When I first heard that a film was coming out called 'This is Not a Film' I thought like that owl jpg - "O-RLY?" It's still a film, isn't it, that don't make no sense. But as with most things, context is what counts, and this case is crucial for understanding the title. It's akin to when System of a Down put out that album called "Steal This Album" (or maybe that was Abbie Hoffman with his "Steal This Book"). The very title is an act of defiance against the powers that be. And for Jafar Panahi, the mere fact that any thing resembling a film from him now is nothing less than a miracle - and a courageous one.
The short of it: Panahi, an Iranian filmmaker who has worked steadily but with a controversial air about him for years (his film "The Circle" was all but over in Iran until he smuggled it to the Venice film festival where it won the Golden Lion - Booyah), but was arrested along with several other filmmakers during the presidential elections in Iran (the official reason being "was making a film against the regime and it was about the events that followed the  election." (from IMDb bio page), though it really had to do with Iran's top film culture being among the most awfully strict and prohibitive in the world).
While under house arrest awaiting his sentence - which, as we see in one heartbreaking but sobering phone call with his lawyer, is not something he can get off on by appeal, at least not none-too-easily (both for a prison sentence and a ban on filmmaking) - Panahi can't stand it any longer - out of boredom, or rebellion, or just being a natural storyteller, he asks over a documentarian friend, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, to help document... something, anything.
His friend tries to tell Jafar simply - he can't make films. But Panahi is incredulous - "Well, this is not a film". Maybe he's right, in a certain point of view. His rationale is that he's been unable to make a film out of one of his scripts, which is about a young woman who wants to go to study at a university for the arts, but is banned by her traditionalist parents and locked up in her house. This script, of course, was banned by the Iranian censors, as were other scripts Panahi has tried to make in the past. So, on video, for all the world to see (or just for his own sense of sanity and/or self-worth) he decides to put it on the record, and reads/performs/talks through the script on camera.... or he tries to.
That's what is interesting here, is seeing the stark, painful reality of this man's plight, how a real director with an eye for visual detail - and a knowledge that not everything can be in his control, as he gives a little commentary on a couple of actors in his past films - and a sense of how to place details in a dramatic story, can't do his job. He tries to do is set-up with masking tape on the floor in his living room, to make up a mock set-up of the set he has in mind for the script he reads. And he starts to go through with it on camera... and then stops. He can't keep going, and has a moment5 where he knows this is stupid, that you can't "tell" a story like this, and that he should just make a movie. He walks off camera, presumably to get more emotional than he can bare. But he doesn't need to - the camera has already seen so much.
The power and wonder of this "non"-film is that Panahi, by design or by accident, maybe a little of both, answers his own question about how one can make a film when there's nothing really there to "make". He talks about what happened with a young actress on one of his films who didn't want to do the scene anymore and got off a bus; she was wearing a cast for the scene but took it off. Panahi decided to keep on filming her from inside the bus, and this is what he decides to do at this moment in his apartment, to 'take the cast off' as it were. But even as he despairs, there's things to see and experience, and his camera can notice things just happening on their own accord, like his pet lizard roaming through a book-case or clinging tenaciously to his body as he tries to type.
The other part of the power of it is that he had the courage to make it at all. By how the government would want, he wouldn't be able to touch a camera. But thanks to his friend, and the tenacious use of a camera in his phone (not used too much, just enough to get the point across that it's there and can create usable footage), Panahi won't let the camera stop. Incredibly to me, the footage was shot over the course of ten days, when in its presentation it looks like Panahi just turned the camera on and off in one day. That by itself is a testament to how simple and realistic everything is presented. At the same time he questions how one can make a film just in one location as this - a problem he tried to address in one of his scripts - and so it goes into meta territory about how to make a film (i.e. the technical aspects, is there too much light coming through the windows, the noise outside, etc) while not making a film that ultimately becomes a film that is smuggled out like contraband in a cake on a usb drive.
It looks like the film is about to end - a shame, actually, since it is quite short - but then Panahi, with his genuine inquisitive nature and good will, continues filming when his friend leaves but as another young person, a trash collector and acquaintance of the family, comes to call. The one-man film crew follows the young doing-janitor-work-as-a-favor in the elevator as he goes from floor to floor. Here we realize that not only has a world been developed in the short span of time we've been with Panahi, and even more remarkably with humor - such as the little dog that the neighbor asks the filmmaker to hold on to, but refuses - but that there is still danger to be had with the mere act of holding a camera. The last shot, going on for something like eight minutes in this interview, concludes with the director going outside. He's warned that people might be watching him (and it's Fireworks Wednesday in that part of Iran - an awesome back-drop in the second half of the film). He keeps shooting, albeit from a distance. Fuck em.
I don't know if Panahi will make a film again. At the time of this writing, he's in prison for quite a number of years and banned from making films for longer. Frankly, I feel guilty now having not seen one of his works - which, by the sound of them are terribly interesting and already important and relevant to the world at large, not just Iranian life - but that I can see this at all is a sign of freedom of expression, and a plea for art to have a place in everyday life. This is Not a Film is not captivating in a sledghammer-to-the-head way; its message is always present, yet the presentation is like that of a home movie by a goddamned winner of the Venice Golden Lion. Just watching the man eat his breakfast and drink some tea is masterful in terms of using the space of the frame, how its composed, and how he is never self-conscious in front of the camera. In a sense, he gives one of the best 'performances' of the year: a director on the edge of existence.