This is Not a Film in Film Festivals

A Postmodern Iranian film from Cannes to HKIFF

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The 2011 work of the Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s This is Not a Film (aka In Film Nist), with Mojtaba Mirtahmasb as co-director, is the most interesting “film” I have seen in recent years, especially when it is situated in the context of film festivals. The title has reflexively inspired the audience to think about the problematics of cinema — What is a film? Who are the filmmaker and audience? What is a film festival?

It is also interesting to explore the traces of politics inside and outside this work. I will examine the interaction among film festivals, national politics and film; and the political implications of international film festivals. I will also analyze the content and style of the film as a production in the postmodern culture.

In the latter part of the essay, I will shift the focus to Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF), which has shown This is Not a Film this year. The screening of the same film, as an event, has come about so differently from that in Cannes. I will discuss the political (or apolitical) marks or signs of HKIFF since its beginning, as well as the condition of the film in the festival.

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Part I: the Film and the Director

I shall argue This is Not a Film is a film in spite of its self-denial title. Nevertheless, the whole thing has posed challenges to the existing concept and practice of “film”, both by the Iranian government and the filmmaker himself.

The Background

Such film was made directly because it was not allowed to be made, thanks to the Iranian government. The director Jafar Panahi would not have made this home-movie (literally speaking) if he had not been banned from making film for 20 years and kept under house-arrest by the Iranian authority (B. de M., “In Film Nist [This Is Not A Film] by Jafar Panahi”).

Panahi was firstly arrested in 2010, after he had attended a demonstration in memory of Neda Agha-Soltan, a woman killed by the Iranian force during the Green Movement in 2009. He was released after a short detention (Cheshire 77). The police arrested Panahi again in March 2010, before he was invited as a jury member in Cannes Film Festival to be held in May. Panahi wrote an open letter from the jail to Cannes, and started a hunger strike to protest. Famous filmmakers such as Tim Burton and Francis Ford Coppola, called for his release; while Panahi’s mentor, renowned Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami made the press conference for his first European film Certified Copy a political event, in which he called for the release of Panahi and condemned the Iranian government. Juliette Binoche, the “Best Actress” of that year, also urged for the freedom of Panahi when she received the award. Panahi was released on bail after those international outcries (Wong 170–171).

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However, in December 2010, The Iranian government sentenced Panahi to jail for 6 years, banned him from making film and leaving the country for 20 years, accusing him of making a “anti-regime” film (“Iran filmmaker Panahi gets six years in jail: lawyer”). Such a severe punishment was on par with a “death sentence“to a director aged 50 and who had been active in the international festival circuit (“Iran filmmaker Panahi gets six years in jail: lawyer”). The penalty was tailored made.

This is the background of This is Not a Film. Panahi grasped the period of pending appeal verdict to seek all possibilities to help himself. During that interval, he was on bail but under house arrest. On the day of the traditional fire festival, with a digital camera and a smart-phone, Panahi made a motion picture as the direct resistance or disturbance to the ban, with the help of another director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb (Onians, “Iranian dissident’s ‘This Is Not A Film’ premieres at Cannes”). The finished product was then saved in a USB drive, hidden in a cake and smuggled to Cannes 2011 for its premiere (Patterson, “Jafar Panahi was banned from directing or editing … and still got a movie out”). Panahi was then conferred the Carrosse d’Or (Golden Coach) prize in the festival by Société des Réalisateurs de Films (SRF), as a recognition of the courageous and independent filmmaker (Griffiths, “Cannes film festival 2011: Jafar Panahi wins Carrosse d’Or”).

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Content and Style

This is Not a Film could be the final work of Panahi. The sanction on the director is the nullification of film, which has incited Panahi to play on such negation. As a local critic Longtin comments in one line: “Neither surrealism nor meta-creation is sufficient to describe, not to affirm through negation, not also to retrograde/ indicate, but, it actually is the negation per se!” (4). If Panahi was not allowed to make a film, what would be allowed for him to make as close to but not a film? Is there a line defining what is a film and what is not, thus also demarcating what is directing and what is not? Does Longtin actually mean a “non-film”? What is it?

