“Relax, he’s one of us,” says Omid, the entrepreneurial DVD bootlegger, after the customer realizes that Omid’s taxi driver is the famous Iranian director Jafar Panahi. Omid reassures his customer that though Mr. Panahi is himself a filmmaker, he doesn’t object to his business. In a very funny twist, the customer turns out to be a student of directing, and promptly asks the famous director for career advice (as well as which films to rent).
It is true that Mr. Panahi is “one of them,” one of the many typical Iranians living their lives under straightened circumstances. Apart from the passengers who know who he is, he is treated like any Tehrani taxi driver—in the course of a day his passengers freely talk politics in front of him, curse him out for being a terrible driver with no sense of direction, and sell him CDs from the latest pop artists. Mr. Panahi, in his long and illustrious career both before and after he was banned from filmmaking by the Iranian government, has told stories “about them,” about men and women who live lives of dignity and compassion despite the economic and political circumstances in which they have to navigate their lives. When he and passenger 11, who happens to be his own lawyer, calmly discuss what it is like to be interrogated blindfolded, you get the alarming sense that surveillance and censorship is a quotidian occurrence.
But Panahi of course, though a man of the people, is solidly in an elevated class of artists whose skill and strong point of view set them apart, particularly from more commercial filmmakers. This film is a work of such extraordinary skill, thoughtfulness and outrageous political defiance that I didn’t know whether to laugh out loud or to cry (mostly the former). The straightforward style for which he is known lets humor, irony, wit, and compassion for other human beings shine through. Further, the film’s pace, directness, and structure allow us to swiftly discern and see the relationships between the playful but seriously intended layers of political, cinematic, and metaphysical discourse (in particular, the wildly poignant scene of his niece attempting a bit of cinema verité). This film reminds us how it can be made with such immediacy, urgency and integrity.
Winner of the 2015 Berlin Film Festival Golden Bear Award.
Jafar Panahi’s Taxi, dir. Jafar Panahi, 82 min. In Farsi. Now playing in select Bay Area theaters.