Thursday, April 28, 2016

Taxi (Jafar Panahi)


Jafar Pahani's Taxi would be remarkable just for existing--it's the third feature the filmmaker has done since the Iranian government prohibited him from directing and writing for 20 years (Aside from the ban he may or may not serve a 6-year jail sentence--the possibility hangs over his head like a constantly raised ax)

But Pahani doesn't just leave things there, with a new work; the very form of his film tweaks the ban's provisions. Can't make films? Panahi will use the dashboard-mounted 'security camera' on the taxi he's driving, intercut with footage from cellphone cameras whenever necessary. Can't direct actors? He'll film his fares. Can't write? The dashboard camera will record the fares' stories as they develop and intertwine during the course of the day.

It's a shared fiction between audience and filmmaker of course; Pahani reportedly tried using footage of actual fares but switched to nonprofessional actors when someone asked to have the camera switched off. The cast is deliberately left uncredited to a) protect the performers and b) be able to sarcastically note that the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance only approves the credits of 'distributable' films. Staging the narrative in the manner of a fiction feature (that at the same time pretends to be a documentary) gives Panahi the flexibility to bring characters in and out of the cab when needed, shape interrelated stories to comment on and contrast with each other, help the actors tweak their performances (though I suspect some if not all the folks that climb into back or front seat are basically playing themselves). 

The result appears shapeless but is compulsively watchable: Panahi shifts from sociopolitical debate (two fares arguing the effectiveness of the death penalty) to comedy (a dealer in pirated DVDs recognizes Panahi and offers him everything from Akira Kurosawa films to Season Five of The Walking Dead) to harrowing melodrama (a bleeding man involved in a motorbike accident is rushed to the hospital) right back to comedy (the same man insists on borrowing Panahi's cellphone camera to record his last will and testament (the house goes to his wife, not his relatives!)) to surreal slapstick (two elderly women rush across town with a bowl of goldfish, trying to return them to the spring from which they came ("it's a matter of life and death!" they insist).

Along with the absurdity and drama of course is the pervasive presence of government, and we get a taste of that presence in the brief interlude when human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh (unnamed, but playing herself) sits in Panahi's front seat--she's visiting a young girl imprisoned for trying to watch a soccer game (shades of Panahi's Offside) and notes with poignant simplicity how imprisonment can mark someone and follow her even after she's released.

Even better at not just pointing out the repressive nature of the regime but its absurdity is Panahi's own grade school niece Hana Saeidi (also playing herself), assigned by her teacher to make a short. She rattles off the rules for a 'distributable' film (the word becomes a running gag): respect for the woman's headscarf; no contact between sexes; no good guys wearing ties; and no 'sordid realism' (when Pahani presses her for a definition of the last term, she confidently replies: "real but not real real. If reality is dark and unpleasant don't show it."

One might question the wisdom of using a little girl in a politically sensitive (undistributable?) film, but Hana only recites the government's official line; it's Panahi's gentle probing and later staging of Hana's absurd adventure with a young thief that undercuts her principled stance, shows how ridiculous such rules are (insisting that the thief return the money he's holding, Hana explains "I only want to show sacrifice and selflessness!" His reply: "What the fuck is sacrifice and selflessness?").

Self-reflexive metacinema is a common device in Iranian films; everyone from Abbas Kiarostami to Mohsen Makhmalbaf has dabbled in it, and Panahi's own take is pretty good--The Mirror, about a young girl trying to make her way home who suddenly decides to quit the director's film and make her own way home (think Shirley Temple walking off the set of Wee Willie Winkie and you can imagine the consternation caused). In this film the meta-premise manages to keep us on our toes, trying to guess what is fiction and what is not. Along the way Panahi satirizes Iran's political censorship apparatus; gives us a day-in-the-life snapshot of Tehran that also celebrates the people's resiliency in the face of adversity (government oppression included); and does it all with a deft humorous touch--while under threat of imprisonment, and in direct defiance of a filmmaking ban. If that's not big brass balls (on a man with a perpetual grin and the kindliest eyes) I don't know what is.

First published in Businessworld 4.22.16

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