Taxi: Iranian director Jafar Panahi cruises past his filmmaking ban again

An undated handout picture shows director Jafar Panahi in a still from his film 'Taxi'.

‘I think all movies are worth watching.” That’s a simple enough thesis, one that Iranian director Jafar Panahi offers to a young film student seeking advice in his new movie, Taxi. The premise of Panahi’s latest is straightforward, too: The auteur, technically still living under house arrest, drives around in a cab, picking up and dropping off passengers, and bantering with fellow Tehranis.

The simple conceit initially gives the impression that Taxi is a documentary, before one overly staged vignette breaks that illusion. Despite the fact that it’s all orchestrated, though, the film feels as spontaneous and digressive as a Charles Mingus composition, and just as paradoxically light and dense.

Taxi is a refreshing contrast to Panahi’s more serious and challenging films, some of them produced while he rides out a 20-year ban on filmmaking courtesy of the Iranian government, which has labelled him a propagandist. While his 2011 film This Is Not A Film was shot in his house, and 2013’s Closed Curtain at his beachside residence, Taxi is shot in a car, a space both constrictive and freeing. That contradictory quality is no small wonder for Iranians, as car culture is huge in such metropolises as Tehran.

Offering a space that is both public and private, cars have become more than just a means of travel in the country: They offer a modicum of freedom. Given that Iranians’ public lives and actions are thoroughly repressed, the privacy of cars gives them the opportunity to momentarily share intimate conversations in a dynamic setting that still places them in the outside world. (This idea was also explored in Ten, by Abbas Kiarostami, who was first Panahi’s mentor of sorts, and is now his contemporary.)

That contradiction of cars being both a private and public space is not lost on Panahi, who isn’t allowed on the road. Yet on more than one occasion inTaxi, he brazenly leaves the car, as if it’s no big thing that such actions are documented on film. The symbolic gesture of his defiance, though, could not be bigger. The idea of making a “distributable film” is one that surfaces time and time again in Taxi – it’s a natural preoccupation for Panahi, whose work isn’t distributable in the least, a fact acknowledged in a postscript about the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which hasn’t granted permission for Taxi. Instead of credits, Panahi’s postscript simply states: “I am indebted to everyone who helped us.”

Late in the film, Panahi picks up his niece, who’s constantly recording the world for a short film school project. But she keeps recording footage of “real life” that isn’t admissible by the school’s rules, because the conduct of everyday Iranians at work and play is never quite appropriate enough for Islamic standards. At one point, having filmed a poor boy who snatched a fallen banknote off the ground instead of returning it to its owner, Panahi’s niece reprimands the child. After much arguing, the boy relents, though his half-hearted attempt to get the man’s attention fails, and the rightful owner drives away without noticing.

That sense of ironic humour – right versus wrong in a state that doesn’t seem to know the difference itself – courses through the film, occasionally turning absurdist when it tempers the more obvious allegorical vignettes. In one, two religious women demand Panahi take them to an ancient spring by 12 p.m. sharp, as a superstition has led them to believe that they must deposit their two pet fish there, lest they perish. The frantic duo, oblivious to the mounted camera at the front of Panahi’s cab, openly engage in coarse language, engaging in not-so-Islamic behaviour that would fall below the permissible standards of an Iranian film.

In these moments, it’s easy to laugh, yet Panahi’s underlying critique of Iran’s totalitarianism is there, too. That the director is able to continue producing such creative and daring work while ostensibly under the thumb of the state is a true feat. Please Mr. Panahi, don’t quit your day job.