by Matt Levine
“Nothing can prevent me from making films since, when being pushed to the ultimate corners, I connect with my inner-self, and in such private spaces, despite all limitations, the necessity to create becomes even more of an urge.” –Jafar Panahi, 2015
These words were part of an official statement released by the Iranian director Jafar Panahi following the announcement of his film Taxi’s premiere at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival. Because of the absurd punishment handed down to Panahi by the Iranian government—which, responding to the caustic social critiques of films such as The Circle (2000) and Offside (2006), forbade him from international travel or making films for twenty years—Panahi’s words could only be conveyed by communiqué rather than in person. (In fact, Panahi’s young niece Hana Saeidi, who also appears in the film, was present in Berlin to accept her uncle’s award.) Like Panahi’s previous two films, This Is Not a Film (2011) and Closed Curtain (2013), Taxi was necessarily made covertly to avoid the attention of national censors; its focus on “sordid realism” (as it’s sardonically labeled throughout the film, responding to industry censors) practically ensures it won’t be released in Iranian theaters anytime soon. Yet, as Panahi’s statement suggests, Taxi is so much more than a bitter diatribe against the idiocy of censorship; it’s a remarkable snapshot of modern Tehran, a moral dissection of notions like law and injustice, and (perhaps most of all) a tribute to the vitality of creating art.
Landmark Edina Cinema
Director: Jafar Panahi
Producer: Jafar Panahi
Writer: Jafar Panahi
Cast: Jafar Panahi, uncredited
Premiere: February 6, 2015 – Berlin International Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: October 2, 2015
US Distributor: Koch Lorber Films
While This Is Not a Film and Closed Curtain were shot on readily available digital cameras and cell phones indoors, Taxi (aka Jafar Panahi’s Taxi and Tehran Taxi) ventures onto the streets of Iran’s capital. Even so, Panahi’s ban from filmmaking necessitates a level of subterfuge, so the cameras never leave a single taxicab that Panahi has taken to driving as a newfound occupation. Heavily influenced by the groundbreaking Iranian film Ten (2002)—directed by Abbas Kiarostami, who gave Panahi his first assistant-director job on Through the Olive Trees (1994) and mentored him in filmmaking—Panahi uses the urban vehicle as a metaphor to question the boundaries of inside and outside, public and private, the personal and the political. While Ten had a more explicit feminist bent, featuring faux-documentary interactions between a woman taxi driver and mostly female denizens of Tehran, Jafar Panahi’s Taxi offers a broader snapshot of Tehran’s diverse community—men and women, the young and the old, muggers and professionals, traditionalists and liberals.
The film is initially (and slyly) presented as documentary, as we observe two taxi passengers—an arrogant young male criminal and a female schoolteacher—argue about the validity of executions in sharia law (a number of “brigands,” as the movie calls them, have recently been publicly executed by the Islamic Republic). Their heated debate flows so rapidly that we assume the dialogue could not be scripted (and in fact was heavily improvised), and the swarm of traffic that converges on the noisy streets makes it clear that the film was shot without permission on an average day in Tehran. The next scene, though, provides hints that Taxi is more docudrama than documentary, as several camera angles are edited together seamlessly and the conversation veers more pointedly to Panahi’s career and recent persecution. Although Panahi initially intended the film to be an unscripted documentary of random Tehran residents, he changed course when an early subject demanded that he stop recording him on a cell phone for fear of retaliation from the government; while such oppressive production circumstances can’t be called beneficial, the blurring of fact and fiction (also a common feature in Kiarostami’s work) allows Panahi to forge an ambitious and fascinating essay on the nature of artistic expression.
