Jafar, Take the Wheel
By Michael Koresky

Dir. Jafar Panahi, Iran, Kino-Lorber

Ever the resourceful prisoner, Jafar Panahi has managed to make a journey film without leaving the streets of Tehran. Taxi is an expansive road-trip movie in the best tradition of the genre, even though by necessity it travels in circles. The third film the great Iranian director has made since being arrested, imprisoned, and then banned from making movies for twenty years, Taxi finds Panahi in a more jovial mood than seen in either 2011’s This Is Not a Film or 2013’s Closed Curtain; the former was a self-reflexive sketch for a movie he cannot make, produced in secret in his apartment while he awaited sentencing and then smuggled into Cannes on a flash drive hidden in a cake, the latter a palpably angry docu-horror about a life lived in forced seclusion. Both were superbly wrought, but dark and cagey and a little terrifying; one might have been unsurprised, despite the clear resilience their existences showed on the part of the director, if he had followed them up with a statement of bitter despair. Instead of throwing up his hands in the face of government control, Panahi has brightened. About ten minutes into Taxi, there is a shot of Panahi broadly smiling, and such a simple gesture is awe-inspiring.

Like those two immediately prior works, as well as his 1996 masterpiece The Mirror, this film takes the tricky form of a hall of mirrors. The fact that he’s constantly calling his films’ realities into question leads many to dub them fiction-documentary “hybrids,” but Taxi would seem to have no need for such categories or reductions. What the camera sees is always most important; whether it’s been carefully laid out for us by a director or caught on the fly is left for us to decide. What is unquestionable is that Panahi is firmly in the driver’s seat. And quite literally: here, Panahi assumes the unlikely role of a cab driver, or rather, himself as a faux cab driver, carefully motoring around the city, picking up strangers or friends or family, interacting with them or not, being “himself” or playing someone else. It’s all fluid, moving in and out of different tonal registers and realities, all the while never leaving the confines of the small car. With the camera mounted inside the car, behind the windshield, in clear view to the vehicle’s passengers, the film does not take the form of a secretive document—like This Is Not a Film and Closed Curtain—but of an unabashed movie about a world that demands to be recorded. One of the first things asked to Panahi by a customer is whether the camera is some kind of anti-theft security device, an amusing question for a man who has been treated by his government as a criminal.

Taxi fits in nicely, probably purposely, with several New Iranian Cinema traditions, established by both Panahi and Abbas Kiarostami. The latter’s benchmark films Taste of Cherry and Ten used the interior of a car for their main dramatic settings, while his Close-Up played a hide-and-seek game with its audience about what was real or not in its dramatization of a bizarre event. Meanwhile, Panahi’s own cinema has long been engaging in the sorts of playful, cagey dialogues between the actual as it’s happening and the meticulously staged. Like the greatest Iranian films of the nineties, which combined a heady but always accessible mix of neorealism and benignly Godardian metacinematic investigations, Taxi interrogates itself—as cinema, as document, and, because of Panahi’s particular political reality, as an expression of artistic freedom. Panahi has taken to a purposeful extreme the notion that strictures and limitations are beneficial to the creation of art.

In Mirror, Panahi did away with the film’s diegesis about halfway through, allowing his main character, a little girl of seven, to turn to the camera and break the fourth wall. Here, the games start much earlier. Panahi first gives us our bearings in an invigorating, five-minute opening sequence that largely takes the form of an argument between two customers, a man and a woman, strangers to one another, he sitting in the passenger seat, she directly behind him. She, a teacher, is strongly dubious about the morality and efficacy of the death penalty for petty thieves under Sharia law, while he, a working-class, self-identified “freelance” thief, defends the practice for even low-level criminals. Their conversation seems to be presented as intentionally off the cuff, but there’s such a shape and purpose and direct political dimension to it, and the speakers are so impassioned, that it might strike the viewer as a written scene. Our suspicion that what we’re watching is perhaps a little phony is soon assuaged—or validated, depending on your position—when, after the man and the woman have both left the car, a third passenger, whom we hadn’t previously seen sitting behind the driver’s seat, asks, “They were actors, right?”

As it turns out, this jovial man, named Omid, is a seller of bootlegged DVDs, and he has recognized the cab driver as Jafar Panahi. This is the moment of the director’s infectious smile—a flash of recognition for the viewers, a winking acknowledgment of culpability, and a sly intimation that he’s really getting away with something. Omid tells the director that the dialogue reminded him of something from Crimson Gold, Panahi’s 2004 tour of Tehran through the eyes of a dim but ambitious pizza delivery boy. There will be other direct references to Panahi’s movies, including The White Balloon, The Mirror, and Offside, as well as mentions of other films, from highbrow art-house to mainstream cinema, from Once Upon a Time in Anatolia to Midnight in Paris to the American TV series The Walking Dead. “Any movie is worth watching, I think,” Panahi tells Omid when asked for recommendations. In most other directors’ films, references to these titles would be couched in casual pop cultural banter, but here they take on a political urgency. They are talked of quietly, during a surreptitious sale of pirated product to a film student in the back seat of Panahi’s cab; they are contraband, and quite literally pieces of cultural currency.

Time and again, the film offers moments that have both the appearance of authenticity and the ring of falseness, scenes that begin as though shocking interceptions of reality and that quickly become politically pointed, almost play-like. With Omid now in the front passenger seat, a bleeding victim of a bike accident is thrust into the back of the taxi; his wailing wife cradles him as Panahi races to the hospital. The intention of the scene gradually clarifies, and it’s not just for the visual impact of bloodstains on the seats: amidst this panic, he demands that Omid record his final testament on cell phone camera in case he doesn’t survive, wanting to make sure his house is left to his wife, as by law women cannot automatically inherit their husband’s property—it all further develops Panahi’s themes of the importance of video evidence in the face of social injustice. And later, Panahi will cede much of the film his adorable and spunky young niece, Hana. She is not just a spirited and appealing camera subject but also a crucial vessel for a discussion about censorship in Iranian cinema. Hana has been tasked with making a short film for school, but as she has been instructed by her teachers there are certain rules that must be obeyed to ensure the film is distributable: respect the Islamic headscarf, no contact between a man and woman, no violence.

The vaguest and perhaps most alarming of these rules: no “sordid realism.” Later in the film, Panahi is again reminded of this term, surely reminiscent of accusations that the government made against many of his films before banning them. Hana asks what it means, as her teacher’s explanation confused her: “Show what’s real but not real real.” In a contemporary world in which everything is recorded, all our lives seemingly mediated by one type of camera or another, it’s an almost hilariously insufficient, meaningless term.

Hana, wielding her own camera throughout many of her scenes, becomes Taxi’s most hopeful figure, a symbol of possibility for the future. At one point, while Panahi is out of the car for a moment, Hana turns her camera on an adolescent boy working in the streets, who has picked up money that had dropped from the pocket of a groom fresh from his wedding. Having seen his actions, she calls him over and begs him to give the money back—not simply for the moral good but because having the petty thievery in her film will make it “undistributable.” The more she insists on his doing the right thing, the more one realizes that she’s not making an ethical choice so much as revealing how desperate she is to control and manipulate reality. In other words, like her uncle, she’s a natural born movie director.