“The entertainment value in Taxi comes from trying to guess where Panahi draws the line between documentary and drama.”
by Ken Bakely
Jafar Panahi has embodied the adage that necessity is the mother of invention. The government of his home country of Iran has imposed a ban against sanctioning anything that the writer-director shoots or pens until (at least) 2030, following a string of statements and projects that Panahi undertook which were critical of the country’s mammoth censorship rules. But Panahi, even under tremendous personal risk, has continued to practice his profession. This Is Not a Film, a proto-documentary which depicted the ramifications of his initial sentencing, was shot on his cell phone from the confines of his Tehran residence and the finished product was covertly smuggled out of the country so it could be exhibited at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. Now Panahi has ventured out of his home for Taxi, a daring conceit, filmed entirely in public. It sees the director portraying himself, taking up work as a taxi driver with a rotatable dash camera in his vehicle, watching a string of semi-scripted passenger encounters, all of whom carry a deft bit of social criticism in their situations.
Panahi’s loose, vignette-style approach allows for a far-flung, rapid fire approach, from the comic quirk of two elderly sisters who believe that they must return a goldfish to a lake at noon or face certain death, to the urgency of having to drive a bloodied accident victim to the hospital, while he dictates his will to a cell phone camera. Panahi, obviously not a professional cabbie, often has to ask passers-by for directions, and occasionally finds himself driving in the wrong direction. His passengers call him out – obviously, he’s not a real taxi driver, and they recognize that he is a filmmaker. They know the streets better than he does in many instances. In the last act, Panahi’s young niece seeks help from her filmmaker uncle – she has to create a short movie as a school project, and even though she is only a little girl, the product must pass the endless guidelines that a commercially released Iranian feature would (largely trivial things, such as the specific Muslim saints that you can name your protagonists after). The entertainment value in Taxi comes from trying to guess where Panahi draws the line between documentary and drama. When does the improvisation end and the scripting begin? Our director is at the center of the action, and only he knows the answer. He – or the fictionalized version of him that exists for the purposes of the 85 minute movie – is the “straight man” of the picture, never phased by even the most inane of circumstances, simply using his small swivel-camera to document, slyly bringing a sketch of Iran to the world. He is making a movie, something he knows how to do very well, and ironically enough, the one thing that his government won’t let him do.