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This article was written on 01 Dec 2015, and is filled under Film & TV.

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Jafar Panahi’s “Taxi”: Journey to the End of a Regime

Jafar Panahi’s current “Taxi” begins and ends with exquisitely composed still-shots. The first is a street-scene in contemporary Teheran. This is a thoroughly up-to-date, bustling city. We face a busy intersection. There is an endless cross-current of pedestrians, a good number in secular garb, and of vehicles, a disproportionate number of which are taxis. On the far side of the intersection we catch sight of the “Paramotel.” We are caught a bit off guard when the still image begins to move and we realize that we have been observing the cityscape through the windshield of a stationary vehicle.

At the far end of the film we get to ponder the enigmatic image of a rose splayed out on the taxi’s dashboard with the stately rock-formation enclosing the waters of Ali’s Well (a major holy site) in the background. Taxi driver/filmmaker Jafar Panahi and his precocious niece have repaired there to return a purse left in the taxi by a prior fare. The rose comes by way of an acquaintance of Panahi’s, yet another of the taxi passengers, an engagée attorney on her way to a prison. Here a client had reached the perilous stages of a protest hunger strike. In consultation with her cinematic taxi driver, the lawyer had weighed the liabilities of representing clients under the current regime as opposed to creating independent film. The obstacles and dangers encountered in both arenas of free speech, thinking, and representation, turn out to be remarkably similar. The film comes to an abrupt halt as two government-sponsored motorcycle goons who have evidently been trailing Panahi for much of the way break into his car and commandeer his video recording device. We hear their banter, including “Look out! They’re coming back!” even after vision has vanished into blindness.

This is not merely a great work of filmmaking; it is a luminous, penetrating tapestry of political life and theory. The dominant story line has Panahi negotiating Tehran in the guise of a taxi driver, generating new footage by using a dashboard camera that can either be trained on the unfolding urban landscape or the interactions between characters and “driver” inside the vehicle. Since the film (as contemporary Teheran) is a hyper-mediated world, the gaze of this “dominant” viewfinder strategically gives way over the course of the plot to material furnished by alternate video devices. The overarching perspective that emerges from “driver” Panahi’s serial interactions with, among others, a professional mugger, a schoolteacher, a supplier of pirated DVDs of film and TV, two bicyclists who have just suffered a serious accident, two grannies on their way to Ali’s Well, and an attorney active in the sphere of civil rights, is the tangible realities of documentation and artwork from within a particular political system. As the taxi tours and records the street-life of Teheran, the film negotiates the contemporary demands and contingencies of rendering art and critique in this society.

And let me suggest, from the outset, that the strictures encountered by a gifted filmmaker and storyteller do not all emanate from the fact that contemporary Iran is a theocracy under the administration of an intrusively orthodox form of Islam. Yes, we encounter a stream of mind-boggling absurdities: a professional mugger who lobbies for show-executions of petty criminals; a wife whose ownership of her house depends on capturing her dying husband’s specific testament to this effect on a cellphone; the two grannies hurrying to Ali’s Well to release, precisely at noon, goldfish that were, in different years, “born” there at that hour on that day. Through this episode we are introduced to the drama of a shattered goldfish bowl in a braking vehicle. Extreme as the film’s instances of religious superstition may be, we in the U.S. are hardly exonerated from this force as we address the signature issues of the day: the environment, marriage, abortion, LGBT rights, immigration. Nuanced by contemporary Iranian society though the film’s events may be, its broadest predicament is doing business (and living life) under regimes rather than governments or administrations, regimes whose native tongue is double speak and whose driving force is violence—of the tolerated ambient as well as orchestrated varieties.

The Teheran to which we are exposed through the taxi’s meanderings is a bustling, thoroughly modern metropolis. Nothing in the visual manifold would overtly suggest the regime-imposed difficulties routinely encountered by citizens as they conduct their business and their connubial lives; or if they aspire to creative expression. The film thus throws us into the midst of the irony that was also addressed by the rich fictional and documentary film-literature concerning the desaparecidos of Buenos Aires: fascism reigned here, largely out of sight, in this bustling and in many senses thriving place. The dissonance between the attractive city, with its wide avenues and its modern schools and hospitals, and both the repression that Teheran’s independent thinkers face and the impunity with which its petty criminals operate only increases as Panahi literally drives us through an expanding map of cityscapes and urban environments.

For indeed, the conditions served up by any regime, a Communist or an autocratic capitalist one as well (e.g. Belarus, Hungary), as well as an Islamic one, are not limited to aggressive acts of repression, prohibition, segregation, exile, or annihilation. Around this ground of active control is a periphery (or “environment”) of permissiveness and hooliganism aggravating the sociocultural decline, maliciously thwarting adaptive invention and improvisation. Another name for this anomie is “corruption.” Indeed, it is the permissiveness toward crime and corruption as evidenced by the intimidation of Mr. Arash, Panahi’s old neighbor by a couple on whom Arash would not deign to bring down the authorities, by the street-urchin who earns his livelihood as a garbage-picker, and most destructively, by the hooligans who savage Panahi’s car in the end, that is every bit as much of a stumbling-block to Iranian emancipation as the misguided invocation of Sharia law.

