Panahi, who is a sensitive and artistic director, but also a critic of Iranian society and its treatment of women and the underclass in his native country, has received many awards at international festivals for his outstanding films though they are not seen in Iran. In his first film The White Balloon, an elliptical fable about a little girl, his social critique was implied and implicit. Over the years, the political comment in his films, such as Crimson Gold, has become more and more explicit. He was imprisoned in 2010 following his support of protesters at the disputed election, won by current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and is now under a six-year house arrest with a 20-year ban on writing scripts, directing films, travelling abroad or speaking to the press.
But he found an ingenious way of circumventing the ban, since, as long as he did not direct, it apparently could not prohibit him from being filmed at home reading and acting. And so this documentary about one day in his life, with its production credits deliberately blank, and called “an effort” and not a film, was smuggled out of Iran on a USB stick inside a cake, shown in Cannes last year, and has been released internationally.
Inside his Tehran flat, after friend and colleague, documentary maker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb (who was later arrested, his request to Panahi to “Take a shot of me [on his iPhone] in case I’m arrested” being all too prescient) sets up a video camera, we can observe Panahi’s frustration at the restrictions of his daily routine. He watches DVDs of films he has made and analyses them, explaining, for example, how his use of amateurs and the locations influences his direction.
Panahi ruefully comments that he has joined the club of film makers who don’t make films – but he can’t not be creative. Banned from making his next film, he demonstrates the film he would have made by ‘telling’ it – as opposed to ‘directing’ it. Working from the script he had written, he marks out the set on his sitting room floor, frames the shots, plots the camera angles, describes the characters and locations, and reads the dialogue himself. It’s a compelling, poignant insight into his creative process. “If you can ‘tell’ a film, why make a film?” he wonders. But ultimately, it’s yet another frustration: “How can I express myself within that boundary? Wherever I go, it’s blocked.”
Though apparently unplanned – “We’re just two idle men filming one another” – it’s as subtly shaped as a directed film. Confined within four walls, Panahi’s only contact with the outside world is by phone: he is as trapped as – bizarrely – his tame iguana that clambers over him, and as lacking in opportunity as the MA arts student who can only find work collecting the rubbish from his flat. But in the outside world, it’s Persian New Year, and fireworks are exploding across the Tehran night skyline…
It’s a brave, important artistic statement. Home movie, reality TV? A film? “What matters,” as Panahi says, “is that the camera stays on.”