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Oct 10, 2015

The Panahi Conundrum

*This piece was originally written for Movie Mezzanine, on the occasion of the release of Jafar Panahi's Taxi


Take a cursory look at reviews for Jafar Panahi’s latest film, Taxi, and you’ll notice it ranks among the year’s most beloved titles. Between its premiere at the Berlinale earlier this year, where it was greeted with the festival’s highest prize, to its theatrical release in North America last week, few Western critics have anything negative to say about it. Yet, despite what one may expect, Iranian critics have not been similarly enthusiastic. This variance in response has as much to do with the film as an individual work of art as it does with Panahi’s career and his politics. To understand this cool critical reaction, it’s necessary to understand the social machinations that gave birth to Taxi.

When Panahi started his career two decades ago, Iranian cinema was at the peak of its artistic renaissance and international acclaim. With his directorial debut The White Balloon, he burst onto the scene as one of the most promising filmmakers at a time when Iran was producing films at a dizzying pace. Compared to the heights of the mid-1990s, Iran’s national cinema has been in decline for the past few years. If not for a handful of veteran directors and an even smaller group of emerging youngsters, Iranian cinema would suffer irreparable artistic regression. If there has been a single director whose consistency in producing challenging works exemplifies the national cinema’s defiance against its own malaise, it’s Panahi.

Having previously won the Camera d’or for The White Balloon and Golden Lion for The Circle, Panahi added the Berlin Golden Bear this year for Taxi, to his ever-expanding collection of festival trophies. Yet, despite the continued reverence of his work abroad, his relationship with audiences and critics at home has never been as complicated as today, a fate indebted in no small part to the aftermath of his political activism. Following his participation in a protest rally on the streets of Tehran back in 2009, Panahi was arrested and later slapped with a severe sentence that included house arrest and a 20-year ban on filmmaking. Ironically, Panahi has made films at a faster pace than ever before since the ban was first imposed, and his cinema has become, for better and for worse, intertwined with his real-life situation.

With This Is Not a Film, his first film under house arrest, Panahi demarcated his career into pre- and post-ban chapters. A rapid-fire reaction to his legal predicament, Panahi’s first documentary was a forced turning of the lens onto himself. He re-enacted the script of his would-be next film in his living room, filming on his cell phone and narrating the plot. The result was sharp and bitterly funny, even though Panahi’s anger and frustration was palpable. It was surprising, though not unexpected, to discover that a director long considered to be one of Iran’s “social filmmakers,” in the local parlance, had actually never made a film so blatantly critical. Despite their darkness and unrelenting pessimism, films like The Circle and Crimson Gold were subtle commentaries on the problems that plague Iranian society. The bleak picture painted of the lives of lower-class women in the former film, for example, is troubling to watch, but not because the film is blunt in its presentation; rather, the effect of the characters’ devastating stories crawls under our skin and lingers long after the film. Conversely, Offside’s rebellious stance against women’s second-class status was wrapped in the guise of an energetic comedy, a blissfully indirect approach to social cinema. This Is Not a Film’s uncharacteristic forthrightness was understandable because of the special circumstances under which it was made, and the film evolved Panahi’s themes and style.

Closed Curtain

Closed Curtain, his second film to be made within the confines of a single house—this time a villa by the Caspian Sea—was an absurdist hybrid of fiction and documentary. It was the director’s first attempt at breaking the barrier between these two modes since his second film, The Mirror, in which the lead actress breaks from character to tell the camera that she will no longer perform, thus changing the course of the film. Closed Curtain is Panahi’s most inspired film, one that encapsulates both his audacity in revealing suicidal tendencies and his unwavering defiance against all odds. It is the director’s most formally ambitious exercise, and brims with emotionally tender moments. And, significantly, it channels the same critical views as This Is Not a Film, but in subtle and creative ways that are nearly miraculous given Panahi’s limited possibilities. The narrative complexity of Closed Curtain and Panahi’s innovative approach to circumventing the limitations put on his freedom of expression promised a new and exciting direction for the filmmaker. And then came Taxi.

Taxi is the director’s most entertaining and accessible film. The premise is simple: Panahi drives across Tehran in a cab with a camera attached to his dashboard. Some passengers are unaware of or oblivious to the camera, others point to it knowingly. Some seemingly don’t recognize Panahi, others are friends or family members, such as his niece, Hana, who is a young, loquacious, aspiring filmmaker, and by far the film’s best performer. Formally, the film is reminiscent of Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten—and it isn’t the first time Panahi has been inspired by the works of his mentor, for whom he served as assistant director before embarking on his own filmmaking career, which included directing two of Kiarostami’s screenplays, The White Balloon and Crimson Gold.

Taxi is engaging and, for the most part, very funny, but by its episodic nature, tonally inconsistent, resulting in a film that is occasionally brilliant, but frequently frustrating. For an artist previously so attuned to the intricacies of his society, Taxi is uncharacteristically patronizing. Panahi, and his film by extension, smirk at some of the passengers. Two elderly ladies who ask to be taken to the ancient Ali’s Spring, for a superstitious ritual, are implicitly mocked and thrown out of the car. Self-referentiality, a trademark of the director’s style, has given way to navel-gazing—a reference to Crimson Gold is delivered with a knowing wink at the audience, a moment that almost borders on parody.

