The other day I used my cheap smartphone to shoot footage of a funny Flash ad on my computer screen. Is that clip a film? No. If I show it to someone else, is it a film then? I don't think so. What if I had previously been awarded prizes at Cannes, and what if the government had ordered me not to make films? Is it a film then? Hmm.
This may seem like a mere thought experiment, but the freedom of Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi apparently hangs on questions like these. His plight is at the white-hot core of This Is Not a Film, a deceptively low-key documentary by Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb.
This Is Not a Film is an urgent act of political defiance, an ambiguous, artful one. It was smuggled out of Iran in a cake. It is strange and moving. It is a meditation on the nature of art. It makes me angry and sad.
Yet it is so simple. Panahi has won plaudits at Cannes and elsewhere, but you could mistake This Is Not a Film as the work of an amateur, of a guy shooting shaky video with his smartphone. Some of the film - I mean, not-film - is indeed shaky video that Panahi shot with his smartphone.
Panahi is in trouble, and what's happening to him should sober everyone currently obsessed with the Etch A Sketch. In 2009 and again in 2010, he was arrested amid the protests that accompanied Iranian elections. The government has sentenced him to prison and banned him from filmmaking.
This Is Not a Film captures everyday events as they unfold in Panahi's comfortable Tehran apartment. He eats breakfast. He feeds an iguana. He talks to his lawyer on speakerphone. Probably, he's told, he can get his sentence reduced on appeal.
After Mirtahmasb arrives and begins filming, Panahi uses tape to mark out an imaginary room on the floor, and then he acts out scenes from a film he was working on. He becomes emotional. He has a story to tell, and it's illegal for him to tell it. With his tape on the floor, he is skirting the law.
On a television, he looks at scenes from a couple of his films. He points out moments when events took place that he did not order. They were accidents. Performers went off-script. This is how art is created. Filmmakers aren't the only people involved in making films.
Panahi spends the last part of the documentary chatting with a janitor he happens upon in his building. They are in an elevator. It's just a couple of guys talking. But a camera is rolling. Does that make it a film? Does that make it art? Whatever it is, I bet the Iranian government doesn't like it.