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Arts & Culture

Jafar Panahi's 'Taxi' Arrives Back In Town

A woman offers the camera a rose in Jaffar Panahi's latest film, "Taxi."
Courtesy Photo
A woman offers the camera a rose in Jaffar Panahi's latest film, "Taxi."

Digital Gym brings acclaimed film back

Companion viewing

“The White Balloon” (1995)

“The Circle” (2000)

“Offside (2006)”

If there is ever an Oscar for "most persistent filmmaker," Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi should win it hands down.

Currently under a 20-year ban on any kind of filmmaking by the Iranian government for creating “propaganda against the State,” Panahi has continued to produce films and slip them out of the country to screenings all over the world. “This Is Not A Film” (2010), shot while he was on house arrest, was smuggled out of Iran on a USB drive hidden in a cake. His next film, “Closed Curtain” (2013), a semi-autobiographical film about a filmmaker stuck in his house, made the festival rounds without him.

“Taxi,” Panahi’s latest film, is probably one of the most clever workarounds yet. Respecting the letter, if not the spirit of the ban, Panahi has rigged a taxi with three cameras and drives around Tehran, picking up riders, chatting with them and recording the little stories of human frailty and foibles that play out in the backseat.


He’s not really a great cabbie — more like an Uber driver you have to force your destination upon. Panahi seems unclear about some of his destinations (“This way? “This way. Are you sure you’re a cabbie?”) and unwilling to take his passengers all the way to others (“But I have someone else to pick up!”).

At first, it’s unclear if these are random customers or a series of vignettes that Panahi has arranged. One rider is sure the other two are actors (and maybe he is, too...), while the transition between some passengers just seems too smooth to be random.

The conversations range from the unbelievably ironic — a mugger advocates the death penalty for thieves (“I never rob teachers or cabbies.”) — to the somewhat disturbing — a dying man wants to record a video will so his much younger wife will inherit his property.

In one memorable exchange, Panahi picks up his own lawyer, a well-known woman who also did hunger strikes with Panahi, bringing roses to a female client serving prison time for attending a soccer game. It’s a marvelous and dangerous conversation. Its openness is refreshing — they discuss censorship, how to live while under surveillance — but also worrisome, because one wonders what will happen to her after the film gets out.

The encounter is also disarmingly self-referential. In an interesting twist, the client the woman represents is real, but Panahi himself made a film about a woman wanting to desperately watch soccer at a stadium. That film, “Offside” (2006), is one of Panahi’s most charming films and banned in Iran.


With “Taxi," Panahi seems to have snapped out of whatever dark funk that hovered over “Closed Curtain.” He is, after all, outside, albeit in a mostly contained space. At least the windows roll down.

But this also seems to be a new Panahi, one who blurs the space between private and personal conversation, between person and State. It is not enough to gently apply allegories (“The White Balloon”) or even simple ironies. Panahi is slowly, deliberately slipping off the gloves. Perhaps the years of controversy, house arrest and censorship have sanded off some of that teddy bear exterior.

He still smiles that somewhat bemused, ironic smile, and his camerawork is as interested in people as ever. One scene has two elderly women doing one of the most unIslamic things ever: hurrying to a holy river to exchange fish in a bowl in the belief this animist practice will keep them alive. It's priceless.

But it is his scenes with his beloved 9-year-old niece, Hanna, that speak to what Panahi is working out here. Hanna needs to shoot a video project that is “screenable” in her teacher’s words. (The irony of her shooting it in her uncle’s taxi isn't lost here.) This means no ties on men, no associating between the sexes, only acceptable behavior and so on. But she nearly loses it when her “nice” video is compromised by a boy picking up money another passer-by has dropped. Incensed, Hanna hops out and orders him to return the money. When he doesn’t, she tearfully slumps down in her seat, having learned what her uncle already knows: reality can be unpredictable, and in Iran, according to the authorities, imminently not “distributable.”

Like the rose the lawyer offers to the camera (“You can trust cinema people.”) Panahi’s gentle film harbors thorny issues within its simple beauty. It’s an interesting look at life on the streets of Iran, messy reality and all. It’s good to see Panahi out and about, still creating some of the best commentary around in Iranian film.

"Taxi" is playing at the Digital Gym.