This is Not a Film was mainly shot in Panahi’s apartment, and the later part in an elevator. The first scene is Panahi having breakfast, while talking on the phone. He set the camera on a tripod or the top of furniture to make a fixed medium shot. He called Mirtahmasb to his place to see what they can do. Then he put the camera in the corner of his bedroom, in which he listened to the voice message from his wife. Panahi returned to the table, with a cup of tea, talking to the lawyer about his appeal case. The lawyer told him the judiciary would not spare him from imprisonment and filmmaking ban, but some discount on the duration of the penalty was possible. She also mentioned that some internal and foreign pressure to the government may help. Panahi thought the internal protest would be rather infeasible, while international pressure is the only hope. This opening is well set as an introduction to the documentary. Panahi set the frame stable, from a medium distance, and switched the speaker of his phone aloud to ensure that the conversations were clearly audible. Concisely Panahi has informed the viewers about the background of this project, his then situation and the major scene; also another key figure, Mirtahmasb, was expected to show up. This opening is deliberately and well set, although this is a documentary that what happened in the frame should be real — wait, is it really a documentary? What is a documentary? What is “real”? These questions have constituted the problematics around the central inquiry of “what is a film”.

Rob White asks “are we watching Panahi the documentary subject or a character named Jafar?” (6). Panahi himself also doubted about that. As he wanted to test the line of “not making a film” but doing something close, he put himself as a subject of a fixed camera, like a person captured by a closed-circuit camera. Seemingly he was in a passive position, so he did not actively make a film. Is it a “non-film”, something similar to a film but not in its usual sense? But the problem is that he set the camera for himself, and decided what to be recorded. He was directing. Therefore Panahi asked Mirtahmasb to be the director and cinematographer, so that he would not break the rule. Nevertheless, “the rule” also refers to the rule of documentary, about the authenticity of what is framed. Panahi could not tolerate himself acting in front of the camera he set for himself, in a manner that as if he was behaving as usual, eating, making tea and feeding a pet, and that what had been captured was natural and real. The harder he tried to do that, the more pretentious he found himself.

Godfrey Cheshire thinks Panahi was “a filmmaker-as-actor in a documentary-like fiction (or fiction-like documentary?) about his own life” (80). Throughout the film — or even his filmmaking career — Panahi has been walking where in-between, reflecting on the differentiation between film and “non-film”, documentary and fiction, etc. He showed a clip of his previous work The Mirror (1997) to Mirtahmasb and the viewers, and explained how he felt unnatural especially when he tried to act naturally. He was like the little actress who suddenly disrupted her own performance, shouting that “I am not acting!”, threw away the custom cast, and insisted to go home immediately. As an amateur she seemed to face an identity crisis, especially when the film carried a naturalistic style, which made her feel repulsive. Panahi, a film master, found himself an amateur like the girl, in an embarrassing position that he could not cope with.

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With Mirtahmasb as the director, Panahi could try another possibility of a “non-film”. He took a script and read it out, also tried to demonstrate his idea about the framing and performance of the actors on the rug, using plastic tape to mark the setting. This kind of “cinematic demonstration” — which is not a film — was not listed in the banning. Panahi once got delighted about that, until he suddenly stopped, rubbed his hair and turned his head away, saying “If we could tell a film, then why make a film?” After all cinematography is different from storytelling, Panahi was so frustrated and made clear that the film-telling demonstration was not a film, but what he really wanted was to make a film.

When Panahi returned calm, he gave the third strike of making a “non-film” — if he shot through the lens of an iPhone, would that avoid filmmaking? It is just a gadget that ordinary people possess, recording about their daily life. Similarly, Panahi used the iPhone to take down what was outside the window — swing crane from the construction site, fireworks far ways, and Mirtahmasb who was pointing the digital camera towards him — which should not be regarded as filmmaking. On the contrary, the inter-shooting directors also revealed that the confinement of Panahi by the government seemed to be effective, as the directors finally run out of creativity so that they could only film at each other.

However, Panahi is not ordinary, but a talented film artist who would not be satisfied by using those video-taking appliances like general consumers do. In the following analysis, the ideas of postmodern culture of Fredric Jameson would be useful in illustrating cinematography of This is Not a Film.

First comes the concept of “textuality”. Generally speaking, film, like writing, is a text that seemingly conveys some meaning. The meaning seems to be constituted by the relation between the signifier and the signified, the word and the object that is represented. However, the concept has changed, according to Lacan, that meaning is actually constructed through the “the interlocking syntagmatic series of signifiers”, while the signified/meaning is just the “meaning-effect”, the projection by the interaction among signifiers. However, in the postmodern era, even the relationship between signifiers breaks down, meaning is lost and “a rubble of distinct and unrelated signifiers” is left. Jameson terms this formulation as textuality, or écriture, or schizophrenic writing (Jameson, “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” 71–72). Panahi’s films are social and cultural critiques that he has covered the conditions of the powerless groups in Iranian society, who are subject to the religious law and other constraints. Those subjects and their conditions are what Panahi’s films represent, i.e. the meanings of his films. Iranian government’s prosecution of Panahi can be seen as affirming those films are “meaningful”. Through the penalty of imprisonment and filmmaking ban, the regime has tried to segregate Panahi (the meaning maker), the film (signifier) and social reality (signified). This has pushed the director to make something postmodern, given that the object of postmodern art “is not the outside world but rather only a photograph of the outside world, […] they are really art about art, images of other images” (Jameson, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” 123). In the situation of house arrest, Panahi could only make a film without referring to the outside world. He had to turn on himself, and his previous works, thus made a film about film, with a director directing another director.

