For a guy under house arrest Jafar Panahi is in better spirits than you'd expect. Waiting and waiting and waiting at his home in Iran during an appeal process, he can't stop turning on his cameras and pointing them at himself, his friend (and fellow filmmaker) Mojtab Mirtahmasb, a neighbor taking out the trash and another neighbor's irritating barking dog. And because he's under arrest for the act of making films, this time around -- loosely in the spirit of Magritte's "pipe" -- what you're watching is not a film.
Not to insult anyone's knowledge of world cinema, and if you're already a Jafar Panahi fan then that's great, but for the purposes of this review I'm going to assume you've never heard of him. He's the internationally acclaimed director of the films Crimson Gold, The Circle, Offside and The White Balloon. His naturalistic work obliquely and/or directly critiques Iran's oppressive laws, especially as they apply to women. In particular, the tense, terrifying, not-at-all-veiled The Circle will make you wonder why he wasn't arrested even earlier for “assembly and colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic." Still under a form of house arrest today, something referred to "execution of the verdict," he faces a six-year prison term and is also banned from making films, writing screenplays, giving interviews and leaving the country for the next 20 years.
True to form, the non-events that make up this 80-minute non-film, shot on professional grade camera as well as on an iPhone, are domestic because they have to be: he talks to friends, he makes tea, he telephones his lawyer, he tries to block and describe what his next film would have been before giving up in frustrated sadness, and he uses clips from his own films on DVD to illustrate his points (and he's got a lot of DVDs on his shelves, titles too far away to see on camera, a maddening bit of obscured information for anyone who wants to know what internationally acclaimed filmmakers enjoy looking at while stuck at home, but who could blame the man if all he wanted to do was forget his troubles and sit around watching Anchorman and Pootie Tang all day?). Meanwhile, his quiet defiance winds up in front of our eyes through another homebound act: it was smuggled out of the country on a USB stick hidden inside a cake.
And just like the director's fictional characters, his own real-life, externally imposed limitations frame the substance of this non-film's art, so when the neighbor taking out the trash speaks the last words we hear, warning Panahi, "Don't come outside, they'll see you with the camera," it's especially heartbreaking.
What can you do? Well, more than a few sequences from this have found their way to YouTube already if you don't live in a place where Iranian documentaries show up in the local theater, international protests from artists and filmmakers are underway, petitions are online to sign, Amnesty International has taken action and there's a sporadically updated Facebook support page, but right now none of it looks especially hopeful. But doing something is better than nothing, so get going, movie lovers.