The Iranian film Jafar Panahi’s Taxi takes us on a delightful joy ride that gives its international audience a light-hearted, but meaningful glimpse into the everyday lives of Tehran’s citizens. He skillfully delivers to us witty characters with humorous stories, and only after the fact, do we realize he was instead slipping us a secret note with a hidden message. Why the secrecy? Keep reading. Please. I promise you, it’s important.
It’s hard to box this enjoyable movie into a specific genre. Panahi secures a taxi and installs 3 cameras from which he films his fares. It’s evident early on that this is somewhat scripted, but not in a manner that takes away from the feel of the film. The people he picks up throughout the day are too relevant for it to be chance, but you also get the impression that they are all his friends, and the ease with which the conversations flow, helps create the feeling of a documentary.
This film is a series of vignettes surrounding each fare, but the scene-stealer is Panahi’s lovable, real-life niece, 10 year-old Hanah. He picks her up from school in his taxi, and she tells him she needs to make a film for a class assignment. Her teacher says the film must be “screenable” and adhere to the Ministry of Culture’s criteria, which include:
- Respect for the veil
- No violence
- No sordid realism
- No physical contact between men and women
- No discussion of political or economic issues
- “Good guys” should not wear ties (symbol of the West)
- “Good guy” characters should bear the names of Islamic saints.
Throughout the taxi ride, Hanah uses her own camera to film scenes around Tehran, which allows Panahi to offer commentary on Iranian culture without doing the recording himself. Panahi is a master of exposing both the beauty and the underside of Iranian culture without blatantly doing so. (My own theory here is that Panahi will use the actual footage shot with Hanah’s camera in a future film. “What, me? I didn’t shoot this. It was only my 10 year-old niece playing with her camera.”)
There’s not enough space here to review his acclaimed film background and civil disobedience, but please read about him elsewhere. Before seeing this film, though, it’s important to know that he was arrested in 2010 and held for 3 months in an Iranian jail. He was released after going on a hunger strike and Western film executives brought international attention to his detention. His was given a 20-year probation during which he is not to leave the country nor make any more films. Taxi is a clever poke at the people trying to subdue his art, but it could send him back to jail should Iranian authorities choose to charge him.
Chances are that few will see this film simply because it won’t get wide distribution, but if you have the opportunity, please watch it. The film itself is highly entertaining, but both the message and the messenger need to be supported for reasons greater than film-world accolades. This movie is like a message in a bottle that Panahi has sent out to the world under the noses of his watchful captors. Those who live in Iran won’t be able to see it.
In one of the last scenes, Panahi picks up his friend and real-life human rights attorney, Nasrin Sotoudeh (I wish I had known who she was when I watched the film), as she’s on her way to counsel a client. She and Panahi talk a bit about their passions and she encourages him to keep doing what he loves, “because,” she says while offering a rose to the camera, “the people of cinema can be relied on.”