Film Review: ‘This Is Not a Film’ highlights Iranian filmmaker’s talents while under house arrest


It’s a marvel what one learns about filmmaking while watching the anti-film This is Not a Film. In 2010, acclaimed Iranian director Jafar Panahi was confined to his condo in Tehran under house arrest as part of his punishment for intending to make a film deemed subversive by the state. During his house arrest, he decided to turn on a camera and just record, all the while trying to deny he was even making a film. He reportedly had This Is Not a Film smuggled out of the country on a flash drive hidden inside a cake delivered to the 2011 Cannes Film Festival where it had its world premiere in 2011. The result offers a raw, insightful glimpse inside the mind of a creative genius.

This is Not a Film is so enlightening into the craft of filmmaking, it feels tragic that the government of Iran has denied this man the right to express himself. The film is set up with Panahi calling up a friend who turns out to be fellow filmmaker, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, about a “problem.” Panahi cannot specify details over the phone, so he asks Mirtahmasb to come over. It will soon be revealed that Panahi needs a camera operator. Setting up his own HD camera in a corner, recording his movements as he wanders or sits in a room, it seems, leaves much to be desired for this visionary.

His friend soon picks up the camera to shoot Panahi. After all, his 20-year ban from filmmaking does not stipulate anything about acting or reading from a script, Panahi reasons. There are also discussions over his iPhone with a lawyer who is working to appeal his sentence, which also includes six years in jail, as well as conversations with concerned relatives. But Panahi seems to delight in turning that iPhone into a camera. He transforms into another man during sequences when he explores his craft. He shares a clip from his 1995 film the Mirror with Mirtahmasb and how he feels like the little girl who wants to throw off the fake cast and quit acting, when she comes to realize the bus she is riding is headed the opposite way of her home. It offers witty insight into the subversive quality of his films.

Thinking about the resonance in his own work clearly shakes up Panahi, and he orders Mirtahmasb to cut, but the documentary director continues filming. “You are not directing. This is an offence,” he tells Panahi. But, just as this film has emerged commercially with US distribution, you cannot keep a good director down. Panahi breaks out a screenplay to read from and soon begins rearranging furniture in his home to help describe what would have been his next film in more visual detail, blocking off the set in his living room with tape. He describes each instance of intended action, from what happens outside a window when a door bell rings to where another character steps into the theoretical camera’s view. The need to direct is in this man’s blood. It’s an energy that simply cannot be repressed, no matter the threat of jail. During this extended sequence the viewer truly sees that filmmaking is what keeps Panahi alive.

This becomes a catalyst for more thoughts on filmmaking by Panahi, as he shares clips from The Circle and Crimson Gold as well as his own doubts and eureka moments, which brings him back to the “set” inside his home.

No fancy plot is necessary to rivet fans of cinema to This is Not a Film. Here is a true genius of film baring his creativity, thoughts in a pure search for truth in the medium. In the end, his defense of this work appears in his own honesty. Even as he tries to create a film via this non-film, he cannot help but feel he is telling lies by filming within the confines of his home.

As the “film” unfolds, the soundtrack beyond his home’s walls is worth noticing: the sound of fireworks and sirens in the street. Mysterious at first, as if there might just be a war going on outside, it is later revealed via a news report, that it is Fireworks Wednesday. Following protests of the recent reelection of the country’s unpopular president, a reporter on the television notes, the country’s leader has found no religious reasons for Fireworks Wednesday and has had it denounced as unreligious. What is actually happening outside are people shooting off fireworks in protest and police zipping about to arrest them.

As much as Panahi would argue this is not a film, the narrative within This is Not a Film plays out with more skill than many in Hollywood can muster. There are many witty set ups, as the film continues to unfold in surprising ways, from the introduction of his daughter’s pet iguana, Igi, to the resonance of the revolutionaries living it up on Fireworks Wednesday just outside Panahi’s confines. There is a moment early in the film when Panahi looks into the lens. “The city is real busy today,” he comments. And so is this movie. At a brisk 75 minutes, it is something not to be missed.

As of this post, after the appeals court upheld the original sentence of a 20-year ban from filmmaking and six years in prison, the director has made his intentions known that he seeks to appeal to the country’s supreme court. Though he remains out of jail, he could be sent there at any time. Amnesty International continues to collect signatures in reverse Panahi’s sentence. You can add your voice here.

Hans Morgenstern

This is Not a Film is not rated, runs 75 minutes and is Persian with English subtitles. It opens in South Florida on Friday, May 18, at 7 p.m., at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which provided a DVD screener for the purposes of this review. For more screening dates across the US, see the film’s official website.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)


  1. I am so sad! I remember hearing about the cake and the iPhone thinking it was some kind of farce. I totally wanted to see this but now looking at the site, the preview in LA was already back in April. 🙁 I guess we’ll have to wait until it’s out on Netflix. Thanks for this review. It’s a lot darker than I thought.

    • I wonder if he didn’t think about that, and then weigh it against what he might achieve by speaking out despite the possible results.

      And thank you to indieethos for this review – this looks really good, and I don’t know if I’d have heard of it otherwise. I just finished reading Pyongyang by Guy Delisle – when I finished, I put it on my car seat so I wouldn’t forget to take it back to the library – and instantly thought of how lucky I am to live in a place where I can not only leave such a book laying in plain sight, but request it from a public organization without fear of the consequences. I think this movie will be a good followup, as a look at a similar set of circumstances in a different part of the world.

    • Glad it sounded like it’s great movie, as it most certainly is. As I said in the review, “the narrative within This is Not a Film plays out with more skill than many in Hollywood can muster.”

