Film as a form of protest is nothing new. A slice of the living world that can be forged or twisted to fit any emotional and psychological aim is a massively influential tool — the power of which has been known since its inception. From nationalist propaganda to cries for freedom and equality, film is often at the forefront of revolutionary change, and governments are well aware of the damage film can do (undo). Known for his striking and controversial films, Jafar Panahi can rarely get his work seen (legally) inside his own country. Arrested in 2010 for “propaganda against the Islamic Republic,” Panahi was held for nearly 90 days before being sentenced to six-years imprisonment (later “eased” to house arrest) and hit with a 20-year ban on filmmaking. Telling an artist to give up their medium is easier said than enforced, and, in this case, only lead to a more clever method of expression.
Taking to the streets (literally), Panahi outfitted an average-looking cab with dash-mounted cameras and equipped himself with a blind determination to reject his circumstances. Blurring lines between fact and fiction (a signature move he picked up from long-time colleague and friend Abbas Kiarostami), Panahi’s Taxi boldly faces Iranian issues from inside its largest city and in plain view of anyone who would have cared to look. As passengers enter and exit the taxi, a blend of humor and earnestness clue the audience in to the “big picture” of life in Iran while subverting both the written laws of the country and the unwritten conventions of cinema.
Unable to brandish his camera in public, private or anywhere in between, Panahi’s ingenious solution to narrative drama emerges through the constant movement of his taxi. A one-roomer on wheels, Taxi has forgone any directorial dynamism in favor of that of its actors and unique framework. Only transitioning from the unmoving “spy cam” to handheld in two distinct instances, Panahi relies on the natural (and sometimes vertiginous) movement of the rear-facing dash camera to give his images life and provide interesting contrasts despite an unfeeling glare. As a director with virtually no ability to direct — apart from the odd 180 degree rotation — Panahi’s hands are all but tied when it comes to shooting his undercover film, yet the virility of the cast and script infuse it with all the necessary punch to keep audiences interested throughout the 82-minute cab ride.
With actors stationed on street corners and down back roads, Taxi truly feels like a film in search of truth. Although this is primarily a result of the secretive constraints of his film, Panahi understands that while his driving initially seems aimless, it is indeed full of underlying purpose and has been meticulously constructed. With little opportunity for second takes and do-overs between stops, the actors must always be intently focused on their role in the film and on the average Iranian citizens they are meant to be portraying. Much like the populace of Iran, each knows that they are being watched and must decide whether to allow this voyeurism to affect their actions. Some passengers remark on the cameras as a necessary means to deter crime (providing anecdotes to strengthen their positions), while others choose to ignore their glaring presence — this is merely an everyday facet of Tehranian life. As the film builds, Panahi becomes more bold with his accusations against the government and more blunt with his narrative. Drawing lines between his previous films and their real-world counterparts while making a blatant mockery of Iran’s “screenability guidelines,” the film builds into a heated plea for change. Panahi is tired of the asininity of the esoteric and ill-applied laws inferred from varying interpretations of Sharia, and he can no longer accept them.
A cry against governmental indifference and a cruel restriction from a chosen means of expression, Taxi is a unique work of art that defies boundaries and convention. Made in secret to show the Iranian government that he cannot be so easily erased, Jafar Panahi’s protest proves that silencing an artist will only make their expressions stronger and more widely sought after.
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of London, England. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.