There are certain films that can be made at certain times and in certain places. Jafar Panahi's This is Not a Film is one of these and every lover of film in the world wishes that it didn't have to be made.
Panahi is one of the world's most acclaimed film directors, winner of awards at Cannes, Berlin, Venice and Locarno (to name only four of the most major). In 2010 Panahi was arrested on the jumped-up charges of colluding against the nation of Iran, committing crimes against the country's national security and for creating propaganda against the state. It was whilst under house arrest in these circumstances that Panahi created this film alongside fellow filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb.
Sitting at home, waiting for the verdict of his appeal against his sentence, the filmmaker picks up a camera and records his life, conversations and thoughts. After a telephone call, his friend Mojtaba arrives and takes over the recording. We see Panahi reacting to outside events - either the news of the tsunamni in Japan on the television, or bangs from outside first representing the beginning of celebration for the Iranian New Year, and then gunshots - and rehearsing scenes from unmade screenplays with lo-fi, handmade stage set representations patterned on the floor. After Mojtaba has to go home, Panahi rides the lift, chatting with the boy who collects the litter of the apartment block about his life and future plans.
A defiant symbol of quiet resistance from a man who has been at the forefront of Iranian cultural export since the release of his first feature film, The White Balloon in 1995, this film had the honour and disgrace to be smuggled out of Iran to Cannes on a flash drive concealed in a birthday cake. It plays on a run at the ICA opening tonight. Panahi is currently awaiting trial on these charges and is sentenced to six years in jail, a twenty year ban on making any films, writing any screenplays, giving any form of interview - nationally or internationally - and is not allowed to leave the country. In the week of the film's release, Mirtahmasb was also arrested, though details on that are still scarce.
Shot on consumer HD video and on an iPhone, this possibly the rarest example of documentary as journalism, as personal diary, as dramatic narrative, and is truly one of the great films to be made, and, conversely, not. It's funny, bittersweet, sad and always touching.
This is Not a Film plays at the ICA from today until 12 April.