In his Tehran apartment, the filmmaker Jafar Panahi sits down to breakfast with a video camera pointed at himself. For a man being tyrannized, he seems in decent spirits. His apartment, the camera records, is brightly lit and well appointed, his breakfast tactfully deluxe. Somewhere outside a muffled boom occurs. Then a siren. Panahi doesn't seem surprised or disturbed. He's focused, reflecting on his own situation.
For "making propaganda against the system," Panahi has been sentenced by Iranian authorities to six years in prison, and 20 without making more films. Under house arrest and awaiting the outcome of an appeal, he spends some time on the phone with a lawyer, then summons a colleague, cameraman Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, for assistance with the video diary already under way. This Is Not a Film is what they'll call the result, and that's true enough. It's merely an "effort," by which the prisoner of conscience testifies to his experience. Disarmingly, and rivetingly, his approach is not so much a matter of rebellious defiance as of creative problem-solving.
Stasis being the focus of its examination, the camera doesn't move much, and neither does the story. But in his sly way Panahi commands attention. He resorts to blocking out and reading from a pending script -- about a girl who can't go to art school because her parents have locked her in her room -- and even his spoken description of the opening shot is transfixing. Inevitably, though, ingrained circumspection gives way to frustration. "If we could tell a film, why make a film?" Panahi says, stepping gloomily out onto the balcony for a smoke and a moment alone. Later, perusing DVDs of his previous films reveals earlier precedents for Panahi's adaptiveness as a seeker of serendipity, but also makes clear how necessary freedom is to him.
In recent years, with minor variations, "This Is Not a Film" has been a movie title several times. As such it evokes the self-interrogating art prank of René Magritte's 1929 painting of a pipe, under which was written "Ceci n'est pas une pipe." The English title of that painting is The Treachery of Images. Sometimes it's translated as The Treason of Images, although that might sound a little dramatic to anyone but the Iranian authorities. Before Magritte, in 1772, Denis Diderot wrote a story called This Is Not a Story.
Panahi's project is nicely tempered by an awareness that everything radical also is cyclical. Accordingly his title seems by turns cheeky, despondent, and sincere. Good artists understand the usefulness of restriction, and This Is Not a Film draws much power from its maker's humility. A conviction to continue his work is not the same as a sense of entitlement. Of course there is that also basic satisfaction of a big FU -- the not-trivial moral victory of having out-maneuvered and humiliated a bully, without ever stooping. That Panahi maintains his dignity is the essence of the effort, and more than adequate cause to make it.
All the not-film lacks is a scene of its own epilogue: Reportedly smuggled out of Iran on a USB stick hidden in a cake, it made it to France just in times for Cannes. Later, Mirtahmasb spent three months in prison for his participation. Panahi remains under house arrest, awaiting a ruling on his latest appeal.
This Is Not a Film opens Friday, April 6, 2012, at the SF Film Society Cinema, 1746 Post Street, San Francisco. For tickets and information, visit sffs.org.