In March of 2010, famed Iranian director, Jafar Panahi (The White Balloon, The Mirror, Offside), was arrested along with his wife, daughter and 15 friends. Later that year, they were officially charged for “colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic” and Panahi was placed under a six-year house arrest and a 20-year ban from making movies.
It was initially crippling to Panahi, but one year later, Panahi made the spectacular This is Not a Film, a cinematic diary of Panahi is his Tehran apartment discussing his movies, his ideas as a director and the hopelessness of not being able to practice his art. Shot on small digital cameras and an iPhone, This is Not a Film was a revelation, one that ended with Panahi leaving his apartment to witness Chaharshanbe Suri (the Persian Festival of Fire).
This is Not a Film was already a subversion of the Iranian government, but Panahi defying his house arrest and wandering out into the celebration became premonition. In Closed Curtain (2013), Panahi wandered further out, this time to his villa on the Caspian Sea where he constructed a meta-narrative about a man smuggling a dog — considered unclean under Islamic Rule — and a series of encounters with people who may or may not exist in the narrative, or in Panahi’s dreamscape of neorealist cinema.
Both of these films inform Panahi’s latest, Taxi — taking place entirely inside a Tehran taxicab with Panahi behind the wheel. While the restrictions of Panahi’s house arrest are starting to relax, he is still “banned” from directing films. But most of Panahi’s films were never distributed in Iran in the first place and how much the regime is keeping tabs on Panahi is up for debate.
In the role of a taxicab driver, Panahi captures several daily roadblocks that prevent him and others from making a decent living or fitting into a rigidly formed world. This is most evident when one passenger recognizes Panahi, and not because Panahi is an international director, but because the man has conducted business with Panahi. The man sells bootlegged DVDs to clients in Tehran, and he can get anything you want — Panahi apparently ordered a copy of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia — and he takes great pride in distributing foreign art house titles to people who cannot go to cinemas or stream endless amounts of Netflix and Hulu at home. It’s a stinging moment for Panahi, this man is clearly providing a cultural service, but none of the money the man makes ever returns to those artists whose wares he sells. The man tries to enlist Panahi as his personal chauffeur, but Panahi declines, he has other passengers to shuttle.
Those passengers range from a self-proclaimed mugger, a female college student, two grandmothers with a goldfish, a businessman, an injured man and his wife, a friend and Panahi’s niece (Hana Saei). All are non-professional performers who go without credit — another act of government subversion on Panahi’s part — and all illustrate a particular absurdity under the Islamic Republic.
Of these, Panahi’s niece touches closest to home, as she has been charged with her teacher to make a movie, but to not make an “un-distributable movie,” a familiar term to Panahi. While recording a newly married couple out on the street, the niece unwittingly captures a theft: some money has fallen out of the groom’s pocket and a kid has picked it up and pocketed the money. The niece pleads with the boy to return the money; otherwise her movie will depict a theft and therefore be deemed un-distributable. The boy does not comply. The niece is frustrated, but Panahi smiles. Sometimes the world will simply not submit.
With these past three movies, Panahi seems to have acknowledged and reconcile that lack of submission. Who knows what will happen when you turn a dashboard cam on and start recording? What transpires in front of it is not up to you. The only thing that you can do is react. And for the past five years, Panahi’s reactions have been getting stronger and stronger.