One of the things that will strike audiences immediately about Jafar Panahi’s Taxi is the film’s surprisingly light tone. Considering that it is the third film Iranian director Jafar Panahi has defiantly made since being sentenced to six years of house arrest and a twenty-year ban on making films back in 2010, it is easy to assume that Panahi would be full of rage and spite. However, instead of overturning cars in protest, he chooses to literally get in one to drive his point home.
Shot almost entirely within a cab, Panahi’s film is an entertaining and thought-provoking mosaic of life in Tehran. The film finds Jafar Panahi, assuming the role of a cab driver, going around picking up seemingly random passengers. Presented in a hidden camera documentary style reminiscent of HBO’s Taxicab Confessions, viewers observe as everyone from two superstitious sisters to a bootleg video store vendor to the director’s own niece (Hana Saeidi) enter the cab and offer their opinions on various aspects of life. The discourse flows free like a winding stream touching on everything from the issue of capital punishment to where creative inspiration comes from. Though the film gives the illusion of being a documentation of real life events, it quickly becomes apparent that it is all part of masterful construct created by Panahi himself.
Like an outlaw puppeteer Panahi refuses to let anyone break his creative strings. He uses the film as a living example of the impact that cinematic art can have on a culture. Panahi views film not only as a tool for entertainment, but also a medium for helping others navigate the moral complexities of the world. One of the earliest conversations in the film involves two passengers engaged in a passionate philosophical discussion about the nature of crime. They cannot agree on whether it is a person’s actions or the circumstances that forced the person to take those actions that is really to be blamed.
This blurring of the moral lines resurfaces again later in the film when Panahi’s young niece, who provides the film with some of its most amusing moments, shares the list of “disputable rules” that her film teacher, clearly a veiled jab at the Iranian government, advises that every Iranian filmmaker needs to live by.
While never flat out sticking his middle finger up at such constrictions, though one can argue the mere completion of the film is statement enough, Panahi does a wonderful job of systematically breaking down each rule presented. He shows that true art, similar to life in general, does not offer many clear cut answers. In one of the film’s most contemplative sequences a passenger shares an act of violence that he endured but never reported. Panahi lets the moment resonate before asking his niece, and the audience, to ponder if the man recounting the tale, based on the rules imposed by the “teacher”, is a hero or the villain of his own story.
It is in these murky moral waters where Jafar Panahi’s Taxi finds it reflective beauty. The film is so much more than a mere portrait of a defiant director. It is also a rather profound statement on the intricate way art and life coexist; one that is as vibrant and complicated as those who go about their daily lives on the streets of Tehran. While the governmental voices of his oppressors still plague his life, at one point the director states “I thought I heard my interrogator”, it is clear that Jafar Panahi has no intention of giving up the art form that is as vital to him as life itself.
Jafar Panahi’s Taxi begins its exclusive run at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Friday.