It is commonly frowned upon to judge a book by its cover but in this case it serves as a warning. While in the very basic sense this is of course a film, it has images and sound, it is unlike any professional film created in recent memory. There is neither narrative nor documentary expose. There is no music or sweeping dialogue. Jafar Panahi, with help from his friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, has made a film of himself mulling around his expensively adorned flat. That he has done so under the restrictions of a tyrannical dictatorship is the reason that this film is interesting. The aura around it is far stronger than what is actually presented within it.
Hidden in a cake and covertly transported from Iran, this film’s journey is something of international espionage fiction, albeit with a spot of baking. Unfortunately what was in the cake is far outshined by the hype surrounding its arrival on these shores. Panahi is facing a 20 year band from filmmaking as well as a 6 year jail sentence for his previous forays into film. It is this fact that is discussed repeatedly which takes up much of the 75 minutes this film takes to come to a rather frustrating climax. There are improvised enactments of a screenplay Panahi is yet to make which end with emotional exasperation. There is some discussion and viewing of his previous films and some TV news content. The showing of movies represents a time when he was able to construct his art, although they read slightly like infomercials of his prowess.
The aforementioned finale is truly one of the most maddening sequences ever filmed. Spontaneously joining a trash collector for the building on his journey down the elevator, Panahi questions the young man. It transpires he was in the building the night the police raided Panahi’s flat and begins to tell his story. If only there had been a responsive filmmaker there to capture this charismatic young man recall the events, Panahi choosing to quiz him on the minutiae of his life, fudging what had been building into a film saving moment.
In reality this film was not made to be captivating but to serve as a reminder. Panahi is still there, in Iran, facing unprecedented sanctions on his art form. It heralds to the world that dictatorships are quashing artistic freedom, a quintessential aspect of free speech. The message it spells out by its mere existence is illuminating and astounding, watching it may not be necessary.