Kino Lorber, 2015
Writer: Jafar Panahi
Director: Jafar Panahi
Out of 5: 4
No artist, from the mediocre to the monumental, should be subjected to the treatment that Jafar Panahi has received from Iran’s regime; the fact that Panahi is a gifted storyteller and master filmmaker makes his censorship all the more poignant, and–for a world deprived of his films–a tragedy.
Because his films have dared to show some of the harsh realities of life in his home country, Panahi has been arrested twice by his government–the second time involving 86 days of incarceration–and he currently is banned from making films for 20 years. It’s a tribute to both his deep passion for film and his bravery that he has managed to have three films made and smuggled out the country since the ban, including his latest film, Taxi–a work that makes the world a far richer place simply by existing.
Carrying on in the tradition of great Iranian film (highlights from which include Abbas Kiarastomi’s Close-Up and Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s A Moment of Innocence), Taxi is a hybrid of fact and fiction. Jafar Panahi is the only fully named individual in the entire film, as none of its other ‘characters’ is identified either on screen or in credits–a personal safeguard against potential retribution from the Iranian government. Panahi plays himself as someone who’s taken up driving a taxi cab with a small camera mounted on the dashboard filming his day. It’s never stated how he came to possess this taxi or why he has it in the first place, since he’s frequently shown to refuse any fares from the people he picks up and has no special navigational skills for the city he cruises around in his cab (presumably Tehran, but the setting is never identified). The reasons don’t matter much, as the plot is primarily a pretext for allowing Panahi to meet different individuals and get a variety of glimpses into and viewpoints on Iranian society.
With just the simple act of mounting a camera to a dashboard, Panahi stands defiant in showing that the shackles of his government will never keep him from creating and critiquing. While the camera set-up means that there’s a very limited range of motion for Panahi to work with, the director still utilizes the taxi’s confined space to show different perspectives effectively, and to build some drama. There’re also some very subtle shifts where the film transitions to showing footage from another character’s camera phone: a smart way to signify that, in spite of how naturalistic the film looks, we aren’t watching a purely documentary film, and that Panahi is having a chance to create a fictional narrative.
Within this fictional narrative, Panahi explores the hardships of making films in a country which restricts budding filmmakers from the get-go with manuals full of “off-limits” material, but also the difficulties of even having art be seen by the masses when their government seeks to contain and control what is spread. There are some very touching scenes between Panahi and his niece (or at least someone portraying his niece) wherein they discuss what types of content to include in a film and how there are kinds of negative truths that some people just don’t want to be seen. Another highlight of the film is an early sequence in which Panahi picks up a man suffering from major wounds, sustained in an accident and his hysterical wife. Using another passenger’s cell phone, the wounded man tries to leave a video will that will make sure his wife is left with something upon what he believes to be his impending death. It’s an intense sequence that manages to both showcase women’s inequality in Iran and even lead to some unexpectedly funny moments later on, ones involving subsequent phone calls from the wife to Panahi.
The narrative surrounding a censored artist’s work may often leave audiences inclined to view it in a preemptively positive light. However, Taxi demonstrates that, even without any of his usual tools and infrastructure, Panahi is a great filmmaker–one whose work transcends his artist’s narrative and needs to be seen, both as a refutation of Iran’s treatment of its artists and as a sign of support for someone willing to shine a spotlight on a part of the world which can be often forgotten about–even at his own risk.
Scott Goldfarb is a dedicated student of the arts, trying to learn more every day.