Going into a screening of this film, there are a couple of things an audience should know. In 2010 Jafar Panahi, was arrested for making a film against the Iranian regime. Since then he has not been allowed to make films, leave the country or participate in interviews. Taxi, however, is his third film since the ban, and even though it’s filmed entirely within the confined space of a taxi, it shows us the streets of Tehran. We’re out in the open, right under the nose of the Iranian government.
Without knowing this, it might prove hard to enjoy the eighty minute ride. It’s a weird experiment, constantly crossing the lines between reality and fiction. Panahi, wrote, directed and starred in the film. He portrays a cab driver, but several of his ‘passengers’ recognize him to be Jafar Panahi, the great filmmaker. Those passengers are played by nonprofessional actors, but the illusion of it being a documentary is very much part of the experience.
The film is wonderfully constructed. There is always something happening, new characters are arriving at just the right time. We start the film with two passengers who engage in a very political discussion. If there is one thing the film does not always succeed in, it is in being subtle. When the first two passengers leave, the focus goes to Omid, a DVD bootlegger who seems very taken with his driver. They are quickly interrupted by a man who was in a driving accident and his wife. On the way to the hospital the man, who believes he’s dying, demands for his will to be recorded on video. Panahi manages to keep the scene real, yet funny.
Our sweaty bootlegger is still enjoying the ride. He’s on his way to a film student, who’s one of his customers. The film student has a chat with Panahi about the subject of a short film he hast to make, and which movies are worth watching. “All movies are worth watching,” says Panahi. But Omid has more than a couple of movies. Mentions of The Walking Dead and The Big Bang Theory are received with a chuckle from the audience. In a country where censorship is so present, his ‘job’ becomes almost admirable. “Without me, no Woody Allen.”
The taxi keeps on driving and we meet two superstitious older ladies, an old friend of Panahi who has been robbed, but can’t bring himself to hate the thieves, and a lawyer with a bouquet of roses. She’s been banned from working by the Bar association, and is on her way to meet with the family of a girl on hunger strike. She leaves a rose in the car, for all the people who enjoy film.
Halfway through the film Panahi picks up his niece from school. And she’s a force to be reckoned with. She never stops talking, she never stops questioning, she knows what she wants and she seems fearless. But she’s a young girl in Iran. A western audience might be surprised by the strength of her character. She also has to make a short film for school, and goes over a long list of things that should be avoided. The issue of censorship couldn’t be made more painfully obvious.
It’s clear from the beginning that this is an important film in many ways. It’s a cinematic achievement, but it’s also a political statement. Panahi won The Golden Bear in Berlin this year, and even though he couldn’t be there, Hana Saeidi, his niece, and perhaps the true star of the film, accepted the award on his behalf.
“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 will continue to make films, and as an audience we can only be thankful for that.