Our country may be creativity bankrupt, corrupt and venal when it comes to filmmaking, and its filmmakers marked as victims and chumps (Keaton, Welles, von Stroheim and other case studies). Those who live within the system either engage in some form of slumming or else live in slums. But no American filmmaker has had to undergo the tortuous plight of Iran’s Jafar Panahi.
The director of such critically acclaimed films as The White Balloon, The Circle and Offside, Panahi incurred the wrath of the Iranian Ministry of Islamic Guidance and in 2010 was arrested, charged with “propaganda against the Iranian government.” For six years, Panahi was thrown into prison and then put under house arrest, forbidden from making films and writing screenplays for twenty years.
Despite the ban, Panahi has managed to smuggle out of the country two dark musings on his condemnation and the stifling of his art – This Is Not a Film (secreted out of the county on a USB drive baked inside a cake) and Closed Curtain. And now with his bemused and dryly comic Taxi, Panahi, turning the inside of a cab into a roving movie studio, gets out of the dark interiors and roams the streets of Tehran, aiming his camera at a cross section of Iranian society as a collection of fares for the taxi. If Taxi sounds like a riff on films like Abbas Kiarostami’s A Taste of Cherry, it is. Although Panahi is not driving around looking to kill himself, the sorrow is still there, but much more below the surface.
Panahi plays himself, driving the taxi, wearing a flat hat and a strained, dreamy smile. In a running gag, his passengers recognize Panahi as a filmmaker but don’t make much of it and instead criticize his skills as a taxi driver (Panahi doesn’t seem to know where to go when asked and his fares comment, “What kind of driver are you?”). Panahi (adhering to the Iranian decree) does not touch a camera or look through a lens but there is a USB cam mounted on the dashboard of the cab and very early on he turns the camera from the point-of-view of the street in front of the cab to inside the cab, aimed at his passengers.
Panahi has a busy day picking up passengers. There is the young man who identifies himself as a “freelance mugger” who launches into a political discussion with a young woman schoolteacher, favoring the hanging of thieves and the schoolteacher arguing against it. His next passenger sells black market DVDs and recognizes Panahi immediately. Panahi picks up a man injured in a motorcycle crash along with his caterwauling wife. Thinking he is dying and having no will, he asks that a video record on a cellphone be made bequeathing his worldly goods to his wife. In a homage to The White Balloon, two elderly woman enter the cab with goldfish in a bowl, eager to get to Ali’s Spring at noon. Panahi’s ten year old niece Hana (who steals the film) is smart and sassy and making a video assigned to her by her teacher that has to adhere to Iranian edicts (women have to wear headscarves, no ties for the men, Iranian names and no “sordid realism”) depicting what is “real but not real real.” Panahi cuts her off, “That’s enough.” Panahi also meets up with a childhood friend who was attacked by a masked couple but doesn’t want to report the attack for fear that the assailants will be hanged, and “the flower woman” – an acquaintance of Panahi’s who is actually a defense lawyer forbidden to practice law and now selling roses on a street corner.
On the surface, Taxi is jovial and loose, but it doesn’t take too long to feel the pain under the surface. Panahi’s passengers are all creating or peddling film, but Panahi, the master director, can’t engage at all. The cab becomes as confining as house arrest. But his fares are no better. In one way or the other, they are all circumventing oppression and maneuvering around strictures, trying to keep on keeping on. As the defense lawyer remarks, “One has to move on.”