In 2010, Panahi was convicted of making anti-government propaganda; as part of his punishment, he was forbidden from directing films for 20 years. So in 2011 he released “This Is Not a Film,” about him sitting around his apartment not making a film. (The footage was smuggled out of Iran on a USB drive inside a cake that was mailed to Paris.)
Today his film “Jafar Panahi’s Taxi” comes out in the U.S., and it too is not a movie. It’s just him pretending to be a taxi driver, taking everyday Iranians around the city. There are far too many coincidences to believe that Panahi is truly conducting some sort of cinema verite experiment — among other passengers, he picks up his lawyer and a DVD bootlegger who delivers Woody Allen films and Season 5 of “The Walking Dead” to a Panahi fan.
The most charming and most pointed moments of “Taxi” come when Panahi picks up his young niece from school. She has been assigned to make a film, but there are strict rules, which she has written down in her Angry Birds notebook: Female characters should always wear the hijab and there should be no contact between men and women; good guys should not wear ties (a symbol of Western oppression) or have Persian names — they should have the names of Islamic saints. Most importantly, the young directors should avoid “sordid realism.”
Rules are, by nature, restrictive — but they can spark a creativity that isn’t easily found when an artist is just turned loose. If Panahi’s niece wants the good guy in her film to wear a tie, she would have to find a way to make him wear a tie without actually wearing a tie — if not literally, then metaphorically. Moreover, his wearing a tie that is not a tie would be commentary on the fact that her hero should not be wearing a tie but is, in fact, wearing a tie. Though not really, because he’s not allowed to wear a tie.
There’s no doubt that, were Panahi as free as he should be, he’d still be making great films (his lovely, pre-punishment film “The White Balloon” took the Golden Camera prize at Cannes in 1995). But he’s not that free, which is how we end up with a film in which a girl who is supposed to make a fiction film that isn’t too real drives around with a director who claims not to be making a film at all but whose supposedly totally real film breaks a lot of the rules that she is supposed to be following. The Iranian government tried to shut Panahi down. Instead, they gave him new ways to lift up his art.
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