A simple description of what transpires in "This Is Not a Film" doesn't begin to convey its power. With Mirtahmasb mostly acting as cameraman, we see Panahi, under what appears to be house arrest, alone in his Tehran apartment – talking to his family and lawyer on the phone; talking to himself and to Mirtahmasb; navigating the heavily censored Internet; playing with his pet iguana, Igi; commenting on his old movies; watching from the balcony the fireworks celebrating the Iranian New Year. (At first we don't know the source of the explosions, which could just as well be bombs.)
After Mirtahmasb leaves for the day, a friendly young man, somewhat in awe of Panahi, comes by as temporary custodian to pick up the trash. Grabbing a camera, Panahi follows him on his rounds as he takes the elevator to each floor. In cramped quarters, the boy good-naturedly pours out his life story to the director, who surely knows that what he is doing, innocuous as it seems, is forbidden by law.
This filmic gesture is nevertheless of immense significance. What Panahi is saying here, what the whole movie is saying, is that his desire for creative expression cannot be quelled. In itself, this is not proof of Panahi's artistry, just his gumption. But he is, in fact, a marvelous filmmaker whose movies, in sometimes semicovert ways, have often circumvented government restrictions and revealed a great deal about Iranian societal injustice. ("The Circle" was especially critical of the treatment of women under the Islamist regime.)
Panahi's airy apartment, decorated with sculptures and curios and lined with books, is a sunny prison. He seems caged in. In the film's most powerful sequence, he lays out with tape on a large floor rug the visual game plan of the feature film he was forced to abandon upon his arrest. Script in hand, he kneels on the ground and describes his film to us. It is about a young woman whose parents forbid her to attend college and lock her in her room. The metaphoric weight of this scene is resoundingly obvious. Panahi seems caught up in his visualization of his movie; for a moment he is transported into a realm where he once again is a filmmaker. But then reality comes crashing down. Disgusted, he says, "If we could tell a film then why make a film?" and walks away from the camera.