Panahi’s “Taxi” as a vehicle for his fight against injustice

After his recent ban on film making, Jafar Panahi has pushed the boundaries on what may be considered as a film. Through documenting what he claims to be his everyday life, Panahi has given his audiences a true glimpse into the lives of the average Iranian. But this only makes sense since documenting what he considers to be the average day of a woman in Iran is what he became famous for and what eventually led to his arrest in 2010. Arrested for making overt political statements about the social inequities prevalent in modern Iran, especially along gender and economic lines, Panahi was effectively banned from directing, writing, producing or even being interviewed about films for the next 20 years. Since that sentencing was brought down upon him, Panahi has released two feature “films” and has pushed the limits of what may be acceptable in the eyes of strict censorship. His most recent attempt to appease the censor while maintaining true to his craft is his production known as Taxi. On its surface Taxi appears to be just another art house film that is supposed to fly over the heads of the average blockbuster fanatic and land in the outstretched arms of the critic. But upon a deeper examination, one can determine that Taxi is so much more than that. The first thing we need to look at is what is actually unfolding in front of our very eyes. Taxi follows Panahi as he has apparently taken up driving a taxi as a new form of income. While he travels the streets of Tehran Panahi records the ebb and flow of patrons as they pour into and out of his cab. He records their conversations and interactions with one another, occasionally putting himself in front of the lens so we can better grasp the world as it unfolds in real time in the cab. None of these conversation are completely outside the realm of possibility and as such it appears that Panahi is right on with his adherence to his ban on censorship. To go even further, the “film” lists only one name in every aspect of the cast and crew: Jafar Panahi. This exemplifies how much this piece of video documentation is not in fact a film but more of a re telling of the average day in the life of an Iranian cabbie.

But to take another look at Taxi one runs into this concept of representation. Throughout his film career, and especially in his later films, Panahi became a spokesperson for those forced into the realm of silence. By documenting the struggles of women and of the poor, Panahi has attempted to represent how these two similar, and occasionally overlapping, groups of people interact with the unfolding world around them. As such, Taxi effectively serves as a representative for another unspoken individual: Panahi himself. By understanding certain parts of Panahi’s career and what he has accomplished through his films, one can clearly see that Taxi is a vehicle for Panahi’s struggle against oppression. The first overt instance of this occurs early on in the film when one of the patrons of the taxi service recognizes Panahi as a director of previous films. This throws Panahi, really for the first time, into the mix of what is occurring on the screen. By recognizing the former director the patron has effectively shown Panahi’s influence on modern culture. Now it must be said that this particular patron is a peddler of films and as such is more invested in what has occurred in the world of cinema than the average taxi user. But that is beside the point since it revels in how much influence Panahi actually has in his home country. If you don’t understand my point, I want you to think of your top 5 favorite directors. Now instead of imaging the films they’ve created I want you to think of what they look like. Not so easy for the average person I’ve found out. As such, by being able to clearly see that Panahi is his cab driver, the patron effectively asserts that Panahi has become an almost cultural icon. By this reasoning, one can deduce that Panahi’s films have made an impact in some way on society.

The next instance of representation is through the story and images of two older women as they enter the cab with a fish bowl with two goldfish in it. An average image at first, if perhaps a little out of place in normal imagery. But if this seems to be too incredulous just go find another cabbie and ask him to regale you with his most interesting stories and you will realize that in the world of transporting people there is almost no such thing as out of the ordinary. But when one considers Panahi’s past the goldfish bowl becomes so much more than just an object in a cab. This image brings to mind the first feature film produced by Panahi called The White Balloon in which a young girl is given money by her mother to go out and buy a goldfish. The cover of the film even has a goldfish in a fish bowl on it to draw even more similarities to itself. As such, this represents how in tune Panahi was with everyday life. By creating a tale in his first film revolving around a goldfish and then to have that same object referenced again here brings to mind Panahi’s overall career as a successful interpreter of the world around him. This in turn reads as Panahi’s previous endeavors as real and relevant and as such should be treated with the utmost importance.

But the most representative case in Taxi involves Panahi’s discussion of undistributable films with his niece. They discuss the rules set forth by the Iranian government on what is allowed to be shown on screen for a film to be able to be distributed. Panahi’s niece becomes obsessed with this notion of the ability of a film to be distributable. She herself is attempting to make a film that can be widely distributed and as such turns to her uncle for clarification about the rules for distribution. This eventually turns into an intense discussion of the concept of sordid realism since no films are allowed to show that in Iran. Panahi and his niece discuss how in order to follow this rule one must make films that are real but not films that are real real. It becomes the job of the Iranian director to only showcase the lighter side of real life and leave the more despairing topics and ideal out of the film. But Panahi asserts his opinion that film is important no matter if it is distributable or not. It brings around Panahi’s consistent stance that he has made through his career that these things in life happen and we need to capture them and display them in such a way that other people can see them. It serves as an almost real life explanation on how Panahi has viewed his career as a whole.

Now with all these things lying just below the surface it’s no wonder that this is perceived as an art house film of the second wave of cinema. But the truth is that maybe this isn’t a film at all. Maybe it is just the average day as the life of a cabbie. This of course sounds even less appealing to the average movie goer. It seems to be a “film” that doesn’t want people to see it. But that’s the point. We’re not supposed to see it. With Panahi’s ban on film making still in place for the next 15 years it’s no wonder that this isn’t the most flashy thing put to screen this year. He has to make this project of his unwatchable as a film so it can be watched by an audience. It’s a perfect way to feed the censor and to talk to the people. Is it a film? I don’t know. But is it something to watch and experience? I still am not sure since we need to keep Panahi where he feels most comfortable right now; in this realm between obeying the censor and obeying himself. I guess the point that I’m trying to make here is that maybe we aren’t supposed to see this. But, much like a representation of something much larger than ourselves, we’re going to anyway.

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