The cab driver’s arguably aiding and abetting in some sort of black market DVD exchange. But to be clear, the cabbie had no idea that his latest fare was a diminutive bagman for bootlegged TV shows and recent movies. One, this is Iran, and popular entertainments like The Walking Dead or Woody Allen’s latest are in short supply. Two, the cab driver is Jafar Panahi, the now-infamous Iranian director who was put under house arrest for “propaganda against the Islamic Republic,” and given a 20-year ban on making films by the Iranian government, among other things.
Panahi takes his box office bootlegger to a film student’s home. The student is looking for “classics.” The student, upon realizing who the cabbie is, naturally fawns. The student gloats at how many films he’s seen, and asks Panahi for advice on what to make a short film about. The student’s a little unclear on what he can and wants to shoot. Panahi casually explains to the kid: “You can’t sit tight in your place and wonder.”
This is the film’s spine in a single sentence. Panahi’s going to make a movie regardless of whatever frivolous laws are imposed on him. And yet, in its casual wisdom, this is such a beautiful, unpretentious statement about art. You can’t wonder. If you’re going to create something, then create it. This is almost the “just do it” of cinema. Taxi isn’t just about 80 minutes in the life of a filmmaker/cab driver, it’s about the will to make art. Panahi’s third film made while banned from filmmaking is a masterful ride, a docudrama which goes to show that powerful stories can exist in even the most benign places. It makes you wonder and want to have that extra few minutes of conversation with your Uber driver the next time you go out. It’s the kind of film that’ll leave its viewers awestruck at its hunger and its resolute convictions about the creative expression of cinema as a medium. Taxi is must-see, feel-good cinéma vérité of the narrative variety.
The film exists in a curious place between reality and fiction. It exists in real-time, but is also carefully staged with a gaggle of anonymous actors portraying fares, friends, and family. (Their identities were hidden for safety.) Panahi is Jafar Panahi, or at least a version of himself. He’s a filmmaker developing a movie with a tiny swiveling camera stapled atop his dashboard while working as a cab driver. Panahi interacts with a mugger and teacher, as they argue over what constitutes punishable offenses. Panahi takes two women in a hurry to release fish into a spring for superstitious and silly reasons. The director also picks up a man bleeding out after a motorcycle accident, who begs to record a last will and testament in case he dies. Every fare makes for jovial and at times offbeat conversation. Panahi captures everything perfectly, with superbly unflinching naturalism.
Panahi utilizes the latest in small form photography devices, and directs his own story with the most assured hand you’ll ever see. Shots are relaxed, clean, and express a longing discipline for being out in the world. Micro-cameras, cell phone cameras, daytime lighting, and an acute sense of people and their propensity to blab until truth and insight occur is what makes Taxi so cleverly efficient. Through a patient camera’s eye, truths and fury emerge.
Each scenario allows for a series of passionate arguments against systemic hypocrisies. It’s ingenious how Panahi turns casual encounters in a tight timeframe into riveting incitements. The aforementioned fish women become a frenzied, naïve ramble and subsequent commentary on how religion begets dubious ideologies and practices. Will hurriedly releasing a fish actually bless these women, or cause peace in the universe? The man who records his possible last words pleas to a cell phone that he is of sound mind and wants his female companion to have his home, in spite of state mandated limits on property, creating a ghastly war cry for equity in an unfair state.
In the film’s most moving and plainly stated series of conversations, Panahi picks up his niece from school and discusses her latest project: making a short film. But the film has to be “screenable” as ordained by her teachers, and in essence, the Iranian state. Some of the guidelines for Panahi’s niece? No political or economic content. Avoid “sordid realism,” or anything that might be remotely challenging or unpleasant. And it’s up to kids, the now and future people, to censor “problematic” content. What in the hell does that even mean? Reality is life. Life begets art. Art should not be restricted just because it goes against the grain. Panahi’s bewilderment speaks volumes, and in having a simple conversation with his niece, his passionate cries for creative freedom become so movingly clear.
Taxi’s on an extremely limited run right now, so find it while you can. It took effort and daring on Panahi’s part for it to come to the U.S., and it’s like a gift, a show of support and embrace of creative progressivism, to see this. His previous protest films, This is Not a Film and Closed Curtain, are streaming now, but given the sensitive nature of his works, one never knows when Iranian officials might shut it all down, or Panahi may be jailed and have his camera taken away. And that is just wrong. Jafar Panahi is nothing short of incendiary. He keeps on striving and surviving, expressing himself and telling stories, his way, by any means necessary.
If Panahi can make a master class in rebellion inside the confines of a taxi cab, we can hop in one and find his film.