Some of you have probably heard about Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s ongoing plight – and his defiant acts against his oppressive government. In December 2010, this internationally acclaimed filmmaker who has been critical about the Iranian government was sentenced to a 20-year ban on any kind of filmmaking and interview while also not allowed to leave the country, but that did not deter his artistic spirit at all. Surreptitiously working with his close colleagues, he has continued his career with “This Is Not a Film” (2011) and “Closed Curtain” (2013), and he also managed to have these two films smuggled out of the country for being shown outside Iran.
Of course, the Iranian government was not very pleased about this, so it subsequently put more pressure and restriction on Panahi, but, again, he did not step back at all. His latest film “Taxi”, which won the Golden Bear award at the Berlin International Film Festival early in this year, shows that he is as stubborn as before, and we observe how creative a talented filmmaker can be amidst limits and obstacles. While its view is virtually limited within its small space, the movie works as a warm, intimate glimpse into the Iranian society and its people, and we come to feel more of Panahi’s passionate filmmaking beneath the plain surface of this engaging docudrama.
At the beginning, we see the streets of Teheran through a camera placed on the dashboard of a taxi being driven by Panahi himself. To avoid the unwanted attention from others, a small Blackmagic Design digital camera was hidden on a tissue box during the shooting, and its angle could be adjusted to shoot what was going on inside or outside the vehicle, though you can clearly notice that most of the shots in the film are shown from a few number of angles. In addition, Panahi had to utilize the sunroof for adjusting the lighting because using lighting equipments in his vehicle was virtually impossible under his shooting condition, but the movie mostly looks fine on the whole except its several understandable technical limits.
As three passengers get into Panahi’s taxi one by one, the camera angle is then changed to show the people inside the vehicle on the screen, and a conversation begins between a woman sitting on the backseat and a guy sitting on the passenger seat. While amused to discover the hidden camera, the guy begins to talk about the need of severe punishment on criminals, and the lady, who has a very different opinion, argues with him for a while until he gets off from the taxi at his destination.
Shortly after the lady alights from the taxi, the third passenger, a short chubby guy who has been sitting right behind Panahi, says he recognized Panahi right from when he got onto the car, for he is a pirate DVD vendor and Panahi was once his customer not so long ago. When he asks Panahi whether Panahi is shooting a movie in his taxi, we cannot help but notice a sadly amusing overlap between fiction and reality.
As Panahi’s taxi keeps going around the city, we encounter more people along with Panahi. A frantic wife and her seriously injured husband suddenly come into the car. As being taken to the hospital, the husband tries to leave his final will on a cellular phone video for ensuring his wife’s financial safety. We see the pirate DVD vendor meeting a young college student aspiring to be a filmmaker, and that lad gets a helpful advice from Panahi as deciding on the DVDs to purchase from the vendor. Two old ladies want Panahi to take them to some famous fountain for releasing their two goldfishes exactly at noon, but then Panahi, who is not a real taxi driver, has a problem in taking them to their destination as soon as possible.
And then there comes Panahi’s young niece, who is really his niece and accepted the award on his behalf at the Berlin International Film Festival. This sweet plucky girl is eager to make her first film to be distributed, and she and her uncle have an interesting talk on a number of restrictions on the filmmaking in Iran, including a ridiculous ban on depicting base reality. When she happens to be left alone in the taxi, she spots one interesting thing to be captured on her digital camera, and that leads to a humorous moment when she tries to manipulate the situation as she wishes for her movie.
Panahi also meets an old friend he has not seen for several years. He wants to discuss with Panahi on his private dilemma on crime and punishment, and there is a small surprise during their serious conversation on law and morality. Nasrin Sotoudeh, a real-life lawyer and human rights activist, appears later in the film, and she and Panahi encourage each other as two people being unfairly oppressed by their government.
After “Taxi” was shown outside Iran, the Iranian government was naturally not so happy about that while Panahi stated in public that he will keep going on his way no matter what will happen (“Nothing can prevent me from making films since when being pushed to the ultimate corners I connect with my inner-self and, in such private spaces, despite all limitations, the necessity to create becomes even more of an urge”). A sudden happening during the last shot and the following statement from Panahi remind us again of the oppression he is still struggling with even at this point, and I sincerely hope that the movie will be fondly remembered in the end as a small but precious work of defiance from one of the leading Iranian filmmakers. He is ready to go further, but how long will he have to endure?