Looking through the windshield of a vehicle that gives the impression of being at rest, parked — no noise there, no movement; it is only the outside that moves: Other cars, people who stare, people who don’t give a damn, bicycles, motorcycles, and a red light at a distance tell us what we have been doing for almost a minute and a half: Waiting.
This is how Jafar Panahi opens his latest film Jafar Panahi’s Taxi: From within. A man always in love with his city, the invariable backdrop, stage and core of all his work, now travels in it and his view, his director’s eyes, his camera travels inside the vehicle at all times. And as any person in love, as any lover of the city of his affections, he knows Teheran’s flaws by heart, even though he proves to be a most incompetent cabbie, with a poor sense of direction and a poorer sense of where the city landmarks are. That’s not what he knows by heart. This is something that, as love, is much more profound, much more complex than linear paths or followed directions. Teheran embodies what he loves the most and what he cannot stand in a healthy coexistence that has given us great works as “The White Balloon,” “The Mirror,” “The Circle” or “Offside,” all professing a deep love for this place while at the same time pointing at what can’t, what shouldn’t be bore no more — and all he does is showing. That’s that.
Then, of course, there’s the feeling that such a beautiful place, such a wonderful covenant of buildings and peoples and ancestries and histories is everyday extorted by corruption, everyday eroded, corroded by the most common abuse of them all: Power. It is a place abused by power — and so his work has been.
Abbas Kiarostami’s natural, naturalist, heir, Panahi has demonstrated over and over again that he was the future not only of Iranian cinema, but of world cinema at large. To be sure, something as big as cinema, which is twice as big as the universe whole, cannot have only one future, but many and many more — but very few when compared to the volume of filmmakers there are in this multiverse called filmmaking. Panahi was one of the happy few. An ambassador of his craft, he filmed many of the most beautiful and daring films within the last three decades. All till Iran’s regime shut him up. First they shushed him. Then they hushed him — till they gagged him, caged him, got him behind bars, banned him from filming, from exercising his art, which is his vocation, which is his voice. And none of it has kept him silent. Barred from working, he keeps creating. And, somehow, his films continue to find a way out.
But by being banned, Panahi was forced to learn the art of waiting. Because that is the nature of banning, putting everything in suspense, indefinitely, till sometime, which is someday, which should come, knowing not how or when, we’ll just have to wait, it arrives. And patience is not one of Panahi’s virtues. As does for his viewers, that minute and a half can seem such a long time. And then he moves, the way his taxi does, and starts picking people, listening to stories, watching, observing, recording, keeping track of reality while, simultaneously, inquiring on the nature of it, of the nature of our means to record it, to observe it, to watch it, to listen to it, to picking it up. He just adds a camera to the exercise. This time, affixed to his dashboard, though occasionally playing with other devices (his cell phone, a tablet, another camera). What by abuse becomes a prohibition, a power that negates itself, that exists by oppression, perpetuating nothing, just extending its own impotence, by love becomes a subversion, a power that transcends negation, that exists by affirmation, that perpetuates power, spreading by empowering others.
Panahi has been put to wait in order to work. An order. 20 years. But wait he’s not. He stages this urban ride through the city of his dreams in a cabbie’s shift, literally so, for this is the place in which all his dreams were (and are) staged — always in one or other kind of shift. If there is something characteristic in Panahi’s work, consistent in pretty much all of his movies (with the veiled exception perhaps of “The White Balloon”) is his constant inquiry about the nature of work, of filmmaking as a kind of work, and thus about the nature of reality seen, built and dreamt by a whole group of people behind the camera, the eye of the beholder. In this case, for most of the time, no one is holding the camera, and this is, pretty much, a one-man crew — but the beholder, again, is on the other side, driving those subjects who are always at the verge of becoming characters (if not they already are) when they get into his car. It is a dream first and only after an act of subversion. And what he has been subverting since day one is the nature of reality itself. Quite a feat for a naturalist artist.
