Talk about persistence in the face of unimaginable obstacles. Dissident Iranian director Jafar Panahi, arrested, imprisoned, placed on house arrest, dealing with a 20-year ban on film-making, not allowed to travel, not allowed to talk to foreigners, his livelihood taken away from him … continues to make films. Panahi’s situation has made international headlines. Those who work with him (and there are many, he is a beloved “local” figure) are also harassed, and sometimes arrested, their passports revoked.
Panahi has made THREE films since the ban came down. He is basically refusing to abide by the rules placed on him. He is a hero. Here is a big post I wrote about him, but the full archive of my Panahi stuff is here.
The first film that came out, after he was arrested and imprisoned, was the astonishing This Is Not a Film (my review here). It shows Jafar Panahi, under house arrest, waiting to see what the verdict would be. As he waits, he plans his next film. The credits roll featured blank spaces where each crew member’s name should be. A reminder of the stakes involved, of what could happen to people if their participation should be made known. (Panahi’s main collaborator, who leant him the camera to film that film, was arrested, his passport revoked.) This Is Not a Film was smuggled out of Iran inside a pastry in order to be shown at the Cannes Film Festival.
Jafar Panahi’s “story” is the most important thing happening in cinema today. Nothing else even comes CLOSE.
The second film that came out post-ban was last year’s Closed Curtain (my review here).
Both films are brilliant, personal, harrowing. Angry. His situation has not broken his spirit, or extinguished his desire to criticize the Iranian regime. I hesitate to go on and on about what a hero he is, because then that makes it sound like I think his is an inspiring story. Yes, it is inspiring. He is an inspiration to all artists. HOWEVER, my main feeling about Panahi’s situation is that it is outrageous that he should be treated this way. It is outrageous what has been done to him. Good for him for keeping on, but let’s not forget what has been done to this man, the disgusting non-stop and sometimes life-threatening harassment designed to shut him the hell up. Forever. It is barbaric, medieval, unforgivable.
The films that made Panahi a festival favorite (although his films were banned in his home country) are The Mirror, The Circle, Crimson Gold, Offside. These were the films that made me a fan for life.
The Mirror tells the story of a little girl trying to get home by herself.
The Circle is a furious critique of the role of women in Iran, told through multiple stories, all of which intersect in a circular manner. It starts with a bleak quiet scene in a hospital: A woman has given birth to a baby. Her mother will not accept the news from the nurse that it is a girl. It has to be a boy. It must be a boy. Can you check again, please? Her daughter will be thrown out with the trash for “disappointing” her husband and her husband’s family. Girls are nothing. Their birth is not greeted with joy, but shame. (Panahi has a daughter. This situation infuriates him.) Both nurse and mother are veiled. The mother is only seen from behind, a black amorphous shape.
That’s the first scene. It gets worse from there.
Crimson Gold is a critique of the class divide in Iran, the haves and have-nots.
Offside, perhaps his most popular (inside Iran and out), tells the story of 6 girls who dress up as boys in order to attend a soccer match. All of them are arrested. While The Circle can barely contain its rage, Offside takes a light comedic touch. All of the girls are feisty sports fans, who will do what it takes to participate in the sporting event. Here are the girls, held in a makeshift pen behind the stadium, reacting to the sounds inside of Iran scoring a point.
Panahi thought the ban on women attending sports matches was not just unfair: it was STUPID and ludicrous and totally absurd. So he makes fun of it. As history has shown repeatedly, tyranny can withstand a lot of things, through censorship, etc. But one thing it REALLY cannot abide is comedy and satire. Sure, people will be angry at us: that means we must be doing something right. But to be LAUGHED at? No, no, NO. (Of all of Panahi’s so-called “crimes,” laughing at the stupidity of the rules may have been Panahi’s biggest offense.)
Although Panahi’s films never get official screenings in Iran all of them are well-known, due to the Internet and bootleg DVDs. Offside became so well-known (despite zero screenings in the country) that the following year women showed up at stadiums across the land, fully veiled, holding signs saying WE DON’T WANT TO BE ‘OFFSIDE.’ In other words: Let us in. (Side note: finally, last year, Panahi – and those women – were vindicated. Iran lifted its stupid stupid ban.)
