"When hairdressers get bored they start cutting each other's hair," Mojtaba Mirtahmasb tells Jafar Panahi in This Is Not a Film. The two men are filmmakers so, with nothing else to do, they are filming each other as they have this conversation in Panahi's kitchen, with Mirtahmasb holding a professional camera while Panahi records on his iPhone. This is the only type of filming that Jafar Panahi can get away with. In 2010, Panahi was arrested by the Iranian government on vague charges and sentenced to six years in jail, along with a 20-year ban on making films, writing screenplays, giving any media interviews or leaving the country. As he awaits news on his appeal, Panahi is under house arrest, stuck in his apartment while his family are away visiting relatives and noisy New Year celebrations take place outside. He invites his friend, fellow director Mirtahmasb, to come round, and between them they begin to construct something, even if Panahi refuses to call it a film.
What emerges from This Is Not a Film is a fascinating portrait of a restless artistic spirit trying to find an outlet for his creativity. Mirtahmsasb likes the idea of making a documentary that goes “behind the scenes of Iranian filmmakers not making films,” but Panahi has more interesting ideas, and he begins reading from a screenplay he wrote and was in the process of casting before his arrest. The director marks out a rudimentary set on his floor with tape – almost like a mini-Dogville – and then he begins detailing the shots he had worked out, before reading and acting out the various parts. He quickly realises that this idea is pointless, however – "if we could tell a film then why bother making a film?" he asks – and to illustrate this point he plays a scene from Crimson Gold, in which an actor's unexpected action made the scene into something more than it was on the page.
This Is Not a Film eventually develops into something more than its setup seems to offer too, even if Panahi and Mirtahmsasb don't seem to have a clear idea of what they're filming or why. There's little shape to the film, with the pair frequently being distracted by interruptions – calls from Panahi's lawyer, the family's Iguana crawling across the director's shoulder, a neighbour attempting to leave her annoying dog with him while she goes out – but what comes through in these moments is Panahi's need to record all of this. In his films he always enjoyed working with non-actors, so just capturing real life through a lens is important for him.
What comes through more than anything in This Is Not a Film is the sense of humour, playfulness and curiosity that Panahi exhibits and the absence of anger, despite his oppression. This Is Not a Film is a very funny movie, never more so than when a young man turns up to collect Panahi's trash and finds himself becoming the unwitting star of the film, with the director following him on his rounds to the other floors. The man tells us about his work, studies and family, but we never find out his name; in fact, we don't discover the names of anyone involved in the film beyond those of Panahi and Mirtahmsasb (who has now also been arrested) as the closing credits are redacted in a grim reminder of the danger an endeavour like this brings. Panahi may insist that this is not a film, but it is a courageous, witty and vital act of defiance.