The third passenger we see in Jafar Panahi’s Taxi is a bootleg DVD vendor, all sycophantic smiles and trickling sweat, who has provided black-market films to Panahi before (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and Midnight in Paris, the bootlegger reminds him). Carrying a plastic bag filled with burned DVDs, this character must provoke ambivalence in Panahi: the man’s criminal activities ensure that producers and directors won’t get royalties for their films, but it’s also the only way that many movies are obtainable in modern Tehran (where movies must be deemed healthy for the community to be deemed “screenable”). Next, Panahi picks up two elderly women who are racing to Ali’s Spring before noon so they can place two goldfish in the fountain; followed by a wailing woman and her husband, who has just been injured in a bike accident. The man delivers his last testament to Panahi’s cell phone, demanding that his wife (and, he believes, soon-to-be-widow) inherit all his assets, a direct violation of sharia law. Here, the vital role of technology in questioning and rebelling against a totalitarian regime becomes one of Panahi’s central themes, as it was in This Is Not a Film; in the digitized world, Panahi bittersweetly suggests, even draconic bans against filmmaking can be circumvented by iPhone cameras and USB drives.
Through the course of Taxi, we will also meet a female lawyer who adores Panahi for his disobedience, as well as a good friend who was recently robbed by a husband-and-wife team, though he refrains from pressing charges as he understands how their theft might provide their only subsistence. A central figure arrives in Panahi’s niece Hana, whose homework assignment is to shoot a short video that might be deemed “screenable” by the Iranian authorities. Adorable, outspoken Hana interviews her uncle on tiny digital camera, then observes a boy stealing money from the sidewalk, demanding that he replace the cash and therefore commit a heroic act so that her mini-masterpiece can be permitted in Iranian theaters. Panahi’s self-reflexive, meta-textual critique can be a bit too on-the-nose here, as Panahi repeatedly states (implicitly or explicitly) that cinema is made crucial by the “sordid realism” that the Iranian censors forbid. But the didacticism of this theme is offset by the warm, spontaneous presence of Panahi’s niece, and in any case the bluntness of Panahi’s social critique is certainly understandable since he’s experienced its injustice firsthand.
Confronted with hostile production circumstances, Panahi creates a digital aesthetic that is unique and intelligent, if necessarily crude. Dashboard-mounted cameras reveal the taxi’s occupants with unembellished clarity while the sloping streets and abundant history of Tehran soar past through the windows. Panahi constantly plays with perspective, switching often to young Hana’s digital camera or the imperfections of a cell phone camera, or refusing to show a disturbing video glimpsed on a laptop; in the final scene (indebted to one of Panahi’s favorite movies, Bicycle Thieves), an unseen character commits an act that questions Panahi’s optimistic tone, his ambiguous deed taking place off camera. The movie’s technical equipment might be basic but its scope and form are ambitious; Panahi reminds us throughout that a committed artist, even when denied the tools and funding necessary for their art, can (must) still create dynamic and far-reaching works.
Any director in Panahi’s circumstances could be excused for railing viciously against censorship, but Panahi is too curious and complex a filmmaker to be reduced to such a single-minded objective. If anything, his last three films are even more dexterous and contemplative than a more focused, polished work like Crimson Gold (which absolutely should not be construed as a defense of censorship); barred from scripting, producing, and crafting a film in a more typical, industrial fashion, Panahi exploits his outsider position as an excuse to ponder the nature of technology, gender, morality, and family in addition to art and politics. With Taxi, it seems that Panahi is inspired by the heterogeneity of everyday life in Tehran, using the city as a muse to address whatever ideas and characters come to mind (or hop into his cab). In this way, exuding trademark ambivalence, Panahi concocts both a tribute to and a takedown of his home city, as well as a celebration of art and a denunciation of how it can be misused by political forces.
I hope it doesn’t sound disparaging to label Jafar Panahi’s Taxi a “small film”; if it was a work of literature, Panahi’s work might resemble a short yet agile essay in a loose anthology. The director’s latest attempts to do no more nor less than provide a snapshot of both an artist and a society at a crossroads. True, it might not have the uniqueness of This Is Not a Film or the devastating power of The Circle, and it’s a little too indebted to Kiarostami’s Ten to be one-of-a-kind. But at the very least, Jafar Panahi’s Taxi offers firsthand access to a diverse city that is not often conveyed truthfully in the media, all while reminding us why the creation of art is a precious human endeavor, especially for oppressed communities. It’s the kind of small film that appears to be about everything at once.