The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

The film that isn’t a film is a film about film that I’ll never forget

with 19 comments

Why do we go to the movies? Usually I would say something along the lines “to get entertained, comforted, challenged or stimulated”.  I don’t normally go to theatres to make a political standpoint. But a few days ago I did exactly that thing.

The film I watched wasn’t even called a film, but an “effort” by the ones who made it, the Iranian director Jafar Panahi and his friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb. It’s even in the title: “This is Not a Film”.

As it started my expectations were minimal. I feared 75 long and boring minutes to get through this documentary showing how Jafar Panahi leads his life while in house arrest, waiting to start serving his 6 year long prison sentence and 20 year ban to make films.

My watching was nothing but an act of solidarity. When I learned about Panahi’s situation a little while ago and heard about the origins of this film, how it had been made in secrecy since it was illegal and how it had been smuggled out of Iran at a flash memory hidden in a cake, something clicked inside me. The whole thing made me upset. I wanted to do something for him and the other muted film makers, taking a stance against a government that puts people into jail for making films they don’t approve of. The least thing I could do was to buy a ticket, watch the movies and make sure to bump up the numbers of viewers with one person. I figured a multi-headed international audience might make some sort of impression on the regime in Iran.

I couldn’t be certain of course. I thought back on the letters I used to send to the dictator of Syria in the 80s when I was a member of Amnesty International. Did he ever get any of them? He must have had thousands of them. Did they matter? Did they make a difference? I wanted to believe they did. Because the thought of a world where you can’t make a difference is pretty much unbearable.

Passion for film
So I went in to demonstrate my support for Panahi and contempt for the current regime in Iran. But in the end this night turned out to be a lot more to me. Because the film title is quite misleading. This is Not a Film is definitely a film – and a surprisingly good one.

You could say that it looks a bit randomly put together. We see Jahar Panahi talking in the phone to his wife and his lawyer, patting his lizard pet (I had no idea you could keep such a big lizard in your home), talking a little about films he’s made in the past. A neighbor rings on his door, wanting him to take care of a dog for a while. The dog starts barking at the lizard and he returns it quickly. A guy comes to fetch the garbage and Panahi follows him to the elevator, talking to him. He tries to recreate the movie he was denied to make by the authorities, reading from the script until he realizes the futility of it and gives up.

He never says anything openly critical towards the authorities. But we get it. We totally get it, if nothing else in the end credits, where everyone he wants to thank is replaced by a line of dots since it would put them in danger to even mentioning in the film.

In one scene the friend who is holding the film camera is revealed. Jafar Panahi films him through the camera in his cell phone and Motaba Mirtahamasb films Jafar Panahi with his video camera. Two friends filming each other. They smile at each other, a melancholical smile that reminds me of Frodo and Sam in Mordor.  They know that this film may get consequences  and yet they choose to do it. They’re in this together. And it made me so moved that I got tears in my eyes, wondering where they get all this strength and courage.

But don’t get me wrong. I want to point out that it’s far from a demonstration of  self pity and definitely not only a cry for help and support from the international community. The thing is – believe it or not – that it’s actually funny.  Not funny in the laughing-out-loud-way, but there are glimpses of humor in it that made me giggle and which made the watching far more fun and less depressing than you might think considering the story behind.

But it’s also a film about film making. Panahi’s passion for it is present in every moment and it’s not hard to understand why he’s taking the risks he does making this “effort”. True artists just can’t shut up.

Not the only one
As I prepared writing this post found some more saddening news about the current conditions for the Iranian film makers.

  • The Iranian actress Merila Zarei from A Separation was for no known reason prevented from travelling to Sweden to participate in an Iranian film festival arranged in Sweden in September.
  • Earlier this autumn the Iranian Acress Marzieh Vafamehr was sentenced to being whipped 90 times and spend one year in prison. Her crime: to not wear a veil and to have a shaved hair in a few scenes in the film My Teheran for Sale.
  •  According to an article in The Guardian in September, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb was arrested and charged with espionage for working for the BBC shortly before This is Not a Film went up at the Toronto film festival. His fate is unclear as is that of three other film makers arrested with the same charges.

This is Not a Film will never reach the huge audiences in the multiplex universe. But if you get the chance to watch it I urge you to grab it. If not to make a political statement at least to get some food for thought and a totally enjoyable movie watching experience.

This is Not a Film (In Film Nist, Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, IR, 2011) My rating: 4,5/5

Written by Jessica

December 13, 2011 at 1:00 am

Posted in This is Not a Film

19 Responses

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  1. Good one Jessica. I’ve heard many great things about this un-film. Can’t wait to get a chance to see it.

    Bonjour Tristesse

    December 13, 2011 at 2:27 am

    • People recommended it to me after I had written about A Separation. I had little hope of getting the chance to watch it when it suddenly turned up at our small independent arthouse cinema. Hopefully you’ll get the chance as well.


