Jafar Panahi, technically, is banned from making films. Yet his third since that ban was imposed at the beginning of this decade is now out, and shows him documenting the streets of Tehran, no longer, it seems, confined to house arrest.
There are two real-world forces in opposition in Iran, and from the seat of a taxi, a camera mounted on his dash, panning by hand movement, Panahi tries to reach out and summarize them. In some respects, Iranian culture is flourishing, released, somewhat, following the election of Hassan Rouhani as president in 2013. As the New York Times reported in October of this year, “Iranians are increasingly taking to the streets, this time not to challenge the government but to reclaim public spaces. Though there are plenty of skeptics who say the changes are minimal and could be reversed at any time, the lifestyle movement seems to be spreading across the country.” Public performances, dress codes, and even some protests appear to no longer be under the same kind of black-or-white scrutiny. And the public killing of stray dogs and other forms of animal cruelty, one of the subjects of Panahi’s previous film, Closed Curtain, were at least temporarily ended following protests earlier this year.
But at the same time, the treatment Panahi was put through continues unabated. Journalists, poets, and other filmmakers are subject to imprisonment for any act perceived as political — last month, the PEN American Center sent a petition for the pardons of Fatemeh Ekhtesari and Mehdi Mousavi, two poets punished with prison sentences and floggings, a move reminiscent of the outpouring of support for Panahi after his own imprisonment.
What that effort did was put a spotlight on Panahi, not release him from his restrictions — after Closed Curtain, which unlike This Is Not a Film and Taxi, listed its cast and crew in the credits, two actors, Maryam Moqadam and Kabuzia Partovi, had their passports confiscated. Panahi could, he realizes, attempt to leave the country as his films have (before the ban he was potentially going to adapt a Khaled Hosseini novel outside of Iran), escaping censors and circumventing a ban that, with digital technology, has become unenforceable, but he would not be allowed back. And so he stays, trying to make films with the circumstances he has been given. “Since I don’t want to cause other problems [for] other people, I have to reduce everything to myself,” he said in a rare interview with Eric Kohn last year.
In Taxi, everything gathers around Panahi, who takes a job as a taxi driver, we can assume, only moments before the film begins. He needs directions from passengers, is less aggressive at cutting through the city’s labyrinth than other drivers, and at one point, passes off two would-be patrons because he has other ideas for a scene. Much of this appears to unfold in real time, but Panahi, just as in Abbas Kiarostami’s car-centric universes, is using an aspect of realism to bring the immediacy of his dialogue and scenario closer to life.
Panahi fills the film with dialogues between passengers and friends, people debating the best way to find freedom and people just trying to get to their destination. As in all of his post-ban movies, the film shows Panahi meeting people he hasn’t seen in awhile, or people who have been impacted by his work; they bring him food, they embrace — for any other artist, we might call this a minor boast of influence, but with Panahi, each time this happens it appears more like an attempt to restore some of his dignity, a major artist stripped of his resources.
The car is a refuge, a way to see the outside world and talk about it in a way that appears normal (unlike Monte Hellman’s challenge to find 24 angles to shoot an interior, Panahi has only three), but that, if seen in Iran, would show a barrier crumbling. As Haleh Anvari, an essayist living in Tehran interviewed for the Times report said, “In practice most people are far ahead of the norms set by the government. In cars, cinemas and concerts, ordinary people are increasingly taking their space.” The whole movie has the quiet, but slightly off-balance mood of the stereotypical scene where a character invites another into a bathroom to have a private conversation, and turns on the taps so audio surveillance will be frustrated.
The dialogues do not offer up any new revelations about life in Tehran to anyone paying attention. Political discourse is silenced, the law system is unfair, the culture is restrictive, too many people are complacent, art is only allowed if it supports the state. The conversations sound like ones that have happened several times between these same friends or colleagues that Panahi encounters on his route, and will go on, in the future, the same ideas fighting for acceptance, but different examples based on the news of the week. In his past productions, these might have been the discussions that would have informed the film; here, they are the film.
Panahi, as a driver, plays the part of the gracious host, inviting questions and observations. But there is still the sense that this is a minor film compared to what Panahi could do if he were again able to use the expansive sense of scope he worked with in films like The Circle. Here, the way he reaches out is through the inclusion of footage shot by people he encounters: a passenger recording a speech by an injured man on his phone; a file on a tablet that is the subject of dispute over its interpretation, shown to Panahi; and an extended scene shot by Panahi’s niece on a consumer-grade camera. In one early scene, a man asks Panahi for some foreign film recommendations — like the DVD collection in This Is Not a Film or the hidden posters in Closed Curtain, Panahi counts his attendance in the global film community as equally important to his position within Iran. And Panahi says, “I think any movie is worth watching,” the kind of democratic impulse that guides the fragmented point of view of the cameras in this film, and exactly the kind of sentiment that Panahi is being restricted for believing in.