The Reelist is a column featuring Kristen Page-Kirby’s musings on movies. To read Washington Post film critic Stephanie Merry’s review of “Taxi,” click here
Jafar Panahi must have attended the School of Sibling Backseat Warfare and majored in “I’m not touching you! I’m not touching you!” Because the Iranian filmmaker is a master at obeying the letter of the law while still making a (in this case, welcome) nuisance of himself.
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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