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Who would seriously contend that the collection of intersecting lines above the text is a pipe?

--Michel Foucault, "this Is Not a Pipe" (1968)

THIS IS NOTA FILM certainly is one--but, as Samuel Beckett, or Abbott and Costello, might say, "Watt is Knott?"

Few presentations at Cannes last May were less ostentatious and no event, not even the expulsion of Lars von Trier, was more dramatic than the appearance of Jafar Panahi's first-person essay, a home movie produced under house arrest by a filmmaker sentenced to six years in prison and banned for twenty from making films (and giving interviews) for his "propaganda against the system"--what some might call "the treachery of images."

Smuggled out of Iran on a USB thumb drive concealed inside a cake, This Is Not a Film was titled to confound--but whom? Was it the Iranian authorities, who, in any case, are free to interpret Panahi's "effort" (as the end titles describe it), a collaboration with the documentarian Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, however they wash? Was it the festival audience, who seemed pretty much knocked out by Panahi's resourcefulness, honesty, and conceptual intelligence? Or was Panahi, a practitioner of Iranian neorealist self-reflexive cinema (The Mirror [1997]), whose deceptively modest movies (The White Balloon [1995], Crimson Gold [2003]) can be both blatantly metaphoric and powerfully concrete (The Circle [2000], Offside [2006]), addressing himself?

This Is Not a Film redeems the well-worn clich that modern art should be largely concerned with the conditions of its own making. Not that it is a straightforward recording; although the action appears to unfold on the noisy eve of the Persian New7 Year, which coincides with the first anniversary of Panahi's arrest, it was actually shot over a ten-day period, and hence is nonsequential. The opening image is of an empty kitchen table in a comfortable, modern high-rise with an impressive view of the Tehran skyline. Panabi enters, sits down, and phones Mirtahmasb to come over: "I have a few ideas I want to tell you about." Cue the title.

It is apparent from the beginning that Panahi is not himself using the camera. Either his family members have turned on the device and left it running or Mirtahmasb, whose presence is as yet unindicated, has been shooting the filmmaker as he makes tea, feeds his daughter's pet iguana, and takes a phone call from his lawyer. Soon, however, Panahi is experimenting with ways to make a film without seeming to direct his cohort. "Do you remember The Mirror?" he asks, cuing a cut to the scene in which that movie's subject, six-year-old Miiia, breaks character and announces that she's finished acting. The next shot shows the crew, the director among them. Watching his own movie, Panahi remarks that hes now in the same position as Mina, giving an inauthentic performance. …