For many filmgoers, the work of Jafar Panahi has defined Iranian cinema since it began getting all that attention in the '90s, with parables about sad-eyed children and lost shoes and whatever metaphorical chicanery was necessary to get by the subtlety-free minds of the mullahs.
He has also made more overtly political critiques, such as the delightful "Offside," about soccer-crazy Iranian girls sneaking into a 2006 World Cup qualifier between Iran and Bahrain. But his obvious distaste for his nation's theocratic regime, and a refusal to stick to allegory, led to a 2009 arrest and a cruel and unusual penalty call: a six-year prison term and 20-year ban from making movies, giving interviews or leaving the country.
It's not quite clear what the Iranian authorities make of "This Is Not a Film," which is credited to Panahi and co-director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb. Shot in Panahi's Tehran apartment using a video camera and an iPhone, it was transferred to a USB drive and smuggled (inside a cake) into the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. To say it is not a film is to question what a film is. Which is exactly what Panahi does.
After breakfast, and talking about his case with his lawyer on the phone, the nondirector talks about the movie he wasn't allowed to make, using masking tape to define the imaginary set he describes in his living room. Contemplating his fate, he loses his composure, but then segues into a riff on actors, and explains the realization of his films (such as "The White Balloon"), and we see clips from the films under discussion. It certainly seems like cinema.
Of course, if you're looking for special effects, "This Is Not a Film" is not the film. But there are fireworks -- and an ending that's as dramatic as anything made by any director making a film, which is something Panahi accomplishes with a bit of a wink, and no small amount of courage.
CAST Jafar Panahi
PLAYING AT Sag Harbor Cinema
BOTTOM LINE Not your standard documentary, but hearteningly defiant, intellectually provocative. (In Farsi, with English subtitles.)