Director Panahi has brilliantly deployed a moving taxicab as a vehicle (and generator) of narrative development. The cabby’s practice of admitting new passengers (and hence plot-twists) while episodes already under way are still peaking lends both smoothness and surprise to the unfolding political allegory. Mr. Omid is a vendor of pirated DVDs who has already “supplied” Panahi with such indispensible films as Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” and Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris.” He is already in the cab when Panahi is forced to convey the injured bicyclist and his wife to the hospital. The question as to the rapport between cinema production (Panahi) and distribution (Omid) is the subtext, explicit and implicit, of everything related to Omid’s sale of disks to the film student living in the villa. When Omid exits the cab to knock at the villa gate, we see that in stature he is a little person. His subnormal stature may well furnish a visual commentary on his repeated assertion that he and Panahi “work together,” at different extremes of the cinema phenomenon, perhaps, but still within the same enterprise. We the viewers of course take Omid’s point concerning the interrelation of filmmaking and diffusion, yet Omid’s very figure conveys the intense frustration at a dysfunctional film-distribution system thwarting Panahi’s aspirations. Omid is still in the cab to usher in yet another, and decisive tangent: the visit to Ali’s Well ultimately resulting in the State’s aborting the artistic project.

As many as three video devices, in addition to Panahi’s dashboard-mounted camera, fill in the material out of which the tale is woven: 1) the iPad by which Arash documents his victimization at the hands of a man who eventually serves him and Panahi fruit juice at the curbside; 2) the Canon that niece Hana is using in order to complete a classroom film-project according to State standards of “screenability”; and 3) what is ultimately the “omniscient camera,” the one recording the overarching project occupying the film: Panahi, resorting to disguise and dissimulation as he extends his artistic expression. As in a theoretically advanced novel, one theorizing its intrinsic narrative complexity, it is often strategically ambiguous as to whether we witness the film’s events through the camera on the dashboard or an even broader visual viewfinder to its happening.

It is only when Panahi’s amazingly precocious, annoying, and disarming c. 11 year-old niece Hana joins the taxi’s revolving crew that the film is free to make good on the lines of narration and critique converging since its inception. In setting up Hana as an independent filmmaker in her own right, Panahi the director establishes a counterweight to the drama of Panahi the character. Hana is Panahi’s disingenuous double. In reiterating the standards of cinematographic “screenability” enumerated by her teacher, she in fact articulates the restrictions under which Panahi persists at his Sisyphean sociocultural labor. These include “respecting the veil and modesty;” not depicting physical contact, “sordid realism,” and violence; circumventing political and economic issues; and substituting Koranic proper names for Iranian ones.

Hana has been sent for a banana split when Arash shows Panahi the video of his being beaten—by the very couple serving up her ice cream treat. It is during an extended absence of Panahi’s from the cab that Hana creates the work’s most fully elaborated “film within a film,” its fullest claim to cinematic “strange looping,” the re-take of the cosmetics episode in the marriage video indicating that now and perhaps always, Iranians spare no expense when it comes to their weddings. This little gem of filmmaking traces out the commercial footprint of Sharia-inspired domesticity (the cosmetologist’s spike heels; the astronomic price tag for her work) at the same time that it highlights the underclass, the garbage-sorting street-creature, hovering at the perimeters of the theocratic economy. Hana remains the film’s internal witness to the sociopolitical conditions driving Iran when the rose-bearing attorney makes her entrance. And indeed, this radiant “character,” in detailing the prospects faced by independent artists and intellectuals as well as by dissidents, rises above the film, directly addressing its audience, at the same time that she speaks through the medium. With the concision bespeaking a seasoned attorney, she outlines the processes of social marking, filtration, and exclusion from peer and affinity groups that can comprise an even more devastating form of imprisonment than takes place in building complexes encased in barbed wire and fitted out with cells. With the attorney’s testimony “recorded,” the film has indeed completed its message.

“Taxi” is an acute disclosure of the impediments faced by artistic and political expression in post-Revolutionary Iran. Yet filmmaking of an intensely political bent somehow manages to sustain and distinguish itself there. Under limited conditions and circumstances, the prurient curiosity to see the innards of the regime overpowers all of the explicit politico-theological and ideological strictures explicitly against such art production. An uncanny symbiosis between the assertion of the regime and its dis-closure prevails. And drive us through the hegemonic ramifications of the Iranian Prevailing Operating System is precisely what Jafar Panahi does in “Taxi,” with bemused but occasionally harried demeanor. The systematic obstructions, roadblocks, and detours double as the streets of a Teheran starkly concrete in multiple senses.

Far more than an assemblage of institutions or a flow chart of power, a regime bespeaks entrenched models of communications and restrictions upon representation. We needn’t venture nearly as far as Teheran to encounter one. States, whether of the “traditional” or “rogue” varieties, are in no way necessary to the crystallization of regimes. With impunity, regimes routinely countermand universities, those bastions of free enquiry, and corporations, those business models of governance that increasingly usurp the traditional functions of states and municipalities. Panahi has invited us along on his “journey to the end of a regime,” and we are unapologetically grateful that he has.

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