TIFF 2011's opening night festivities were emblematic of the Festival's sometimes chaotic diversity. While a press screening of the highly-anticipated Moneyball and the world premiere of Davis Guggenheim's U2 doc From the Sky Down thrilled the red carpet media at other theaters, one of the larger screens at TIFF's flagship venue, the Bell Lightbox, hosted a free screening of This is Not a Film, the 75-minute video diary documenting a day in the life of Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi.
Panahi has been under house arrest in his apartment in Tehran since May 2010, after spending nearly three months in Evin Prison. The internationally celebrated director (a neorealist who works often with non-actors and real locations, his most recent film was 2007's Offiside) spent nearly three months in prison last year, and is currently appealing a sentence of six years in prison and a 20 year ban from filmmaking on charges of “assembly and colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country's national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic.” (Panahi's wife has said her husband, an outspoken supporter of the opposition movement who was initially arrested near a gathering at the grave of slain protester Neda Agha-Soltan, had been working on a film that “had nothing to do with the regime.”)
This is Not a Film, billed in the end credits as “an effort by Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb,” is a dispatch from Panahi's life behind closed doors — it stemmed from Mirtahmasb's desire to go “behind the scenes of Iranian filmmakers not making films” — and as such it's implicitly about the regime that put him there. That regime is well aware of the film, which was infamously smuggled out of Iran for its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival on a flash drive hidden in a cake. Originally scheduled to appear in Toronto with the movie, Mirtahmasb on Monday was stopped at Tehran Airport, where his passport and luggage were confiscated, and he was barred from leaving the country. That very recent turn of events gives chilling irony to one moment in Film, in which Mirtahmasb, filmed by Panahi on his iPhone, says with a laugh, “Take a shot of me in case I'm arrested.”
In the first scene, Panahi calls Mirtahmasb and cagily invites him over, refusing to state the purpose of the visit over the phone. When he arrives, Panahi asks Mirtahmasb to be his cameraman for a day, which will include activities mundane and borderline seditious, basic routine leaving room for both manic highs and somber lows. He feeds and is later tackled his kid's pet iguana; he calls his lawyer and learns that he'll almost definitely be going back to prison (“the rulings are 100 percent political, and not judicial at all,” we hear his defender say over speakerphone); he finds an everyday farce unfolding within his apartment building. There's dry and unexpected humor all throughout: when Panahi, from in front of the camera, asks Mirtahmasb to “cut,” the cameraman refuses: “You are not directing. It's an offense.”
Panahi shows Mirtahmasb excerpts from his own films, which powerfully demonstrate how his ability to adapt to life happening in front of the lens has defined his artistry, and for awhile Panahi seems to be treating his house arrest and ban from filmmaking as just another unexpected twist to navigate. He suggests that he read from and explain his most recent screenplay — the story of a young woman trapped in her own house by her conservative-fundamentalist parents — which the Iranian ministry, charged with approving all in-country filmmaking, rejected even before his arrest. But after excitedly reading and blocking out the script's first scene, Panahi's enthusiasm wanes: “If we could tell a film, why make a film?”
“Why make a film?” is one question that haunts This is Not a Film, a title functioning as ironic declaration, sincere defense and clear-eyed provocation. Being Panahi has been specifically banned from “filmmaking,” “what is film? and “what is making?” bubble to the surface, too. What's most striking considering the severity of Panahi's situation is the playfulness he applies to these inquiries. This is Not a Film is not a film, insofar as that it has no relationship to celluloid — fully digitally sourced, it reminds that the very terminology we use to talk about motion pictures is on its last legs — but it's breathtakingly cinematic, a cannily crafted verite crackling with immediacy. As much as it's a political statement, an act of defiance, a master class in one auteur's body of work and process, and a document of a life unseen, it's also, maybe most miraculously, a never-a-dull-moment entertainment.