Sunday, June 12, 2016

Jafar Panahi's "Taxi": Art Against All Adversity

Now Available on DVD, Blu-ray, and Netflix

Director Jafar Panahi is an incredible figure in Iranian cinematic history.  In 2010, the Iranian government forbade him from further filmmaking in reaction to films that they perceived as critical of their regime and an immoral portrayal of the everyday people of Iran.  They arrested him under a charge of propaganda and kept him under house arrest, along with his wife, children, and an assortment of friends and colleagues.  However, this did not prevent Panahi from making films, as he made two films while under house arrest, and now, at the risk of suffering his government’s wrath, Panahi ventures outside the confines of his home to film Taxi.

Shot as a documentary but self-admittedly staged and meta-commentative, Taxi sees a poorly disguised Panahi driving around Teheran, providing assistance and rides to those who require his services.  Some recognize who is he is, others don’t, and every conversation is a different story to tell.  In essence, the film is a series of dramatic vignettes, captured in the cramped space of the taxi cab.  Some are heartbreaking, some are comic, but all are a struggle for Panahi to stretch his artistic muscles as a director under the watchful eyes of his government.

What makes this film so interesting is that it is not afraid to be blunt and direct about how Panahi has been unjustly persecuted.  The latter half of the film involves Panahi driving around his teenage niece, who is trying to figure out how to put together a film for a school project while still following the Iranian government’s guidelines for broadcastable films.  These rules prove unrealistically contradictory and subject to the simplest of criticisms, and Panahi shows this as if to say, “You see, world?  This is what I have to deal with.  This is why I’m working with a camera on my dashboard instead of a legitimate crew and script.”  It’s told with good humor, but the film is quietly seething with the frustrations of Panahi’s unjust circumstances.

This film was smuggled out of Iran to premiere in Berlin, and received wide critical acclaim, much to the irritation of the Iranian government.  This is one of those rare instances where the contents of the film, entertaining as they might be, are nowhere near as important as the political statement implicit in the film’s existence.  Watching this film is an act of defiance against Iranian censorship practices and an implicit support of filmmakers like Jafar Panahi whose voices are restricted, if not silenced.  As of this writing it does not seem as if Panahi has suffered any publicized punishment for making this film, but I think the least we can do as an audience is watch him film and try to understand his struggles.  And yes, the film is pretty damn entertaining in its own right, though knowing the context of Panahi’s life is the primary reason why.  Consider this review your primer and take eighty minutes out of your day to watch a piece of art against adversity.

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