Other Iranian directors used subterfuge in order to get their points across. While there are social critiques in many of them (like Leila, like The Separation, Daughters of the Sun, like The Cow), the points are not as clearly made, as unambiguous, as Panahi’s. He says what he means, he shows what he means. His stuff is as clear as Dog Day Afternoon (he has a lot in common with Lumet). Many film-makers are in jail in Iran, although none of them have the international reputation that Panahi does. Panahi was to be fall guy. The regime’s message: We are not afraid of international outcry. Panahi is going DOWN.
Closed Curtain depicts a man hiding out in his seaside villa with his pet dog (dogs being banned as pets by the regime) and was a clear critique of the political situation in Iran for its citizens. But then, halfway through the film (which never leaves the villa), suddenly another figure appears, walking through the empty rooms, unveiling huge posters on the wall … posters for The Mirror, Offside, The Circle. It is Panahi himself. Panahi never made cameos in his other films. But now … he has to. Not only to take the brunt of any blame – he couldn’t ask another actor to work for him in that capacity, considering the stakes – but also because his films are now ABOUT his situation.
It is one of the most astonishing ongoing monologues in cinematic history. He is telling us what it is like for him, he is STILL TALKING even though everything has been done to silence him. And now: the stories that make up his films before the ban are now HIS stories. He has entered into the world of his films. There is a blend of fiction/reality that is truly radical. (That was there in his films before, most notably “The Mirror”, where the little girl rebels against the film itself, and walks off, saying she doesn’t want to do it anymore. An admission that what they have been doing all along is making a film.)
Closed Curtain is the bleakest film in Panahi’s career, despite its slightly mischievous final shot. And I wondered: Can he go on? Is this it?
Well, now Taxi has arrived.
It won the Golden Bear at the Venice Festival, and the award was accepted by Panahi’s niece Hana Saeidi, who also appears in the film as the budding film-maker niece of the cab driver (played by Panahi.) She practically steals the show. The photos of this little girl accepting the award on her uncle’s behalf are truly moving.
What her family has been through.
Outside the theatre in Venice were a couple of protestors, reminding those who have forgotten, that Panahi was not in attendance because he is not allowed to leave the country. Never forget. Do not forget this man.
Taxi is not supposed to exist. Neither is This Is Not a Film or Closed Curtain. But they do exist. And they found their way out of Iran (a passive way to put what were acts of tremendous courage and daring: putting zip drives containing the film in the middle of cakes, etc. so they can make it past the borders). Panahi’s films reach us. They are not meant to reach us, but they do.
While Panahi’s situation is outrageous and interesting, it does not detract from the fact that these are incredible films. Even without knowing his situation, they work. Knowing his situation certainly helps, especially in Closed Curtain (the woman sitting behind me in the theatre was openly confused when his “character” arrived in the film: she did not recognize him). This Is Not a Film and Closed Curtain are taken up with a mournful sense of isolation, of being totally trapped. It feels like the end of the road. Closed Curtain especially (even in its title) feels like a farewell.
Taxi, though, is a horse of a different color. I saw it yesterday at a screening (it’s now making the festival rounds, from Venice to Toronto to New York). My X-Files partner-in-crime Keith Uhlich saw it at Toronto and you can check out his review here It brought tears to my eyes.)
Jafar Panahi had mentioned (in an illegal interview with a foreign journalist around the time of Closed Curtain) that he wasn’t sure how much longer he could go on and that maybe his next film would take place in a taxi cab. He was strictly an urban film-maker, and he was not interested in domestic issues. Or, he was, but his scope was always a larger critique. (Many film-makers in Iran avoid trouble by focusing on the lives of children, and make their points in subtle subversive ways. Think of internationally-acclaimed Oscar-nominated The Children of Heaven.) Panahi filmed out in the streets, usually with non-professional actors, with real backdrops, real traffic. Offside was ACTUALLY filmed during the World Cup qualifying match between Iran and Bahrain. Panahi is Master of Verisimilitude. Because that is his style, the ban has been devastating for him. He is not an Indoors kind of guy. But he worked under those limitations, with This Is Not a Film and Closed Curtain, both of which take place inside.
