Rob Edelman: Jafar Panahi’s Taxi
Certain filmmakers have long-appealed to me for their sensitivity, their sustained brilliance, and the subjects they choose to tackle-- often daringly. One of them is Jafar Panahi. I admire this Iranian filmmaker not only because he is a courageous artist who offers insightful portrayals of the world in which he lives and the people in it. What makes him special is that he has managed to keep making films even though, five years ago, he was arrested and jailed temporarily for “colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic.” Panahi was banned from making films for two decades, but he still has managed to do so-- and he has been working on projects that explore the political repression that exists in his homeland.
Panahi’s latest film, the full title of which is JAFAR PANAHI’S TAXI, has just been screened at the Toronto Film Festival and presently is having its theatrical premiere here in the U.S. The film’s premise is simple and revealing. A yellow cab traverses the streets of Tehran. Behind the wheel is none other than Jafar Panahi, appearing as himself. Along the way, he picks up a range of passengers who express their opinions on a host of subjects. Collectively, they share a union with contemporary individuals the world over. Many are wedded to their cell phones. Some enjoy watching DVDs of the same movies and TV shows that Americans do, everything from Kurosawa to Woody Allen to THE WALKING DEAD. At one point, Panahi picks up a man who has been bloodied after an accident. He cries in anguish because he thinks he’s dying. His wife cradles him in her arms and sobs hysterically, just as anyone might anywhere in the world.
But there are differences between life in Tehran and elsewhere, starting with the manner in which women are repressively treated in a male-dominated country. One of Panahi’s passengers reports that she is visiting a woman who has been arrested and imprisoned for attending a volleyball game. Another is Panahi’s tweener niece, a loquacious and opinionated Miss Smarty Pants. This child loves frappuccinos. She is fascinated by media, and she wants to become a filmmaker. But will she be able to, given her gender? Will she suffer the same fate as her uncle? Will she feel compelled to forge a career by only making what she describes as a “distributable movie”?
Then there are the man and woman passengers who argue over an issue relating to crime and punishment. The question they are debating is: Would you hang someone for stealing a tire? It may be wrong to rob, but should the punishment be a death sentence? Plus, you can take this argument and expand it to cover a range of transgressions. The woman, who is a teacher, offers a pointed opinion about the importance of the punishment fitting the crime and, here, Panahi is putting forth the belief that a woman should have an opinion and be free to express it. And that opinion just may be more humane than that of the male.
Finally, in some countries filmmakers are censored, are prevented from saying what they want and making the films they want. Given his plight, Jafar Panahi is not supposed to even be making movies. But somehow he is able to keep doing so and his work, as signified by his latest film, remains observational, subtly powerful, and deeply personal.
Rob Edelman has written several books on film, television, and baseball, and was a longtime Contributing Editor of Leonard Maltin’s annual Movie Guide. He teaches film history at the University at Albany.
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