Signs in Rotation

This Is Not a Film: prisoner's diary, aesthetic experiment, and unfinished story
by Aaron Cutler and Mariana Shellard  posted March 5, 2012
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This is a person demanding to be free. Freedom means being able to speak with your own words. She chose to stop pretending she was lost, and left the set to find her way home, but the movie came home with her. Her director was Jafar Panahi, one of Iran's most prominent filmmakers, now imprisoned for trying to work. His current state of house arrest comes 14 years after Mina broke through the mirror. It's the last Wednesday before the Persian New Year in Tehran, a fireworks-filled day of secular celebration, and from inside his apartment, we are following Panahi's effort to communicate.

The Mirror (1997), his second feature, was his first as a writer-director. A few years before that, he had assisted Abbas Kiarostami on Through the Olive Trees (1994), the fictional story of a crew shooting what could be one of Kiarostami's previous movies. After the film Kiarostami gave Panahi a script to direct. The White Balloon (1995) introduced a young girl, Aida, playing a child fearing her mother's anger if she doesn't recover some money dropped through a street grating during the New Year. For The Mirror, Panahi cast Aida's younger sister, Mina, as a lost kid trying to go home from school, but midway through the movie, she unexpectedly decided to stop acting. Film switched to video, fiction to documentary, as Mina removed her cast and threw it away.

Now Panahi is doing the same. He was sentenced to six years in prison and barred from directing, writing screenplays, giving interviews, or leaving the country for 20 years. He has been cast in the role of a political prisoner, and plays it. In between talks with his lawyer, family members, and friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, he kills time while waiting to hear the outcome of his appeal. But these early scenes are staged, to the point where Panahi doesn't even look at the camera. He is the one creating this role, and so can choose to break it, too. He faces the camera eventually and talks freely as himself, dribbling around the circumstances of daily life, and as he does, creates something new.

This Is Not a Film is his effort made in partnership with Mirtahmasb, a documentarian working "behind the scenes of Iranian filmmakers not making films." For much of his life Mirtahmasb has studied Iranian Islamic art and culture and made films on it. During his military service he shot videos about "War and Martyrs." He's also been an assistant director on fiction films, including Mohsen Makhmalbaf's Kandahar. Now he is enabling Panahi to break his cast. With the arrival of a professional cameraman, the former director can explore the space as an actor, a possibility left open by the law. His partner pushes him away from his old role and toward his new one. "If you are going to describe," his friend says, "then leave the rest to me."

Whatever is taken away can add something else. Panahi describes the film he was making when he and his collaborators were arrested. It is the story of a young woman accepted to study arts at the university, but whose traditional family won't let her after finding out through the newspaper. The family goes on vacation and locks her at home. He defines the girl's room and places an imaginary camera looking through an imaginary window. She asks her grandmother to keep her company. The grandmother rejects her request. She's lying on the bed when the telephone rings, and when she picks up, there's nobody there. A burst of anger makes her throw the phone. The anger takes over Panahi, too. "If we could tell a film, then why make a film?" he says, and leaves the room. The fictional story that he was telling became a documentary of an Iranian filmmaker unable to make a film.

We are watching a film of an inability to film. The emphasis shifts from the script to the actor, and the actor becomes the story. By tearing up the script, he tears down the set, and in its place offers multiple other possibilities. A cigarette break on the veranda catches sounds of the city below; a bell ring suggests life outside the front door. Different sounds conduct Panahi and Mirtahmasb's movements. As Panahi gives up describing the unmade work, the movie in process gives up following it, and broadcasts developing news instead.

Tehran is a growing cosmopolitan city. A high-rise resident can look out from his terrace and see construction underway. The city expands independently of any one legislative, religious, or military body, because its development is made by and for its people. Iran is not just an oil nation, but also an industrial one, with plans for economic self-sufficiency by 2015. This is the location that directs the film. Panahi has not been arrested and imprisoned in a cave, nor in a hole, but in his spacious home, where he still has his privacy and access to family and friends. He still has the resources to create.

The New York Times and other Western media outlets portray Iran as a land of destructive tyranny. Panahi and Mirtahmasb show a developing landscape, where even a trash man can earn a Master's degree in fine arts, and where Panahi's condition has freed him to explore different ways of doing his work. The impulse in this supposed documentary is the same as in his supposed fictions—telling the stories of individuals, revealing a greater society in the process.

This Is Not a Film is not subversive. Its creators are clear and straightforward about their situation, turning circumstance into a co-director. Chance interrupts anguish to open the door for a neighbor's loudly barking dog. "You're making an actor out of me!" a new visitor cries later, fulfilling a desire for company. Actors, location, and circumstance collaborate to shape a subject, which merges with its documentation into one body of work. 

As the camera becomes a mobile phone, the sense of a partnership grows, and the drama changes, briefly shifting from one man to another. Mirtahmasb has given Panahi his director's role back, and becomes the subject of his own documentary research. He is offering his freedom, too. The condition exposed is no longer an individual's, but a group's.

At this moment Mirtahmasb, who was allowed to attend This is Not a Film's Cannes premiere, is out on bail after three months in prison, and awaiting trial for helping make a Persian BBC documentary about the Ayatollah Khomeini. Panahi's appeal was denied in October, and although he is allowed to leave his apartment, he can also be arrested again at any time. But their joint effort is less a political protest and more a discussion on film. A prisoner's diary develops into an aesthetic experiment as they insist on keeping the cameras on. A story is never finished as long as someone is telling it. The future lies open.

Mirtahmasb heads toward the door, the camera keeping him close, until there's another shift—he steps into the elevator, and a young man gets out to pick up the trash. A different story is entering into view. The young man's name is Hassan. Panahi leaves the apartment with him, and as they ride downstairs, we learn that Hassan was inside the building the day the police came for the filmmaker. He tries to tell the story, but circumstances keep interrupting, and the details of his personal life seem more engaging, anyway.

Special thanks to Imovision, Susan Norget, and Jamsheed Akrami. 


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Palisades Tartan
Jafar Panahi in This Is Not a Film, directed by Mojtaba Mirtahmasb and Jafar Panahi
Photo Gallery: Signs in Rotation


Aaron Cutler is a writer in São Paulo. His film writings can be found at

More articles by Aaron Cutler

Mariana Shellard is a Brazilian visual artist. Recent work can be seen at

More articles by Mariana Shellard