction—is making a movie.

Under the circumstances, the mundanity of This Is Not a Film becomes a daring provocation. It is not a film, because it is something more: a work of passive-resistant protest. To judge the movie on the criteria of a conventional documentary would miss the point. If it is dull in spots, that is partially the idea. Shot clandestinely over a week and a half and edited to appear as a single day, the intent of the non-film (let's call it a "video diary") is to show a creative mind in an unnatural state of idle and to prove, by its very existence, that an artist's drive to create overrides anything a government can do to quell that compulsion. Grading such a project seems trivial, especially considering how it got to us, smuggled out of Iran on a flash drive hidden in a birthday cake. The fact we're able to see it at all is a triumph.

But this "effort," as it's referred to in the credits, isn't just a sly middle finger to the ruling theocracy. It is also a philosophical query: What is a film? It's a question that's been asked since at least the French New Wave, but Godard never pondered the notion while facing jail. In Film, Panahi—whose movies, like that of most directors in Iran, are more allegorical than inflamed—seems to regard his predicament with a sense of bemusement. Though he doesn't say so, he takes it as a kind of challenge. Can't make a movie? Let's make something else, then. It is almost illusory: While it often looks like he's just whiling away the hours, what Panahi is actually doing is feeling around the restrictions imposed on him, playing with form and searching for a loophole. At one point, he begins discussing one of his unfilmed screenplays. On a whim, and probably out of boredom, he decides to lay tape down on the floor and block out the script by himself. After a few minutes, he grows exasperated. "If we can tell a film," he says, "then why make a film?" He storms out of the room.

It is a tragic moment of realization. But Panahi is a filmmaker, and one way or another, a film is going to get made. As Mirtahmasb leaves for the night, the apartment's maintenance man arrives to collect the trash. Panahi can't help himself: He grabs the camera and follows the custodian into the elevator, interviewing him about his life. Eventually, they venture into the building's courtyard. It is Fireworks Wednesday, the Iranian New Year tradition, which President Ahmadinejad recently denounced as unreligious. People are celebrating anyway. Stuck behind the gate, Panahi still manages to capture an extraordinary image, of the streets literally burning with defiance. Art, as always, finds a way. 

Critic's Grade: A

SEE IT: This Is Not a Film opens Friday at Hollywood Theatre.