“When being pushed to the ultimate corners I connect with my inner-self and, in such private spaces, despite all limitations, the necessity to create becomes even more of an urge.”
This quote is from Jafar Panahi, in a statement released shortly after his 2015 film Taxi was announced as a contestant in the 2015 Berlinale film festival, where it would go on to win the competition’s highest honour, the Golden Lion. It was Panahi’s second film since the state of Iran banned him from making and distributing films in 2010, and the sentiment of his quote resonates throughout every facet of it.
The film is a staged documentary, written by Panahi, where he plays himself, posing as a taxi driver. He positions us to believe he is pretending to be a taxi driver to find sources for his next film, to experience people, perhaps create a documentary on the street life of Iran. It takes the form of a dash cam video from his taxi as he careens through traffic, picking up, and dropping off passengers, but works as both an incisive political and social commentary on the state of Iran (a piece of siahnamayi, or dark portrayal of the country, illegal in the state), and a personal celebration of cinema and his own art.
Panahi positions his characters not as plot devices or means to the end of any narrative storyline, but participants in their own lives, lives which they bring into the taxi with them, lives of which they leave fragments behind in Panahi’s taxi. The most notable character in and out of his taxi is his niece, Hana Saeidi (Panahi’s real niece), who is filming her own work for school, and is looking to her prestigious uncle for advice. She is aspiring to break film conventions, but not create siahnamayi, for which her uncle is so widely renowned. Through her interactions with Panahi, her camera, the people outside the taxi, and the world around her, we come to a deeper understanding of her investment in her art, of her worldview and Panahi’s own, than we could have had she been a part of a regular narrative storyline.
The liberation of this film is its lack of desire to chase a storyline to any conclusion. A pair of middle aged women enter the car determined to get to a holy spring to return fish at exactly noon, otherwise superstitiously concerned they will die. We never find out what happens to them. It is relevant in their own stories, but Panahi is not telling their stories, or his own, rather he is telling the story of life, condensed: people passing in and out with their own lives, their own experiences, impacting you but never actively involving you until you choose to engage.
That is not to say there are not emotionally impactful scenes in Taxi. A woman is screaming as her husband lays dying in her hands. It doesn’t reek of melodrama, or any form of drama for that matter, it only feels like grief. Rather than a plot point, Panahi turns this scene into a life experience, making it wholly more emotional and liberating than that exact scene as part of a narrative for which we are chasing a conclusion.
Like the best artists, Panahi never gives answers to his investigations, merely laying out his investigations on the screen and letting us come to our own understanding. And the ideas he addresses in this film are as vast as they are brief. He asks us to consider capital punishment, the relationship of the sexes in modern Iran, the place of art in society, thievery in all its various forms, the nature of artifice, and the origin of stories (“those films are already made, those books are already written” he tells a young film student, who asks him about finding inspiration, “you have to look elsewhere, you have to find it for yourself”).
Jafar Panahi’s Taxi is not a narrative film with characters we’ll be celebrating and in awe of for years to come, but his is a rarely holistic vision of the cinema which doubles as an inquisition into his contemporaneous society, and a loving celebration of film, his art, and his audience.