The succession of stories that Panahi has collected gives the impression that he’s running through a checklist of issues and stereotypes about Iranian society, but rarely does the film arrive at anything profound. Merely pointing out that there is poverty, crime, censorship, theft, oppression, or superstition leads to individual encounters that are alternately entertaining and infuriating, but the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Panahi’s collection of stories, or more accurately, grievances, is presented with little formal curiosity and even smaller emotional resonance.

In one particular encounter, Panahi meets an old neighbor whom he hasn’t seen in several years. The awkward meeting lasts only a few minutes, during which the neighbor shows security footage of himself being beaten by thugs who want his money. The sequence is clearly staged to deliver a message, which the film may as well shout through a megaphone, instead of having the neighbor painfully verbalize it: Criminals look like us and live among us, but hardship leads them to commit crime. That Panahi goes out of his way, literally and metaphorically, to state the obvious with the forced inclusion of this sequence is quite baffling, but this is not the biggest culprit among the film’s slight “message moments.”

Taxi

A prolonged conversation between Hana and Panahi about the censorship system in Iranian cinema is where the film’s lack of subtlety becomes exasperating. That the authoritarian, restrictive measures would appear amusing and contradictory even to a child is the point, but Panahi’s assumption that Hana’s prodding with rhetorical questions adds thematic depth to the film is misguided, and the scene is underwhelming at best. All the more so because an earlier scene, wherein Hana films a young boy stealing money on the street, gets to the same point in a funnier, sharper and more delicate tone.

The pickpocket sequence is reminiscent of the sly humor and creative intelligence in Panahi’s earlier work. The same qualities can be ascribed to the two scenes that bookend the film: a sudden dive into Tehran’s effervescent cab culture in the beginning and a bravura remark on Panahi’s troubles with authorities at the end. But the introduction of beloved lawyer and political activist, Nasrin Sotoudeh, as one of the passengers, late in the film, is a scene that can be alternately viewed as heartwarming—witnessing her in high spirits after enduring her own prison sentence is a genuine delight—or painfully corny. Panahi’s choice of performer—coupled with her obvious characterization as a harbinger of hope, “the lady with a bouquet of roses”—is a cheap invitation for applause from Iranian progressives.

Such socio-political nuances are keenly felt among Iranians, and naturally provoke a stronger emotional response in the home audience. Yet, it is worth noting that, the particulars of Taxi aside, Panahi was already climbing an uphill battle for approval among some Iranians. There are as many people who sympathize with his struggle as those who think his films are now being over-rewarded by festivals and critics because of a situation that has been blown out of proportion. Certainly, it is true that Panahi’s ban is no longer as strict as it originally appeared. And while no one doubts that there are restrictions put on him—his films cannot be released in Iran, and he is not allowed to leave the country—to argue that the continued production of his films still blindsides authorities is simply na├»ve. It is plausible to assume that an unspoken agreement has been achieved, under which everyone—Panahi, the authorities and cinephiles—is a winner. Whatever the case may be, some of Panahi’s critics in the Iranian community have begun to view the director as something of an opportunist who is profiting off an image that is no longer current, without attempting to correct it. For this group of viewers, there is a prevailing sense that extra-textual factors play a significant part in the warm reception that Panahi’s films receive.

It is difficult to tell whether such drastic views are entirely or only partially misguided, given the vague details of Panahi’s sentence, but it’s inarguable that sympathy with the artist, consciously or subconsciously, hasn’t been unhelpful in responding to his work. Such considerations shouldn’t normally come into play when assessing art, except for the fact that Panahi has placed his life front and center in his films. His art doesn’t so much imitate life as it has become it, so it is increasingly difficult to disassociate his films from the man himself. That Taxi, Panahi’s least ambitious film, has been showered with acclaim and the Berlin gong has reinforced the view among his critics that even his lesser works will continue to achieve unanimous praise, so long as the director is perceived to be under pressure. Ironically, this sizable minority is now putting Panahi at a disadvantage, viewing his work through an exceedingly, and perhaps needlessly, cynical lens.

Such conversations and side-takings are inevitable when discussing a filmmaker whose works have become so politically charged. Nevertheless, Taxi’s shortcomings lie within its text. There is a moment midway through the film in which a student asks Panahi which films are worth watching, and what stories he should seek for inspiration. The director tells him that all films are worth watching, but he should look elsewhere for inspiration, because those stories have already been told. Both pieces of advice seem strangely fitting for Taxi. It’s a film worth watching, not least because it’s quite a fun experience, but also because, much to his critics’ chagrin, Panahi’s continued activity is really something to be celebrated. Yet, he has explored the stories of Taxi before in films that were more formally curious and thematically challenging. One wishes Panahi’s inspiration comes from elsewhere for his next film.

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