"Taxi" - Jafar Panahi (2015)

Famed Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi’s difficult circumstances are mostly well known.  Following the notorious Iranian 2009 Presidential elections, when the government violently suppressed the progressive Green Movement’s protests concerning election rigging, Panahi, a Green supporter, was arrested and ultimately sentenced to six-years in prison, banned for 20 years from any filmmaking activities, and barred from leaving the country.  Although the six-year prison sentence is still hanging over his head and Panahi is closely watched by the government authorities, he has somehow managed to clandestinely (and clearly illegally) make and distribute three films in the succeeding years – This is Not a Film (In Film Nist, 2011), Closed Curtain (Pardé, 2013), and the film under review here: Taxi (Taxi Tehran, 2015).

All three of those films offer film narrative perspectives on personal confinement, but Taxi also sheds light on the larger social world we live in.  In the film, Panahi is a taxi driver on the streets of Tehran and gives rides to an assortment of clients that he picks up.  Everything in the film is seen from the perspective of cameras inside the taxi, both dashboard-mounted cameras and the mobile-phone cameras of some of the people inside. And all the shooting and editing of the film was accomplished in a scant fifteen days [1].  Despite these severe shooting restrictions, the film was smuggled outside of Iran and, remarkably, won the Golden Bear at the 2015 Berlin Film Festival [2].

Note that the shooting of a film entirely inside a taxi had been done before with Abbas Kiastomi’s 10 (Dah, 2002).  But Kiarostami’s film is a staged theatrical production, while Panahi’s Taxi is essentially a documentary film.  Indeed, Taxi has the look and feel of a cinéma vérité documentary, with a seemingly random stream of passengers getting rides in Panahi’s taxi and venting their petty concerns.  But there is more here than at first meets the eye. Iranian cinema has a history of mixing documentary realism with theatrically staged scenes, as can be seen in Kiarostami’s Close-Up (Nema-ye Nazdik, 1990), Panahi’s own The Mirror (Ayneh, 1997), and Madsen’s Sepideh - Reaching for the Stars (2013).  So the wall between objectivity and contrivance is sometimes obscure in this tradition in order to portray some desired intrinsic truth; and so, it seems, this is what happens in Taxi, too [3].  Panahi, as is his custom, avoids diatribes or disquisitions and lets his passengers do all the talking – he, himself, is primarily a listener and says very little.  But these passengers gradually, and in their own words, give us a picture of contemporary Iranian society and to some extent the degree to which the government is suppressing basic freedoms [4,5]. 

In order to fully appreciate Taxi, it helps to have an understanding of Tehran’s taxi culture.  With its huge population and limited public transportation, people in Tehran have for more than forty years relied heavily on hailing a “private taxi” (mashin-e-shakhsi) to get around.  A mashin-e-shakhsi is essentially a private car that is operated by its owner as a taxi cab. For years it has served as an open employment opportunity for men who are willing to put in the gruelling effort to make a go of it.  These cars do not have meters, and gradually over the years, a whole scheme of shared norms has arisen as to what fares to charge customers.  In general the fare prices are relatively inexpensive, and people do not argue much concerning what to pay anyway.  For efficiency and to keep fares low, taxis will often fill up their available seats with other passengers who may be travelling in the same general direction. 

In order to hail a mashin-e-shakhsi, one stands on the curb, and when a car slows down and stops for you, you need to call out your destination.  If the destination is roughly in the direction where the taxi is headed, the driver will likely tell you to get in, even if there are already passengers seated in the cab.  To be a smart taxi hailer, it is best to call out the name of a well-known building or intersection towards which taxis are likely to be headed.  If you have a long or complicated route to take, it may be necessary to take several such taxis, each of which is willing to take you part of the way towards your destination.  All of this may sound like modern ride-sharing schemes, but the Iranian version of it emerged long before the cell-phone-driven systems around today.

Inside these shared taxis, there is an interesting “social space” in which the passengers seem to feel some fleeting moments of confidentiality that are free from the restrictive conditions of the public space [6].  Iranians tend to be surprisingly friendly and open to strangers, anyway, and when they meet momentarily in these taxis, they often express their thoughts openly to each other.  This includes interactions between previously unacquainted men and women, which would be more restricted on the street. So there is almost a special mini-culture of open discussion in these shared taxis, and this is what Panahi has tapped into in this film.

