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At first glance, Taxi seems like nothing more than a lighthearted, sometimes darkly funny mockumentary about daily life in Tehran. Director Jafar Panahi drives a taxi around the city and picks up friends, family members, and total strangers, filming their interactions on a mounted dashcam. But in the context of Panahi’s troubled past, the film takes on a larger significance.
Jafar Panahi’s filmmaking has landed him in trouble with the Iranian government on several occasions. Most recently he was convicted of “assembly and collusion,” sentenced to house arrest, and banned from filmmaking for twenty years. In response, he began making movies like 2011’s This Is Not a Film, filmed entirely on camcorders and smartphones, and smuggled out of Iran on a flash drive hidden in a cake. He’s currently allowed to leave his house but is forbidden from traveling outside Iran. Many Western filmmakers and artists have called for his release, but it’s worth pointing out that Panahi was first detained not by the Iranian government but by US police at JFK airport, who held him overnight while he was supposed to be en route to the Buenos Aires Film Festival—all because he refused to be fingerprinted and photographed.
Knowing Panahi’s history makes the gentle comedy of Taxi all the more poignant. Filmmaking is on the minds of all his passengers, and is intimately tied up with criminality. This is most obviously embodied by an acquaintance of Panahi’s who turns out to be a distributor of illegal DVDs. Panahi drives him to one of his customers and films the transaction, during which the customer also recognizes Panahi and asks his advice about which DVDs to buy and what he should make his student film about. Illegal DVD salespeople are easy to ignore in the United States, where an inexpensive Netflix subscription yields enough viewing options for several lifetimes. But as the DVD hawker points out in Taxi, most of the movies he’s selling are otherwise unavailable in Iran, so he’s providing a cultural service, albeit one the filmmakers don’t benefit from directly.
Panahi’s last fare is human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, who is introduced as “the flower lady” (in reference to the armload of roses she carries) by Panahi’s young niece. Sotoudeh explains that she’s en route to visit the political prisoner Ghoncheh Ghavami, a young woman arrested in 2014 for attending a men-only volleyball match. As Sotoudeh points out, this is very much like what happens in Panahi’s 2006 film Offside; what she doesn’t mention is that Ghavami’s hunger strike echoes Panahi’s own imprisonment several years before. Both Panahi and Ghavami have been released, if not permitted to travel freely; and the film’s ending suggests that while Panahi will keep making movies regardless of any ban, he has also not forgotten the time stolen from him.
Ashley Wells watches too many movies and welcomes recommendations for more. Leave her one here or on Twitter: @ashleybwells. Spoiler alert: she has already seen Troll 2.