      December 13, 2011 at 11:03 am

  2. I haven’t (unlike BT) heard of this, but it sounds fantastic. Thanks for sharing my friend

    Scott Lawlor

    December 13, 2011 at 10:03 am

    • It’s definitely something very different, far from the Hollywood routine so to say. But it’s still very enjoyable in it’s small, simple format. Keep your eyes open. It might turn up at a (very small) cinema near you.


      December 13, 2011 at 11:04 am

  3. As you said, I think it will be difficult to get hold of this film. But, If I can, I am definitely interested in it. Great Review.


    December 13, 2011 at 3:06 pm

    • Thanks! I know it’s been shown at TIFF and Cannes. It won’t reach the biggest cinemas obviously, but I still hope it will find some kind of distribution.


      December 13, 2011 at 4:46 pm

  4. Jessica, thanks for this review. I’m often, like you, wary of “worthy” films that might in fact be boring, so it is great to know it’s actually entertaining, comforting, challenging and stimulating as well!

    One thing you touched on was the dilemma between an artist’s right to self expression and a government’s right to legislate for the public good. In this example, it’s pretty clear that we mostly stand with the artist. There are also plenty of examples of films that we are happy to have banned. And then there are hard cases in between. It would be interesting to hear your thoughts


    December 21, 2011 at 4:22 pm

    • I don’t think I touched on the government’s right to legislate for the public good? I assume we’re still talking about film making, and in that case, I think we’re talking about pretty extreme cases. If you commit a crime while making the film, abusing children sexually, molesting people for snuff movies etc, obviously it’s criminal. Equally if the movie is made in order to harass a group of people, if it’s a part of the propagande for a homicide or something like that, nazi propaganda etc, there must be legal possibilities to stop it.

      Mind you – there’s also a huge difference between banning a movie and imprisoning the maker of a movie. I don’t think there are plenty of examples where you can justify that a government imprison someone for making a movie.


      December 21, 2011 at 4:32 pm

      • “If you commit a crime while making the film … obviously it’s criminal”.
        Well, I think this is begging the question.. Of course the behaviour you refer to is criminal. And of course the Iranian authorities can point to Panahi’s activities and tell you that he committed a crime making his film, too.

        Like you, I’m a member of AI, and most of the letters I write are on behalf of prisoners of conscience who committed acts that are illegal in their country. So the real question is to do with the nature of legality, and the friction between individual conscience and freedom on the one hand, and on the other hand, the laws a society makes which may impinge upon individual conscience and freedom.


        December 22, 2011 at 2:17 pm

        • Ah ok I think you I’m with you now. With all the respect for foreign cultures I can’t respect laws that don’t follow basic human rights. What Iranian government considered “criminal” in the case of Panahi is not a law that I would recognize.

          Things that I would consider criminal in the making of movies are few and extreme cases, like the ones I pointed out above.


          December 22, 2011 at 2:31 pm

  5. […] This is Not a Film I watched this as a political act but was happily surprised at how good it actually was. […]

  6. This one is on my LOVEFILM-booking-list now thanks to you. Releasedate on DVD is the 28th of March. I´m looking forward to it 🙂


    January 15, 2012 at 12:27 am

    • Hey! I hope you’ll enjoy it. The maker of it refuses to call it a film, but says it’s an “effort”. Still I this effort was good enough to make it into one of the more memorable films for the year.


      January 15, 2012 at 10:08 am

  7. […] Senna is a very well made documentary and one of my two favourites from 2011 (the other one being This is Not a Film). I can’t quite pinpoint what’s so good about this film, but I think might have to do with that […]

  8. Of course, politics directly inspired this effort but I don’t see them clearly as a driving force; to use a musical metaphor, it’s a subtle backing track, an idea that is obviously there and pivotally important, but purposefully never made clearly visible. If Panahi had focused more on the politics, I think it would’ve been less impressive. I see this effort as an attempt to simply visualize and present Panahi’s creative state, one of active imagination and wonder, but one also and evidently thwarted by his punishment. However, Panahi does not choose to focus for long on his restrictions, and relishes in looking back at his career as well as the thoughts and ideas that are still circling inside him. This I find marvellous, and wonderfully unique.

    Certainly there are many ways to interpret the film and I’m not at all saying mine is the correct one. Just theorizing, is all. Great review.


    June 22, 2012 at 10:08 am

    • You’re right that Panahi is focusing on his film making and not on the politics, but yet, the entire predicament he is in IS political and heartbreaking. I think it’s brilliant the way he sometimes shows without telling. Like how he records the message on the radio about fireworks being forbidden and then how the movie ends… It says so much without anyone using words. But then he IS a filmmaker and knows how to tell a story.


      June 24, 2012 at 7:40 pm

  9. […] is Not a Film JDBRecords The Velvet Cafe YAM […]

  10. Thanks for the review. It’s a thoughtful analysis. I recommend Jafar Panahi’s other works, especially “Crimson Gold” which is truly a brilliant movie.


    January 30, 2014 at 10:37 am

    • Thank you for stopping by! I definitely should see more of his films. Unfortunately this is the only one I’ve seen so far.


      February 2, 2014 at 11:48 pm

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