By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
If Jafar Panahi’s new movie comes off less than perfect—or even if it seems perfect—one must consider the circumstances. The Iranian director’s own government banned him from making films for 20 years.
In a statement issued earlier this year, Panahi replied that “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.”
Panahi’s gone in and out of prison at the whim of his government. He shot one post-ban film, “This Is Not A Film,” in his own building, and a second, “Closed Curtain,” in a secluded house. For “Taxi” he brazenly waves his defiance at the authorities in various ways.
He takes on the job of a taxi driver in Tehran. We can’t be sure, however, if the scenarios enacted in his cab—and captured, mostly, by dashboard-mounted cameras—all happen spontaneously. Some of his passengers seem to recognize him as a notorious person, although most of those congratulate him.
Certain stories seem simply too pat or too outlandish. Over 80 minutes, Panahi stumbles over violence, digital bootlegging, young people, old people, middle-age people, people going every which way.
(The filmmaker isn’t a very good taxi driver, by the way. This works as a layer of the film’s humor. He often doesn’t know the way to important city landmarks; he gives up on fares and ushers them into other taxis; he refuses to take money; and he runs personal errands in the middle of his shift.)
It’s hard to talk about the film without talking too much about what happens in it, and I would like most of that to remain a surprise. But the filmmaker-turned-driver finds a wide variety of fares, with a wide variety of moods and expectations. The film may be more fiction than documentary, but it moves with liveliness and echoes the messiness of real life.
Philosophical discussions arise in unlikely places—what Iranian film should be, what film itself should be. The government’s opposition to what it terms “sordid realism” emerges as a key theme, with a nod and a wink to the audience that Panahi is engaging in exactly this “sordid realism” with his outlaw movie. He labors to show society as it exists out on the streets, not what the authorities want the world to see.
Allusions to Panahi’s other films also crop up, like “The White Balloon” goldfish figure. Bits of dialogue from “Crimson Gold” go by.
Women are still not allowed, in many cases, to attend sports events in Iran, and can be arrested and detained indefinitely for trying to sneak in—addressed in a “Taxi” conversation and in depth over the director’s feature film “Offside.” And like “The Mirror,” a young girl emerges, a pre-teen who seems to know much more than many of the adults around her.
The cameras don’t move much—although they move more than one might expect—and many mysteries remain by the film’s end. The director doesn’t list his cast because he doesn’t want them to get in his kind of trouble.
I left “Taxi” wondering how much was fiction, and wondering over the stiffness of certain encounters.
Then again, on the bus ride to downtown, I ran into an old neighbor of mine and spent the ride catching up with her. An unlikely scenario is not an impossible one. And anything that happens, however unlikely, feeds into the textures of life. (end)
“Jafar Panhai’s Taxi,” aka “Taxi,” plays November 13th through November 19th. For prices and show times, visit http://www.nwfilmforum.org/live/page/calendar/3678.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at email@example.com.