Taxi is similar: the camera itself never leaves the taxi. Panahi gets out once or twice, and even seeing him walk across a crowded street through the windshield shivers with the danger of freedom. But for the most part, he is enclosed in the taxi: it is an “interior.” There is a vast difference between “inside” and “outside,” which is also reflective of architecture in Middle Eastern countries: they often feature high exterior walls, a clear demarcation between public life and private, necessary in such repression. Fine, we will play by the rules when we’re outside, but the interior of our homes belong to us.
Taxi is about Jafar Panahi who has gotten a job as a cab driver. Panahi plays himself. He is a humorous intelligent presence, natural, inquisitive, a good listener, a good talk-er too.
This is not an “arch” cameo, a wink-wink Hitchcock kind of thing. Nor is it Woody Allen-ish (although Allen is mentioned repeatedly). Taxi is not about creating a persona. It’s not about acting. It’s about a day in the life of Jafar Panahi IF he were a taxi driver. So it’s realistic but it is also fantasy. People recognize him constantly. He smiles, says Thank You.
Everyone is engaged in the act of recording their own lives (or the lives of others). Taxi is all about technology, and technology’s ability to help us bear witness to our own lives. Panahi’s niece is a budding film-maker, taking a film class in grade school, and she films Panahi as he drives the cab, looking for her story, any story.
But there’s a caveat. Her teacher has given her a list of rules she must follow in order to make her film “screen-able.” The rules include: respect for the Islamic veil, good guys must never be portrayed wearing a tie, no politics/economics, and more. She rattles off the list to her uncle, who has been imprisoned for violating all of these rules. He doesn’t roar with laughter or anything about the rules she reads off the page. The situation is far too serious, and now it’s being taught to the younger generation. He engages her in conversation about it. After meeting up with an old friend of Panahi’s, Panahi asks his niece, “Do you think he was a good guy?” (The old friend bought her her favorite treat in the world, a banana split.) The niece replies, “Yes. He was a good guy.” Gently, Panahi says, “He was wearing a tie, though. Can a person wear a tie and be a good person?” Now this is a real conundrum for the niece. She has been taught what her film needs to exclude/include. If she breaks those rules, she will not get a good grade AND her film will not be “screen-able” What is she to do?
A husband and wife who have been in a motorcycle accident (she was wearing her helmet, he was not) clamber in, the husband bleeding all over the car, the wife screaming in agony. They race to the hospital and on the way, the dying man demands that his “testament” (i.e. his will) be filmed. Another passenger films it with his iPhone: the husband declares that all his money and property should be given to his wife. (Because women can’t inherit in Iran. You see? The husband wants to make SURE his wife is taken care of.) Another passenger sells bootleg DVDs, and idolizes Panahi. Once upon a time, he sold DVDs to Panahi, hard-to-find Kurosawa films, or Midnight in Paris or the Turkish film Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Panahi remembers him, oh yes, of course, and their conversation makes up a large portion of the film. It’s all about “culture” and how important it is to people, how there are no borders with culture (we see this guy hustling a customer, promising to get him the entire series of Big Bang Theory whenever he can). These are humorous conversations, but you can feel that critique of censorship/oppression coursing through it. There is also a commentary on how impossible it is now to limit the flow of information: everyone walks around with a mini movie-camera now in Iran, and we saw the end result of that in the bloody protests in 2009, or in the Arab Spring. A person is beaten or killed on the streets, and 10 people will record it and upload it to Youtube. Get the word out: Look at what is happening here. The repressive regimes no longer contain the out-flow of information. They can shut down Twitter, but it’s a losing battle. Technology has won. (People who bemoan that technology has taken over our lives betray how privileged and blinkered their lives are.)
One guy gets in the cab, he’s going to film-school, he is thrilled to meet Panahi and wants Panahi to give him ideas for stories. Panahi tells him to not take stories from other sources, because they’ve all been done before. Find your own stories.
Passengers notice the camera bolted onto the dashboard, and glance at it, sometimes laughing. There is a frank acknowledgment that “This is a film”, and people seem to be playing themselves, but they are ALSO playing roles. Everyone is involved in film somehow, either as audience members, artists, or hustlers. It is a film ABOUT film.
