Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi is a very prolific man for someone who was legally banned by his homeland’s government from making movies. Taxi, his latest effort, is the third film he has put out in the nearly five years since the ban was first instated. The first of these post-ban films, the cheekily-titled This Is Not a Film, had to be uploaded to a thumb drive and smuggled out of Iran inside of a cake (side note: any producers interested in hearing my pitch to turn that story into an Argo-esque caper are welcome to contact me). That film, along with its 2013 follow-up Closed Curtain, was shot in Panahi’s Tehran home in the utmost secrecy, so as to not draw the suspicion of the Iranian authorities. This makes it all the more incredible that Panahi would venture out into the open to make Taxi, but with great risk comes a greater reward: Taxi is a striking piece of filmmaking, a defiant act of creativity in the face of authoritarianism.
While calling Taxi “80 minutes of Jafar Panahi driving a cab around Tehran” would be technically accurate, it would also be disingenuous. Cabs, like many transitional spaces, double as a microcosm of the greater world. Only ten or so people ever make it into Panahi’s cab, but together, they encapsulate a considerable breadth of dispositions: young and old, well-off and less so, chauvinistic and feminist, healthy and otherwise. Most striking is the inclusion of Omid, a squat, polydactyl bootlegger who sells his contraband to content-hungry cinephiles, Panahi included. He is introduced as a starstruck fan (in one of the many instances in the film when reality and fiction completely collapse into one), but emerges as an unlikely brother-in-arms: the political climate forces people on both sides of the ball into a black market, whether they’re creatives or consumers.The same goes for Panahi’s niece Hana, a young spitfire and budding filmmaker herself, who is frustrated when real life doesn’t let her make a “screenable” film for school during an impressive sequence with a young trash-collecting street kid. In fact, there’s a whole throughline about petty crime as a survival tactic in an environment where the law is both symptom and “cure.” Panahi doesn’t cast judgement on the thieves and brigands in the film, an acknowledgement of a shared sordid reality.
The form will be familiar to anyone who has seen Russian dash-cam footage, a video diary, or an episode of Cash Cab. There an immediacy to this particular style of image—shaky zooms, stuttering manual pans, static shots of a bustling intersection—that weds itself seamlessly to the diegetic reality-bending typical of the Iranian New Wave. Like many great films of the movement, Taxi blurs the line between documentary, docu-fiction, and straight-up fiction. Actors, who may or may not be actors, talk about actors and acting. A filmmaker, in the middle of making a film, talks about filmmaking. Cameras cut found footage-style to video shot from a Canon camera or an iPhone. The greatest success of Panahi’s last three features is managing to show how few resources are needed to make a movie if you’re armed with ideas and conviction. These all end up being electrifying exercises in constrained filmmaking, born not just of a desire to create despite limitations, but a guttural need to.
Given the unpredictable chaos-theory nature of urban space, it’s also a minor miracle that everything here is as cohesive as it is. Panahi is both literally and figuratively in the driver’s seat, sculpting small moments of poetry on the fly: a camera tilt here, a look of worry there. His fares (“fares?”) are more or less mouthpieces, which turns the taxi into a safe haven of sorts, hidden in plain sight and drawing no suspicion. Or is it? Panahi’s version of going incognito is straight out of the Clark Kent playbook: a flatcap and a pair of glasses will do the trick. Which begs the question: how much of this is hiding in plain sight and flying in the face of a tyrannical mandate and how much of this is Panahi trying to take his mind off his lot? That central perceptual push-pull is what makes Taxi (and undoubtedly any future Panahi project until 2030) so vital and fascinating.
Taxi is currently in very limited release.
Directed by Jafar Panahi; written by Jafar Panahi; starring Jafar Panahi; 82 minutes.