There are many problems with an autocratic regime. Rights are hindered and double standards flourish aplenty. People are jailed without fair trial. There’s torture. Education is never fairly distributed, and when it is, instructors often only instill young students with a warped sense of culture and history for the sake of propaganda favoring those in power. You would think this kind of government could only create cynics, victims or blind followers, and that there’s little room for sympathetic humanity to flourish. Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi knows this all too well, and he seeks to correct some of it with his choice of personal expression: a camera mounted on a taxi cab’s dashboard in Tehran. All the while, he offers a sly, accessible wink to the audience watching the resulting “film” at the cinema. It’s a trip you won’t soon forget.
With Jafar Panahi’s Taxi, the director and Independent Ethos favorite returns with another “non-film” to show us his country’s human side while defying a government order forbidding him to make movies. He was jailed, tortured and placed under house arrest after he allegedly showed support to the Green Movement by shooting secret meetings back in 2009. Of all he endured, worst of all was being banned from making movies for 20 years.
It didn’t stop him from shooting a movie capturing his life under house arrest using mostly his iPhone’s camera (This Is Not a Film highlights Iranian filmmaker’s talents while under house arrest). He shipped the resulting film to the Cannes Film Festival in a flash drive hidden inside a cake. His next film treaded more lightly with a story both rich in metaphor that he subverted with scenes of day-to-day life (Closed Curtain continues Iranian filmmaker’s abstract expression in art despite ban). His latest “film” stands as his most approachable since his ban. In it, the director tries to hide under a cabbie hat and drives around in a taxi not-so-discreetly filming his “fares.” With the passengers who come and go, the film becomes a series of vignettes ranging from comic to tragic. Most of all, Panahi keeps it light and always interesting, from the first frame to the last. The film opens on a street scene. The camera lingers long enough to take in daily life, women in hijabs and plainly dressed men crisscross the intersection as motorcycles zip around them. It’s a kinetic if static opening shot. There isn’t much range for Panahi’s camera, but it’s occasionally rotated on passengers and the director, creating deep two-shots that never feel dull. Panahi never hides his camera, and the first person he focuses it on is because the person has noticed it. The man who has jumped into his passenger seat asks, “What is that?” Panahi turns it on him, and the passenger looks straight at the audience and asks, “An anti-theft device?” Panahi replies “Sort of.”
It’s a rich moment and sets the tone for the rest of this sly and entertaining movie. This passenger soon gets into an argument about sharia law with a lady who has taken the back seat (apparently, taxi drivers carry more than one fare in their cabs). The argument ends with a punch line as the man gets off. Meanwhile, a third passenger, a pudgy dwarf of a man, has joined the ride. When the woman gets out, this third man looks at Panahi and smiles. “Mr. Panahi, I recognize you.” Both smile at each other, as this man, who introduces himself as Omir, calls him out for having staged a scene in the taxi while making a movie. “That last line was from your film Crimson Gold,” says Omir.
With this scene, Panahi subverts his own filmmaking, at first giving you a kind of heavy-handed scene but then nullifying it. “This is not a film,” he seems to say. But then the movie becomes this whirlwind trip that will enlighten viewers about Iran’s film world while paying tribute to those who love cinema and have a sense of humor about filmmaking and its consumption. Omir turns out to be breaking film law in his own way, selling bootleg DVDs. When he directs Panahi to the house of a client to deliver Hollywood action movies and Season Five of “The Walking Dead,” the client recognizes Panahi, too. “Don’t worry, he’s one of us,” says the bootlegger. The client soon changes his order for “arty” movies, asking Panahi for recommendations, who responds, “I think all movies are worth watching, depending on your taste.”
There’s a comic sense to this movie but also much wisdom. The highlight has to be when Panahi picks up his niece, Hana, who aspires to be a director and recites the rules of making “distributable” movies in Iran based on what her teacher told her. She tries to make her uncle a part of her film, but he can’t help but make comments that, as she points out, will make her film “undistributable.” At one point, he leaves her alone in the cab while he takes a bathroom break. Just trying to shoot some action outside her window, Hana will have her own confrontation with how difficult it is to make a movie that will satisfy government censors. It’s a moment that is both humorous and bittersweet and points to the hypocrisy of a regime that can never suppress human nature.
Jafar Panahi’s Taxi is one more masterpiece in what is now a trilogy of non-movies for Panahi. He celebrates filmmaking while railing against the forces that repress him. Featuring genial and natural performances by the entire “cast” (the film has no credits), Panahi constructs an emphatic protest with a smile and a wink that will charm and enthrall viewers throughout. When a woman bearing roses takes the passenger seat, she looks at the camera and gives the audience a rose. It’s gleeful and heart-rending. She too knows Panahi and sympathizes with the bind that he is in, telling him when she leaves, “You better remove my words from your movie. You’ll be accused of sordid realism.”
While Western movie culture so often recognizes escapism over realism, it’s refreshing to find a film like Panahi’s. He never loses sight of the value of entertainment while making his incredibly important statement. Sometimes poignant, other times hilarious, Jafar Panahi’s Taxi is always brilliantly contemplative. It will remind viewers of many facets of cinema that we so often take for granted, including the viewer’s complicit imagination. The art has value because we bring value to it, and if there’s one filmmaker who deserves our love, it’s Panahi because he gives it back so richly.
Jafar Panahi’s Taxi runs 82 minutes, is in Persian with English subtitles and is not rated (it has references to violence). It opens in our Miami area this Friday, Oct. 9, at the Coral Gables Art Cinema and the Miami Beach Cinematheque. On Oct. 16, the film expands to Broward County at Cinema Paradiso Hollywood. For other screening dates across the U.S., jump through this link. Kino Lorber provided all images to illustrate this post and an on-line screener link for the purpose of this review.