Our idea of political cinema here in America has predictable: a political campaign drama before major election years or hot button topics given lukewarm treatments. We can always expect charged commentary from documentaries, even when the revelations in the film are self-evident and not illuminating. Our expectations have become that we’re going to be talked to but not that we will engage with.
But what about a film itself existing as political statement regardless of its content? Here we have Jafar Panahi, Iranian filmmaker famously censored by his government. Currently five years into a 20-year house arrest sentence, he’s banned from leaving the country and engaging in any type of filmmaking due to political dissent. Any film he could create would be inherently a political statement and open defiance, even in a package as humanistic and farcical as his newest film, Taxi.
His confinement and limitations have led to uniquely contained pieces, forced to be inventive under the pressure of watching eyes and threat of further imprisonment. Documenting his initial persecution, This is Not a Film was partially filmed on his cellphone and famously smuggled out of the country on a flash drive hidden in a cake. Similarly on-the-fly, Taxi uses micro cameras and cellphone footage to remain incognito while out in the crowded streets of Tehran. Here Panahi may be in the word, but the confine of the cab keep him from being with the world.
Whether this is meta-fiction or documentary is ultimately irrelevant; Panahi plays himself driving a taxi and interacting with people who may or may not be strangers, family, or acquaintances. Each visitor is a comment on Panahi’s situation, but also a fully realized individual either invited or butting into the experience.
The film ends with a coda where Panahi states the participants in the film remain uncredited to help the involved escape persecution. With an ensemble of such diverse personalities, it’s a further shame to not see their comic and insightful gifts recognized, especially with the comic gifts on display. It’s hard to imagine even the most frigid audience that couldn’t be warmed over by Panahi’s boisterous niece Hana or the adoring bootleg-peddling fan. Make no mistake, this movie is damn funny. In fact, it’s this warmth and believabity that help the social commentary take hold: we’re not told any perspective, but the characters are allowed to live it (Panahi is also the most passive participant).
The act of theft runs through the entire enterprise. Piracy is rampant, with even the filmmaker himself ambivalent and complicit to the spread of illegal film because that simply the way people are able to see the work of masters, perhaps even the only possible way for his work to be seen in Iran (though this goes unstated). A casual act of harmless theft by a boy on the street foils Hana’s attempt at creating “screenable” and sanctioned film, and is mirrored at the end of the film. It’s a supposedly cut-and-dry moral wrong to steal, but Panahi paints the notion of total right and total wrong with more ambiguity than his society is allowed.
Already lauded at global film festivals, including winning the Golden Bear top prize at its debut at the Berlin Film Festival, this one is a gift to even exist. Whether the modesty he presents in character as “Jafar Panahi” is true to the actual artist or not, Taxi‘s thesis is clearly not striving for anything beyond artistic expression for itself, let alone an award or recognition. Despite the constrictions or threat of further persecution, Panahi survives through his compelling desire to create and share his experience of the world.