If this is a film then director Jafar Panahi is breaking Iranian law. He’s always been a socially conscious filmmaker and in 2009 his outspoken solidarity with Iran’s green revolution landed him a six-year prison sentence. With a particularly vindictive twist of the knife, the courts added a 20-year ban on writing and directing to his jail term. Panahi shot this in his Tehran flat while under house arrest, waiting for an appeal verdict. An ‘effort’ is what he calls it in the credits, claiming (ahem) to be merely an actor – and therefore sticking to the letter of his ban.
Another way to describe it is as a brave act of resistance from a man who refuses to be silenced. His (non-) film even comes to us cloaked in a tale of great escape: it was smuggled out of Iran on a USB stick hidden inside a cake.
So what is it exactly, if it’s not a film? Well, there’s not much in the way of plot. We meet Panahi in his kitchen, in front of a digital camera, talking to his lawyer. ‘Don’t get your hopes up,’ she warns. ‘So I should pack my bag?’ he says with a wry, pained smile (he’s already spent three months in prison). The conversation reminds him of an incident from his film ‘Mirror’, which he puts on the DVD player. A little girl of five is meant to be playing a kid with a broken arm, but she’s in a huff: ‘I’m not acting anymore!’ she storms, ripping off her fake cast. Panahi watches intently – it’s unbelievably moving. Like her, he says with disarming simplicity, he wants to throw off his cast.
Next, Panahi phones his filmmaker friend, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, to come over – he’s got an idea. If he’s not allowed to direct his most recent script, he’ll bring it to life by talking through it. And like a man possessed he snaps into action, scuttling about his flat, using masking tape to block the set on his rug. What a waste: here’s a filmmaker in his prime resorting to make-believe directing in his front room.
But Panahi won’t be stopped. He’s constantly pointing the video on his iPhone at whatever’s in view. And when a student covering for the building’s caretaker knocks to collect his rubbish, Panahi is off, following him on his bin round. What’s worth mentioning is how unexpectedly funny a lot of this is. You haven’t seen a scenery-chewing, scene-stealing supporting role until you’ve seen Igi, Panahi’s four-foot long iguana, slithering diva-like into shot.
As for Panahi, I could watch him for hours. With his film, its title, with his dignity and strength of purpose he mocks the stupidity of the regime’s censorship. An Iranian film won the Best Foreign Film Oscar this year for the first time. Film or no film, they should have awarded Best Director to Jafar Panahi.