It’s Panahi’s funniest film since Offside, featuring in-jokes (all of Panahi’s films are referenced by different people: “This is like that moment in ‘The Mirror.'” “This reminds me of that scene in ‘Crimson Gold,’ you know the one.” “She was imprisoned because she tried to go to a volleyball match. You know, like ‘Offside.'”) Like the poster-unveiling scene in Closed Curtain, these repeated references are Panahi’s reminders to us – to himself – that his films are OUT THERE. In the world. The films matter to people, they are still relevant. But also, it’s a thumbing-of-the-nose to the regime, Panahi saying, You can lock me up, but you cannot take away my accomplishments. It’s daringly subversive, but with a feather-light touch.
There are some almost slapstick sequences, one involving a bickering panicked pair of elderly sisters, frantic to bring their fish to “Ali’s Spring” by noon – it must not be a minute after noon! It’s life or death that they put the fish in the spring by noon! It’s symbolic, it’s superstitious, it’s tremendously important. If they don’t make it, they’ll be cursed with bad luck, it’ll all be over.
While Panahi drives the sisters across town (as they harangue him for not going fast enough), he makes some phone calls about an upcoming appointment and you can hear them in the back seat, arguing about whether or not to keep the bathroom door open while you’re in there. Is it modest? Immodest? Should you undress with the door open? One of the sisters barks, “Listen. I’m edgy. I’m cool.” (And she’s this little wrinkled biddy. It’s so great!) The other sister snaps, overcome with anxiety about being late as well as the fish, “You are so full of shit!” Then, of course, there’s a minor fender-bender and the fish fly out of the bowl onto the floor and the sisters both have screaming nervous breakdowns as they try to retrieve the flopping fish. Hilarious!
There is more. Much more. With each passenger that gets in, the film achieves more depth. It gets clearer in its motivations. It is explicit about Panahi’s life. One woman who used to be a lawyer until she was denied the right to practice law (due to her interest in prisoner’s rights) now sells flowers by the side of the road. She was also imprisoned and also went on hunger strike, just like Panahi did. They are old old friends. They can speak freely with one another. They have been through it all together. Only someone who has experienced such torment can really understand.
Taxi is brilliant, an ongoing catapulting push – with tons of talk talk talk, never a dull moment, jokes and snarks, and philosophical discussions – all a push towards expression, towards meaning, towards acknowledging reality. Don’t tell me the sun is shining when it is raining. Don’t tell me to rattle off that 2 + 2 = 5, when everyone knows that 2 +2 = 4. (Orwell’s 1984). By demanding that I pretend reality as I see it does not exist, you are demanding that I participate in the tyranny. Tyranny counts on that participation, remember. With every line, every scene, every cracked joke, Panahi refuses to participate in the tyranny. It is reminiscent of Vaclav Havel’s stated way of dealing with his own similar situation, where his plays were known the world over but were unknown in his own country, where he dogged arrest and persecution for decades. He made the decision to live AS IF he were free. Spoken like a true man of the theatre. Panahi lives AS IF he were free. Still. That is what we are witnessing.
The eeriest moment in the film is its least “realistic” (although the film is far too “meta” to be considered realism). Panahi has his niece in the car and he is driving along. Suddenly, his expression changes and he asks, “Did you hear that?” “What?” “I heard a noise.” I didn’t hear a noise. Neither did the niece. Panahi pulls over. (The niece is filming him this entire time, and the footage switches to her camera’s point of view: Panahi gets out, moves to the front of the car, staring up into the air, looking around. All is silent inside the cab.) Once Panahi gets back in, he shakes it off, saying it was nothing. Later, when the “flower lady” gets in the car, he tells her about it. “Just now, as I was driving, I thought I heard my interrogator’s voice.”
Of all of the scenes in Taxi, that one cut to the heart of it. Tyranny is in the air.
Words can’t express my admiration for not only Panahi’s courage – in saying what he means, even after everything he’s been through – but for the WAY in which he says it. He is a true artist. A great humanist who always sides with the dignity of the individual. He has created, yet again, to steal the words of his niece in the film, an “un-screenable” film.
Panahi’s work is indispensable to our world. He is one of the most important film-makers working today. Not just because of his well-known oppression, but because he has managed – somehow – to find a way to tell his own stories, stories that have not yet been told, personal stories, stories involving his country, his people, himself …and he tells those stories despite the vast ruthless architecture of The State devoted to keeping him silent.