Panahi’s apartment was the prison which had restricted what he and Mirtahmasb could film about. This constraint reached its peak when they had to shoot each other. It looked similar to the illusion of mise-en-abyme, as in Mirtahmasb’s digital camera it was Panahi recording with his iPhone, and vice versa. Actually, those cameras differed from two contrasting mirrors that created infinite reproducing images; rather they were the blockages of each other. When Panahi shot Mirtahmasb, his own image was not reflected in Mirtahmasb’s lens, and vice versa. They just stopped each other.

Therefore, the inter-shooting by the two directors becomes an epitome of the confining condition of Panahi, physically and mentally. Jameson notes that “Cultural production has been driven back inside the mind, within the monadic subject: it can no longer look directly out of its eyes at the real world for the referent but must, as in Plato’s cave, trace its mental images of the world on its confining walls. If there is any realism left here, it is a ‘realism’ which springs from the shock of grasping that confinement” (Jameson, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” 118). Since Panahi could not refer to the social reality outside, he had to turn the lens to his own plight, with his previous works as references to demonstrate various constraints that he as a director has been facing — this was the reality that he could grasp within incarceration.

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The analogy of Plato’s cave also marks the emergence of “pastiche”, along with the decline of the individual subject (Jameson, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” 114). Panahi has been punished for his film directing, that means he was the director-subject, the auteur, who should be responsible for those cultural creations. With the “death of the subject”, the assumption that the individual artist transforms what one observes and experiences into creative works with personal styles — has come to an end (Jameson, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” 115). This has led to the rise of pastiche. When the artist finds himself confined in Plato’s cave, art imitates itself (Jameson, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” 115–118). Panahi has pointed out the dissociation of the “director-subject” in the film. Director is one with power, especially when one said “action” or “cut”. Panahi’s power has gone, and he tried to explain actually it was not him as a creative subject who was directing. He had never been that powerful to direct as he wanted, rather there were other factors and subjects that have also been the “directors”. To this point, Panahi was to deconstruct the “director-subject” as well as his own films, altogether, by showing clips of previous works on the plasma screen. There were a clip of The Mirror (1997) and one from Crimson Gold (2003) that illustrated somehow the actors’ performance (or non-performance in the former) went beyond the control of the director, so he just followed and interplay with their improvisation; while in the clip of The Circle (2000), it was the location directing, effecting in something unexpected; and he brought this point from the plasma screen to the frame of This is Not a Film, that his own apartment was also directing. Following this approach, we can also say the Iranian authority is also one of the directors of this film, which has explored the possibility of “non-film” and “non-director”, with the legal suppression as a negation of cinema, which has provoked a cinematic resistance.

In the latter part of the film, Mirtahmasb had to leave, and Panahi decided to take the digital camera to interview a young man accidentally passed by. The director just ignored the banning. As he followed the young man to the elevator and conducted an interview, Panahi returned to a stage closest to his “usual” — filming the struggling individuals in Iranian society — with the cramped elevator as the “co-director”.

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Part II: Politics & Film Festivals

The following part would situate This is Not a Film within the context of film festivals, especially Cannes and HKIFF, kind of comparison, with respect to those political implications of the film and film festivals.

Europe and Cannes

Actually, I regard This is Not a Film as a film as long as it is selected in film festivals, among other movies. 15 film festivals have shown that film. We may say the festival-programmers have decided this visual project as a “film”, regardless of the self-negating title. The idea of “non-film” also points to something as not-a-film but sometimes falls on the crevice between what is a film and what is not; something that allows or induces what originally in a film could go beyond a film — such as politics. Therefore we may see This is Not a Film as not merely a film, but also a political action which calls for international help, and to raise a humanitarian concern about the predicament of artists in Iran. This leads to a question: would those film festivals showing This is Not a Film become political venues?

A comparison between Cannes and HKIFF shows two distinctive cases concerning the political factors, and I will start with Cannes. Thomas Elsaesser, referring to European festivals, indicates that many film festivals have been born political (89). Dennis Broe recalls that the beginning of the Cannes festival in 1939 as a political countercheck against the Venice Film Festival initiated by the Fascist Italian government (39).