Jafar Panahi’s Taxi is a ride across Teheran (or a portion of it) as the filmmaker gets a wide array of people getting into his car, hiring his not very good services which he compensates by rarely collecting his fare. Fair. And a whole cornucopia of characters gets in: From a mugger asking for tougher laws on capital punishment against petty criminals who’s sharing the ride — and controversy — with a school teacher, to a woman taking her very hurt husband to the hospital after an accident in his bicycle to a smuggler of pirate videos (of whom Panahi was a client) to a couple of elderly ladies completing a strange ritual to keep themselves alive involving some golden fish in a bowl, as though the girl in “The White Balloon” had badly aged, to his own opinionated and witty niece trying to complete a film project by creating a “distributable” product while asking for advice to Iran’s most “undistributable” director, a tween who impatiently threatened to replicate the girl of Panahi’s “The Mirror,” to an old neighbor/childhood acquaintance showing him how close violence and crime live to your average Joe as he shows him the footage of a security camera that captured the moment in which he was being mugged, trying to give him an idea for a next movie once the ban is lifted, or off, to a “flower lady,” as his niece calls her, an activist and lawyer, also undergoing her own ban, on her way to visit Ghoncheh Ghavami, an Iranian woman who was imprisoned for attending a volleyball match, as though it replicated Panahi’s own “Offside.” They all get in, rarely getting to their destinies, but all in time, as though predestined (or written down; we just won’t know) to Panahi’s cab. Tenors to Panahi’s vehicle.
If before the ban Panahi was already an accomplished artist, irritating the contours at the intersection between truth and creation, seeking there perhaps the point at which both produce something other, something new, beauty or its beyond — or perhaps just the point at which they both disappear — after the ban Panahi rose as one of the most innovative active artists in the world. A poet we knew he was. But after the ban he has shown he’s one of cinema’s truest creators, one of the few living auteurs deserving such moniker and an author in its most meaningful sense: An authority over his own work — an authority others have been trying so unsuccessfully to rob off him.
It is after he was banned from his work in 2010 that Panahi has shown, irrefutably, that his work is his own, his property, just as much as the vehicle he has transformed (or staged) into a means of work. This is truly Jafar Panahi’s Taxi, his in every possible sense. As we look at him now, not as a martyr, but as the unassuming, even shy yet evenly cunning person behind the wheel, he appears as one of the very few people in the history of this art who can get away with imposing his own signature in the title of his product. Off the top of my head, I can only think of Fellini as that other who could get away (if for slightly different reasons) with such a pompous, pretentious, self-aggrandizing ploy without becoming a distraction first, and a source of ridicule after. On the contrary, this signature is a statement that bestows responsibility to the creator as much as it declares authority over his work.
It is thus that Panahi embeds the body of his true work, his true body, into the narrative of his other job as a (lousy) cabbie. It is as though he were giving a lift to his oeuvre, visiting it with each new passenger — winks and winks that steadily become an act of self-reflection. Longer and longer intervals in-between each wink till the arrival to that symmetrical last shot, till the point we don’t open our eyes anymore. Outside, there is only sound.
As with all his previous films, Jafar Panahi’s Taxi denounces nothing while, at the same time, shows it all. Everything with which Panahi has been so concerned about his country, about the city of his affections (also his, the one he dreams and dreams about — the one as well that wakes him up in a shaking state of despair and angst), called by the Iranian censorship “sordid realism” (the lesson of which we get from Panahi’s niece, nice, humorous Hanna), is everything the director has committed not to unsee as he lives inside the place he loves and, now, he’s banned to leave. “Sordid realism,” we understand, refers to everything that we do and yet we refuse to see. This is the only thing Panahi will not do, as the glorious last shot, mentioned in the previous paragraph, reminds us: Not even by force will he stop seeing, listening, bearing witness, which is the only answer possible to being alive. And then, just like that, “sordid realism” reminds us that under tyrannical times portraits are the most subversive form of fiction.