Smuggled into Cannes in a flash drive concealed inside a birthday cake, This Is Not a Film made a profound impact on the film scene in 2011. Nominated for an Academy Award shortly after, it's been followed by two films from Iranian director Jafar Panahi. That might be normal for any other filmmaker, but not for Panahi – even before This Is Not a Film took shape, he was issued with a 20-year ban on his craft by the Iranian government.
Set in Panahi's home, This Is Not a Film is shot in an occasionally overexposed setting on handheld and iPhone cameras. Yet, the seemingly amateur nature of its filming has resulted in one of the most raw and candid works of recent times.
This Is Not a Film follows Panahi in the midst of his house arrest, going about his day and attempting to re-enact scenes from a film he would have made if not for the ban. His logic: if he is the sole actor instead of being a director (his friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb initially takes on the direction), he can still execute the movie. His efforts slowly begin to crumble in quiet desperation, and we see Panahi's struggle to keep his craft alive crack through the purported fiction.
As the documentary progresses, it's clear that he isn't leading an ordinary lifestyle. The everyday tasks of Panahi's life are mired in political turmoil, and what captivates is witnessing how he keeps a hold on his creative process despite the chaos around him. Outside his window, the audience is made astutely aware of gunshot sounds in the distance.
The documentary's tongue-in-cheek moments keep its tone from going entirely morose. Panahi and Mirtahmasb frequently joke about the film's direction, and questions of how This Is Not a Film would ever screen in a cinema appear to be directed at the audience – meta indeed. While the film deals with undeniably dark subjects of prison and house arrest, its pockets of humour add light-heartedness to Panahi's unfavourable situation.
At the end of it all, the feeling that really takes one over is awe. It's a short, bittersweet look inside the struggles of an unwavering creative spirit in light of restrictions and political instability. This Is Not A Film, and what Panahi's accomplished since then, have been remarkable — we can only look forward to what he'll do next.