On the other hand, individual films that touch on political issues selected in film festivals would also bring politics to the events, such as films that reveal the social problems in developing countries, or critique to global capitalism, thus the media has become a sort of resistance (Broe 35). For the case of Panahi, the Cannes festival is one significant location of the incident, as described in the earlier part of this essay, When he was arrested in 2010, participants of Cannes have become the counterforce, the outcry from the filmmakers with international fame could raise public concerns (“Iran filmmaker Panahi gets six years in jail: lawyer” ). Panahi was released on bail soon after those actions, but sentenced to imprisonment and film banning later that year (Wong 170–171).

Wong notes that “If the impact of festivals as transnational public spheres on politics is tangible, Cannes, with its well-known participants […] and its massive press coverage, is affecting some form of transnational efficacy. However, this power can be elusive” (170–171). After all, a film festival could only play a side role on the political stage. On the other hand, Elsaesser is rather positive. Many film festivals are “counter-festivals” that have their rivals, from Hollywood to authoritarian regimes, from social norms to aesthetic formulation. The eye-catching film festivals can become public spheres that allow various sources of people (film professionals, cinephiles, tourists, the press, etc.) to meet with different causes, such as ethnic minorities, queer movements, humanitarian concerns and political struggles (100–101). “We could call film festivals the symbolic agoras of a new democracy” (Elsaesser 103).

This “new democracy” has probably nurtured one kind of constituents — “festival films”, i.e. films made for festivals (Elsaesser 87). However, I would also say This is Not a Film is a festival film in a sense more than that discussed by Elsaesser. The international festival circuit is considered as part of the marketing strategy, especially for independent films which lack all kinds of capital comparing to commercial productions (Elsaesser 87). Many independent films are shown to film professionals and spectators worldwide in film festivals, in which they may acquire the first-run venues, cultural capital, promotion and opportunities of distribution that they cannot reach in their home country. After the baptism in foreign festivals, those indies can return to the national markets, with a higher possibility to obtain local success (Elsaesser 87).

This is Not a Film is a “festival film” in a sense that, firstly, it is not commercial. It does not have a dramatic plot. It does not show any spectacular effects with the aids of computer graphics, not 3-D, even low quality. The equipment and human resources are even worse than those can be acquired by students in film colleges. There is no professional actor, only two directors shooting each other plus a young man passed by, featuring an iguana and a dog. Most probably this film cannot attract box office and investor. If the general audience in modern society regards a “film” as a kind of entertainment, this is not a film as such.

On the other hand, This is Not a Film is made in response to the authoritarian Iranian regime, therefore when it is circulated around the festival circuit, people’s concern is mainly drawn to the oppression in the home country of the filmmakers, which makes it impossible to return to the local market.

However, because of the purpose of this film, it has to be shown in international film festivals and make noises. Its premiere in Cannes 2011 was a follow-up of the protest a year before. It’s made for Cannes as a response to Binoche’s request that “I hope Jafar Panahi will be here next year.” in 2010 (Wong 171). Panahi asks for help from his plight and protests against institutional violence through the film. If This is Not a Film is a virtual window through which the imprisoned director can reach the outside, the screening venues of film festivals are where this window is installed.

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Hong Kong International Film Festival

Elsaesser’s analysis mainly covers film festivals in Europe, but what about those in East Asia? This is Not a Film was shown in the HKIFF 2012 in April. If it is a “festival film”, I would say, it is less about marketing strategy and political activism, but simply that it has been selected in HKIFF.

Is it because Hong Kong audiences are “apolitical”? At least, HKIFF started as such, keeping a distance from politically sensitive issues (Wong 204). Founded in 1977, as the first film festival persistently held in Asia, HKIFF began as a cultural event organized by the colonial government (Wong 202–203). The Urban Council was responsible for the festival. Being stressed as a “cultural event”, HKIFF at the beginning was differentiated from the mainstream commercial cinema in Hong Kong. While the former was deemed as art and recreational activities, the latter was entertainment carried out by the private sector. By “recreational activities” it was the colonial strategy, that after the 1967 leftist riot, the government encouraged the people to spend their time in leisure activities other than political ones. On the other hand, the colonial ruler did not want to intervene the film industry, so it categorized the festival as “cultural” but not commercial, selected films different from those in mainstream cinema, satisfied in serving the elitist niche (Wong 204–205).

