Jafar PanahiThe plight of Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, banned by his own government from directing movies for the next 20 years, is so full of jaw-dropping, Kafkaesque ironies that it would take a director of Pahani's gifts to make a proper movie out of it. (In fact, he has.)

For alleged anti-government activities, Panahi and his colleague, Mohammad Rasoulof, have both been sentenced to six years in prison; Panahi has also been banned from filmmaking for the next two decades. Both are appealing their sentences while living under house arrest. Still, both men have continued to work, and both managed to get films spirited out of Iran and placed at the last minute on the screening schedule at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this month. Rasoulof's movie, about a woman struggling to leave Iran, is called 'Goodbye,' while Panahi's, an account of his house arrest shot secretly in his home, is called 'This Is Not a Film.'

In the latest bizarre twist, the Iranian government has criticized the Cannes organizers, not for showing the arrested Iranian filmmakers' work, but for the festival organizers' banning of Danish director Lars von Trier for his ill-conceived jokey comments expressing sympathy with Hitler. That was an act of "fascist behavior," wrote Iranian Vice Minister of Culture Javad Shamaqdari in a letter. That's pretty rich coming from the government that is suppressing Panahi and Rasoulof's free expression.

Read on for a brief rundown of Panahi's troubled history, the shows of support for him from Hollywood filmmakers and international festivals, and a video excerpt of Panahi's forbidden movie.
Who Is Jafar Panahi?
Panahi has been one of the vibrant Iranian film community's brightest lights for nearly 20 years. He was a favorite at foreign film festivals, having won prizes at Cannes, Venice and San Sebastian. His troubles began with the protests surrounding the 2009 Iranian elections. He was first arrested as one of the mourners at the funeral of martyred activist Neda Agha-Soltan. His passport was revoked and he was forbidden from traveling to foreign festivals.

Panahi was arrested again in March 2010, accused of making an anti-government film. (Which, as it turns out, he has now done as a result of his arrest.) Rasoulof was arrested at the same time but was released two days later. Panahi, however remained jailed and, complaining of mistreatment, went on a hunger strike. He was finally released in May on $200,000 bail, but not before missing the 2010 edition of Cannes, where a seat on the jury panel was pointedly left empty in his honor.

Jafar Panahi poster, Berlin Film Festival 2011

In December, Rasoulof and Panahi were sentenced to six years in prison. Panahi was also barred for 20 years from directing movies, writing screenplays, conducting interviews, and leaving Iran. He remains under house arrest while working on his appeal.

What Is 'This is Not a Film'?
'This Is Not a Film' represents Panahi's effort to work around the ban and exploit its possible loopholes, starting with the title. (The inspiration is the famous painting of a tobacco pipe by surrealist Rene Magritte, entitled "This Is Not a Pipe.") It's not really a film, according to the title, and it's not directed by Panahi, it's merely credited as "an effort by." There's no apparent screenplay, as the film was largely improvised. It was also created in collaboration with Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, who was making a documentary about Iranian directors banned from directing. (The New York Times recently published a terrific interview with Mirtahmasb on how the film was made and spirited out of Iran.)

In a weird way, 'This Is Not a Film' isn't a total compromise for Panahi. Like many Iranian filmmakers, he's accustomed to making movies that blur the line between fiction and documentary, using non-professional actors and improvised scenes. Iranian directors have long had to work around the Islamic nation's proscriptions on content (no nudity, no love scenes, no swearing), and now, this was just one more set of content restrictions.

On the other hand, Panahi had never made a film that cost just 3,200 euros, was shot on digital video (and in part on an iPhone), and was smuggled to France on a flash drive hidden in a cake.

Reviews from Cannes for 'This Is Not a Film' were generally strong, and reviews for 'Goodbye' were decent. That doesn't mean they'll be picked up for distribution; no doubt there are legal obstacles to obtaining the exhibition rights for both movies. Still, you can watch a 6 1/2-minute excerpt of 'This Is Not a Film' in the clip below (h/t to MovieCityNews).

Excerpt from 'This Is Not a Film'

Who Is Fighting for Panahi?
Support for Panahi has come from all corners. When he was arrested last March, some 50 Iranian filmmakers wrote a letter supporting him. Another letter was signed last April by a number of top American directors, including Paul Thomas Anderson, Joel and Ethan Coen, Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme, Robert De Niro, Curtis Hanson, Jim Jarmusch, Ang Lee, Richard Linklater, Terrence Malick, Michael Moore, Robert Redford, Martin Scorsese, James Schamus, Paul Schrader, Steven Soderbergh, Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone and Frederick Wiseman. When he was convicted in December, filmmaker Paul Haggis and Iranian-born actress Nazanin Bodiadi teamed with Amnesty International to generate a petition on his behalf, whose signers included Sean Penn, Martin Scorsese, and distributor Harvey Weinstein.

Others protesting Iran's treatment of Panahi include film critics David Ansen, David Denby, Roger Ebert, Jean-Michel Frodon, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Amy Taubin and Kenneth Turan; critic groups the Boston Society of Film Critics, the National Society of Film Critics and the Toronto Film Critics Association; and film festivals in Karlovy Vary, Rotterdam, and Berlin (where, as in Cannes last March, a jury seat for Panahi was left empty, and posters protesting his absence were prominent).

(Isabella Rossellini and presenters at the 2011 Berlin Film Festival make note of Panahi's absence).

How Can You Help?
One way to add your own voice to the protest on behalf of Panahi and Rasoulof is to make your own video, using the "White Meadows" app (named for one of Rasoulof's films), available at the website of Cine Foundation International.

Follow Gary Susman on Twitter: @garysusman.