The film opens with no titles or credits; Panahi wanted to protect his collaborators by keeping their names secret. Instead it starts with a shot of more than two minutes with no dialogue and a static frame, looking out the front window of the presumed taxi onto the busy Tehran street.  The first 73 seconds of this shot are static, and then the vehicle begins moving forward through the traffic.  This puts the viewer into a mood of watchful awareness as the taxi cruises along looking for customers.  As the film progresses, Panahi’s taxi has seven “fares” – a person or group of persons that get in the taxi and talk to Panahi.  Most of these fares are linked to particular Iranian social issues that Panahi shows us.  Although these fares sometimes overlap and are not all perfectly sequential, I will discuss them separately.

1.  The Man and the Woman
The first encounter is when the taxi picks up a man and then a woman who are headed in a similar direction.  Inside the cab they begin chatting and soon they are arguing over how thieves should be punished.  The man, who later suggests he is a hired mugger, thinks the regime should hang some criminals in accordance with Sharia law.  This, he says, would scare the population into lawful behavior.  The woman shows more compassion and says the government should address the root causes of extreme poverty that can lead to thievery.

➔ Social issue: the rule of law, wealth inequality.

2.  The DVD Seller

Panahi then picks up a diminutive DVD seller, Omid, who specializes in privately selling contraband videos. His short stature and enterprising attitude remind me of the similar media seller in Mohammad Rasoulof’s Head Wind (Baad-e-Daboor, 2008). Omid in this film sells popular international movies that have been prohibited by the government, and he can even get hold of some pirated movies before they have been released to the public.  As he reminds Panahi, whom he recognizes as a well-known director, they are both in the business of furthering Iranian culture.

➔ Social issue: human rights: freedom of expression

3.  The Accident Couple
Panahi has to stop to take a man who has been seriously injured in a motorcycle accident to the  hospital emergency room.  His wife, who had also been riding with him, accompanies him.  Thinking that he is dying, the injured man wants to have his last will and testament recorded on someone’s cell phone so that he can leave his possessions to his wife.  According to existing law, his brothers would get everything, and his wife would get almost nothing.  Only an explicit will could ensure that his wife would inherit the family possessions.

➔ Social issue: human rights and the rule of law

4.  Women with Goldfish
The next passengers are two middle-aged women with a goldfish bowl containing two goldfish.  They superstitiously believe that their lives depend on their releasing the fish into Ali’s Spring in South Tehran before noon of that day.  These woman may have just been examples of the kind of eccentric riders taxi drivers may encounter, but I didn’t see much of a social issue associated with this fare.

5.  Hana
Panahi has to pick up his cheeky 11-year-old niece, Hana, at school and take her home.  Along the way she tells him about her school assignment to make a short movie with her cell phone camera.  Her teacher has ordered that the student films should be “distributable”, i.e. in accordance with the regime’s restrictions on movie making.  According to these rules, the students have been told to
  • respect the Islamic headscarf
  • allow no contact between men and women
  • avoid sordid realism
  • avoid violence
  • avoid the use of a necktie for good guys
  • avoid the use of Iranian names for good guys.  Instead they should use the sacred names of Islamic saints.
  • avoid discussion of political and economic issues.
Of course Panahi is familiar with these rules, but he gets Hana to naively talk about them in this film.

➔ Social issue: human rights: freedom of expression

6.  Arash
Panahi meets with his former neighbor, Arash, who wants to share with Panahi some CCTV footage of Arash being mugged and robbed by thugs.  Although Arash wants to share the footage, he doesn’t want to have these particularly thieves (who were masked and hence unidentified) prosecuted.  This was because Arash recognized his assailants and fears that if they were to be prosecuted, they would be executed.

➔ Social issue: the rule of law, wealth inequality.

7.  The Flower Lady.
Panahi’s final fare is referred to as the “Flower Lady”, because she is selling roses on the street.  But she is recognisable as an old friend of Panahi’s, the famous human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh.  Sotoudeh, who is shown here to be remarkably cheerful, is on her way to visit Ghoncheh Ghavami, a young woman who has been imprisoned for merely seeking entry to watch a men’s volleyball game.  As Sotoudeh reminds us, this is a situation that Panahi had treated in his earlier film, Offside (2006) [7].