  2. Loved this post. It has moved me in so many ways, and I think I’ll be blogging about it very soon. I loved the way you have brought out the genius and the talent of Panahi. You totally deserved to be Freshly Pressed!

    • Thank you and to all who have posted so many kind words. Stuck at work, so I can respond to everyone, but it’s great to hear people moved by this piece. Remember there is a link to sign a petition from Amnesty International to help Mr. Panahi. He is a treasure of cinema.

  3. If the ban is lifted, I have a feeling his filmmaking skills are going to benefit tremendously, as setting barriers and limits for oneself is definitely a way to learn and to grow as an artist. I also feel that his actions are definitely shining a light on art in the Middle East, particularly Iran, and it makes me wonder if there will be a new flourishing of art, particularly cinema, coming out of the region. Other recent films like Footnote and A Separation definitely add evidence to this argument. I greatly enjoyed this post, thanks for spreading the word on a fine filmmaker!

  4. It’s amazing what some people have to do in order to tell their stories. Fascinating story. People that enjoy freedoms should remember how valuable freedom really is and protect it like the treasure that it is.

  5. Reblogged this on Star in the Stone and commented:
    This is an incredible tale of an Iranian movie director trying to exercize the freedom of speech we take for granted in America – while under house arrest in his own country…

  6. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!
    awesome post!
    The Iranian director Jafar Panahi made a deep impression on me.

  7. It’s so coincidental that I just got this film to watch yesterday and was planning to watch it soon! Then I come onto WordPress and see that a review of it is on Freshly Pressed! I’m so glad WordPress highlighted something like this that is from a part of the world that is often ignored (apart from the nuclear power thing). I have absolute respect for Panahi. I’ve never watched his films (though I have watched stuff by Majidi and Farhadi) but I do know about his 20 year ban. You have to give it to the man – he doesn’t care about anything as long as he gets to create what he truly loves; film. Now how many people are like that? I hope the Iranian government stops this mindlessness. 🙁

    I love this post and I give it five stars out of five. Thanks a lot! And congrats for being on Freshly Pressed! You deserve it! 🙂

  8. Great review!
    This is really a good work. I appreciate your efforts behind that.
    Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

  9. Thanks again for all your positive comments. This is a great community here. You would think a guy and his camera stuck at home would not make for such an exciting film, but this work is truly a marvel of the creative, human spirit. Glad to see Anarya Andir already has the movie (she’s probably outside the US, as it is still only in theaters here).

    Now I must be off to finish another review of a very different movie: ‘Keyhole,’ a surrealist film about ghosts and regrets from Canadian director Gay Maddin.

  10. Great post, very warmly written. I’ve had this film on my radar for a while after reading another review recently and you’ve made me want to see it even more. I’m hoping the Edinburgh Film Festival might show it… The best thing we can do from a distance for Panahi is to go see this movie in droves!

  11. Jafar Panahi, God Bless You, it’s so hard to know what to say to someone who is so courageous in such dangerous circumstances…I pray that the whole world will be inspired to stand behind you…you are an inspiration to anyone concerned with freedom of expression…

    • Good question. I don’t know. He shot this footage in late 2010 and used an HD camera for most, though, as you can see in the still image, he also used an iPhone. Which iPhone was available then?

  12. This is fascinating and riveting! I had not heard the story of this poor man’s plight until reading your post. Thank you for sharing it, and for providing a link for us to petition that his harsh sentence be dropped. I hope I will have a chance to see the movie in the future. It is currently not listed as coming to the Western USA. Congrats on being F-P 🙂

  13. I saw this “effort” at the Vancouver International Film Festival last October, in the “efforts” catagory, of course. This is a must-see. Don’t forget to sign the petition to have Mr. Panahi released. Not that the Iranian regime has much chance of outlasting his sentence, but it wouldn’t hurt to free him sooner.

  14. Very interesting, and sad. It makes me thankful to live in America. It sounds like he really made the most of his situation. Examples like this just go to show that you can’t arrest creativity and determination. Good review.
    God Bless,

  15. After spending some time reading about this movie, I am definitely interested in seeing it. It is hard to imagine being someone who wants to express themselves so badly, yet can’t. I truly take for granted the fact that I can take my camcorder out, shoot something, and then edit it til my hearts content.

  16. now THIS is interesting. I’m quite ashamed of never hearing about it, but now I have so thank you, sounds like something that deserves some attention.

  17. Very interesting, how in these times, we have to make endless disclaimers in order to claim things. The feat made by Panahi is truly subversive even it it claims being divested of the essence that makes it subversive (it being a film). In our times today when everything is deceptively allowed while they are actually prohibited, manipulations like this shall be done by creative thinkers who want to impinge themselves in a social set-up that constantly marginalizes alternative voices. 🙂

  18. Art under adversity is always the best kind.

    The only drawback is how the artists must suffer for it.

    Regardless of those sentiments, it’s a truly gorgeous film in terms of its humanity.

  19. Restrictions can actually increase an artist’s creativity. I want to see this film. Maybe it will come to the Dallas/Fort Worth area.

  20. I wonder if places like Iran will ever change and loose their grip on the people. I’d like to imagine that if I lived there, I would be spending a large amount of my time trying to get the hell out of there.

  21. Thank you for sharing this, I am going to add it to my list of movies I want to watch. It reminds me of an article I read about the Tehran International book festival that bans the inclusion of books that has “subversive content”, such as a boy and a girl — unmarried — merely holding hands.


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