In the early years, HKIFF was intentionally apolitical, especially about the Chinese elements. For pedagogical reasons, the festival has introduced films from various countries (taking other international festivals as references in programming) to Hong Kong audiences; on the other hand, it has started to lay the ground for Hong Kong films studies through the retrospective section of local cinema and related publications (Wong 205–207). However, it just avoided any film from Taiwan and the Mainland, because the colonizer did not want to step in any controversy between the Communist and Nationalist authorities (Wong 211). Paradoxically, the stress to be apolitical has created something political — censorship. As Li Cheuk-to, a major programmer of the festival recalls, in the 5th HKIFF, Foo Ji Ching (Father and Son) directed by Allen Fong was banned by the official from being shown as the opening film, because it was produced by a leftist studio (Cheung 205).

Things changed since the mid-1980s. In the 1980s, HKIFF has become a platform which facilitated Chinese cinema to participate in the world cinema network. HKIFF became a window for film professionals worldwide to explore Chinese cinemas (Wong 212).

Nevertheless, the PRC authority became the new censor. The Chinese Film Bureau is to decide what films to be sent to HKIFF, they don’t want those with “sensitive contents” to be shown. While the HKIFF programmer wants to retain their autonomy in film selection, their insistence has become passively political. The power play persists until recent years. The Chinese authority often withdraws films, or threatens to withdraw other Mainland titles to stop the festival from showing particular films that are “problematic”, but the HKIFF tries hard to show what they have programmed (Wong 213–214). Wong affirms that “In all these interactions, the organizers of the film festival shaped the HKIFF as a space of debate and contestation, a rich cinematic and political public sphere incorporating international Chinese voices as well as concerned local citizenship” (214).

However, when we consider the case of This is Not a Film, in HKIFF 2012, the dissenter’s voice had little to do with the constitution of a “political public sphere” in the city. There is no noise. Something cannot be sensitive when it is ignored. Only three reviews on This is Not a Film have been found in the local press. No after-screening talk was held. It has got no award in HKIFF and the Asian Film Awards (AFA).

But we cannot simply say that HKIFF has no concern about global politics and humanitarian issues. In the documentary competition, the prize went to Jai Bhim Comrade (2011), an Indian film criticizing the caste system (“HKIFF Award Winners”). While for the Asian Film Awards, the big winner was another Iranian film, A Separation (2011) (“6th AFA Nominees and Winners”) — but this is not a banned film in Iran and has been shown in Hong Kong cinemas outside the festival.

Probably This is Not a Film is too experimental (a reflexive film about film), and the issue is too specific (Panahi’s court case), the scale too small (three men, two pets), duration of production too short (one day). Moreover, it has been almost a year after the debut of the film. Panahi has a close tie to Cannes, while the A-level festival has formed part of the background of this homemade masterpiece. In HKIFF 2012, This is Not a Film was selected in the “Master Class” section (“This is Not a Film- Film Details”), most likely because Panahi was a renowned director and his works have been shown in HKIFF before.

If one says This is Not a Film is not merely a film but also a remonstration, then the audience is not merely viewer but invited to protest — how? After the screening, I signed up in the Amnesty International petition page (“Iran must reverse harsh sentence imposed on distinguished film director”), that’s all I could do to go beyond the role of the audience. Yet Panahi finally lost his appeal case last year in October and he is in jail now (“Jafar Panahi loses appeal against six-year prison sentence”).

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This is Not a Film has posed inspiring questions about the (im)possibilities of film. With Jameson’s postmodern theory, Panahi’s latest work has demonstrated how the concepts of film, documentary, director and performance can be deconstructed and reconstructed, working on self-referencing pastiche and textuality.

International film festivals as context also contribute to the problematics of film, with politics as a factor has been specifically concerned. Traces, marks, and trajectories of power come across films and festivals, in various ways when we compare the cases of Europe and Hong Kong. This is Not a Film in HKIFF has not gained much attention. Although other films about political activism and Iranian society have obtained the recognition from the organizer, the local society and culture, generally speaking, still show less interest in global politics and civil societies. But political influences have been haunting the festival from its beginning, when it is related to the Chinese factors. Cindy Wong questions about the imagination of film festivals as “transnational public spheres” that many films talking about social problems and local politics have gained access to the international festival circuit, but they are banned in their home countries. Sometimes they are just shown but may not create public discussion effectively, while in their homelands, people cannot see those films while they are the parties who concern the addressed issues most (166–167). The efficacy is obscure.

After all, Panahi’s apartment is too distant from Hong Kong, geographically, politically, culturally and temporally. In HKIFF, this is just a film.

(Apr 2012)



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  • This is Not a Film. Dir. Mojtaba Mirtahmasb and Jafar Panahi. Wide Management, 2012. Theatre.


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