Sotoudeh informs Panahi that Ms. Ghavami had begun a hunger strike after being held in solitary confinement for 100 days.  And as Sotoudeh reminds Panahi (and informs the viewer), they have both, themselves, resorted to hunger strikes to nonviolently protest their cruel treatment while they were unjustly held in prison.  The Center for Human Rights in Iran offers more background on Nasrin Sotoudeh [8]:
Sotoudeh was arrested in September 2010 and subsequently sentenced to 11 years in prison, later reduced on appeal to six years, and a ten-year ban on her legal practice, on charges of “acting against national security, collusion and propaganda against the regime, and membership in the Defenders of Human Rights Center.” Her prosecution followed her work defending victims of human rights violations in Iran, and she spent three years in prison, at times in solitary confinement, until her release in September 2013.
Sotoudeh and Panahi also refer to the lingering paranoia associated with possibly recognizing the voice of their “interrogator”.  This is a reference to the fact that when they were arrested, they were interrogated while blindfolded.  They never saw their interrogators, but the remembered voices have left a lasting stress on them.  As Sotoudeh remarks about their acquired fear of never ending surveillance and the extent to which this, itself, is a form of government instrumented terrorism:
“Sometimes they do it [leave clues of their presence] on purpose so we know they’re watching us.  Such obvious tactics. First they mount a political case. You’re an agent for Mossad, the CIA, MI5. They beef it up with a morality charge. They make your life hell. When you finally get released, the outside world becomes a bigger cell. They make your best friends your worst enemies.”
➔ Social issue: human rights and the rule of law

After dropping off Nasrin Sotoudeh, Panahi goes to Ali’s Spring to find the goldfish bowl lady who had left her purse in his car.  The closing shot of the film, which lasts 4:38, shows Panahi and Hana leaving the taxi to look for the lady, after which a presumed Basiji thug (a paramilitary arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards) approaches the empty cab. He gains entry and wrecks the dashboard camera, but he can’t find the crucial flash drive with the recorded camera footage.  Panahi had apparently prudently taken the flash drive with him.


Note that the social issues associated with these fares all relate to the topic of RMDL which I have discussed elsewhere [9].  RMDL is an acronym standing for
  • (Human) Rights. These include freedom of speech and the freedom to watch and listen (essentially freedom of assembly). These are fundamental forms of interaction that must be guaranteed and allowed to flourish. Those who are imprisoned merely for their conscientiously held beliefs become prisoners of conscience.
     
  • Markets.  There needs to be regulated exchange markets that allow the open exchange of goods across society.  This includes the necessity of ensuring sufficient wealth equality across society so that there can be widespread, fair exchange of goods and services.
     
  • Democracy.  Some form of democracy involving broadly inclusive enfranchisement needs to be in place.
     
  • Rule of Law.  There needs to be a written set of laws that are made known to everyone and that can be changed by actions of the democratically-elected legislature. The laws provide regulation of the various interactions in the interests of the public good.
Iran has severe problems with all four of these RMDL categories, and hopefully the efforts of people like Jafar Panahi and Nasrin Sotoudeh will ultimately help to make things better.

It is difficult to discern how much of Taxi is staged, but the situations and issues depicted are real.  And they are ongoing.  Subsequent to the film’s release, Nasrin Sotoudeh was again summoned to appear before the Tehran Revolutionary Court in September 2016 to face unspecified charges [8]. 

When Hana had inquired of her schoolteacher what was meant to “avoid sordid realism”, she was told to show the real, but not the “real real”.  If reality is dark and unpleasant, then one shouldn’t show it.  What Panahi has managed to do in Taxi is to show the “real real” but not in a dark and unpleasant fashion.  He has shown the cordial and hospitable Iranian people trying to cope with their RMDL deficiencies in positive ways.
★★★½

Notes:
  1. David Sexton, “Taxi Tehran, film review: enchanting film-making”, Evening Standard, (30 October 2015).  
  2. Murtaza Ali Khan, “Banned Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi's Taxi wins the Golden Bear at the 65th Berlin International Film Festival", A Potpourri of Vestiges, (15 February 2015).    
  3. Jugu Abraham, “194. Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s Farsi/Persian language film 'Taxi' (2015), based on his own original screenplay: Very interesting subject but intriguing cinematic docu-fiction.”, Movies that make you think, (19 June 2016).   
  4. Jamsheed Akrami, "The Art of Defiance", Taxi DVD, Kino Lorber, (2015).  
  5. A. O. Scott, “Review: In ‘Taxi,’ a Filmmaker Pushes Against Iranian Censorship From Behind the Wheel”, The New York Times, (1 October 2015).  
  6. The interestingly severe contrast between the Iranian public space and private space, and the traditional hands-off attitude of the authorities with respect to the private space, has been described in Hooman Majd’s recent book The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran, Anchor, (2009).
  7. There are other references to Panahi’s films in this work.   Omid makes a comment about Crimson Gold (2003) and Hana makes a reference to The Mirror (1997).
  8. “Nasrin Sotoudeh: ‘Hardliners are trying to open a new case against me’”, Center for Human Rights in Iran, (22 August 2016).   
  9. See my reviews of Mohammad Rasoulof’s Head Wind (2008) and Manuscripts Don’t Burn (2013), Satyajit Ray’s An Enemy of the People (Ganashatru, 1989), Alison Klayman’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012), and Michael Moore’s Michael Moore in Trumpland (2016).

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