taxi posterThere are many problems with an autocratic regime. Rights are hindered and double standards flourish aplenty. People are jailed without fair trial. There’s torture. Education is never fairly distributed, and when it is, instructors often only instill young students with a warped sense of culture and history for the sake of propaganda favoring those in power. You would think this kind of government could only create cynics, victims or blind followers, and that there’s little room for sympathetic humanity to flourish. Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi knows this all too well, and he seeks to correct some of it with his choice of personal expression: a camera mounted on a taxi cab’s dashboard in Tehran. All the while, he offers a sly, accessible wink to the audience watching the resulting “film” at the cinema. It’s a trip you won’t soon forget.

With Jafar Panahi’s Taxi, the director and Independent Ethos favorite returns with another “non-film” to show us his country’s human side while defying a government order forbidding him to make movies. He was jailed, tortured and placed under house arrest after he allegedly showed support to the Green Movement by shooting secret meetings back in 2009. Of all he endured, worst of all was being banned from making movies for 20 years.

It didn’t stop him from shooting a movie capturing his life under house arrest using mostly his iPhone’s camera (This Is Not a Film highlights Iranian filmmaker’s talents while under house arrest). He shipped the resulting film to the Cannes Film Festival in a flash drive hidden inside a cake. His next film treaded more lightly with a story both rich in metaphor that he subverted with scenes of day-to-day life (Closed Curtain continues Iranian filmmaker’s abstract expression in art despite ban). His latest “film” stands as his most approachable since his ban. In it, the director tries to hide under a cabbie hat and drives around in a taxi not-so-discreetly filming his “fares.” taxi_3With the passengers who come and go, the film becomes a series of vignettes ranging from comic to tragic. Most of all, Panahi keeps it light and always interesting, from the first frame to the last. The film opens on a street scene. The camera lingers long enough to take in daily life, women in hijabs and plainly dressed men crisscross the intersection as motorcycles zip around them. It’s a kinetic if static opening shot. There isn’t much range for Panahi’s camera, but it’s occasionally rotated on passengers and the director, creating deep two-shots that never feel dull. Panahi never hides his camera, and the first person he focuses it on is because the person has noticed it. The man who has jumped into his passenger seat asks, “What is that?” Panahi turns it on him, and the passenger looks straight at the audience and asks, “An anti-theft device?” Panahi replies “Sort of.”

It’s a rich moment and sets the tone for the rest of this sly and entertaining movie. This passenger soon gets into an argument about sharia law with a lady who has taken the back seat (apparently, taxi drivers carry more than one fare in their cabs). The argument ends with a punch line as the man gets off. Meanwhile, a third passenger, a pudgy dwarf of a man, has joined the ride. When the woman gets out, this third man looks at Panahi and smiles. “Mr. Panahi, I recognize you.” Both smile at each other, as this man, who introduces himself as Omir, calls him out for having staged a scene in the taxi while making a movie. “That last line was from your film Crimson Gold,” says Omir.

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With this scene, Panahi subverts his own filmmaking, at first giving you a kind of heavy-handed scene but then nullifying it. “This is not a film,” he seems to say. But then the movie becomes this whirlwind trip that will enlighten viewers about Iran’s film world while paying tribute to those who love cinema and have a sense of humor about filmmaking and its consumption. Omir turns out to be breaking film law in his own way, selling bootleg DVDs. When he directs Panahi to the house of a client to deliver Hollywood action movies and Season Five of “The Walking Dead,” the client recognizes Panahi, too. “Don’t worry, he’s one of us,” says the bootlegger. The client soon changes his order for “arty” movies, asking Panahi for recommendations, who responds, “I think all movies are worth watching, depending on your taste.”

There’s a comic sense to this movie but also much wisdom. The highlight has to be when Panahi picks up his niece, Hana, who aspires to be a director and recites the rules of making “distributable” movies in Iran based on what her teacher told her. She tries to make her uncle a part of her film, but he can’t help but make comments that, as she points out, will make her film “undistributable.” At one point, he leaves her alone in the cab while he takes a bathroom break. Just trying to shoot some action outside her window, Hana will have her own confrontation with how difficult it is to make a movie that will satisfy government censors. It’s a moment that is both humorous and bittersweet and points to the hypocrisy of a regime that can never suppress human nature.

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Jafar Panahi’s Taxi is one more masterpiece in what is now a trilogy of non-movies for Panahi. He celebrates filmmaking while railing against the forces that repress him. Featuring genial and natural performances by the entire “cast” (the film has no credits), Panahi constructs an emphatic protest with a smile and a wink that will charm and enthrall viewers throughout. When a woman bearing roses takes the passenger seat, she looks at the camera and gives the audience a rose. It’s gleeful and heart-rending. She too knows Panahi and sympathizes with the bind that he is in, telling him when she leaves, “You better remove my words from your movie. You’ll be accused of sordid realism.”

While Western movie culture so often recognizes escapism over realism, it’s refreshing to find a film like Panahi’s. He never loses sight of the value of entertainment while making his incredibly important statement. Sometimes poignant, other times hilarious, Jafar Panahi’s Taxi is always brilliantly contemplative. It will remind viewers of many facets of cinema that we so often take for granted, including the viewer’s complicit imagination. The art has value because we bring value to it, and if there’s one filmmaker who deserves our love, it’s Panahi because he gives it back so richly.

Hans Morgenstern

Jafar Panahi’s Taxi runs 82 minutes, is in Persian with English subtitles and is not rated (it has references to violence). It opens in our Miami area this Friday, Oct. 9, at the Coral Gables Art Cinema and the Miami Beach Cinematheque. On Oct. 16, the film expands to Broward County at Cinema Paradiso Hollywood. For other screening dates across the U.S., jump through this link. Kino Lorber provided all images to illustrate this post and an on-line screener link for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

cg_theatrical_ellyYou probably have not seen a mystery movie quite like About Elly. Much more than a whodunit, it’s an experience that involves the audience in a way few will expect. Screenwriter/director Asghar Farhadi plays with tone and perspective in a very subtle way. This is the movie that put the Iranian filmmaker on the map while travelling the international film festival circuit in 2009. A few years later, Farhadi went on to win the Oscar for Best Foreign language film in 2012 for A Separation. Farhadi was even nominated that year outside the ghetto of foreign language cinema for screenwriting, an accomplishment in itself for a film in Persian.

His talents for writing are on strong display in About Elly, which only now is getting proper distribution in U.S. movie theaters. The film features a large ensemble cast who often rapidly talk over each other, yet distinct characters quickly stand out. The film never grows tiresome, even though the first third feels lighthearted before things suddenly shift into darker territory. The group includes three married couples, some with children, and a divorced man and a single woman. All have a long history together except for the single woman, the titular Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti). Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani) is trying to play matchmaker between Elly — her child’s kindergarten teacher — and recently divorced Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini), so she has invited her to tag along on a weekend trip by the Caspian Sea.

The group has a long-standing relationship from their college days. Their casual teasing reveals a close kinship. Elly, however, is an outsider. 7There’s an uncomfortable air about her, and Sepideh works overtime to help her fit in, including a little deception about how long the group had planned to stay out there. What’s wrong with a little lie if it’s well-intended? It turns out a lot, and it’s the tangled web of lies that arise that will drive the story through one compelling twist in plotting after another.

Farhadi uses a light but unforgettable touch to reveal the film’s central drama after Elly disappears. He sets up the mystery of Elly’s disappearance by focusing his camera on her during an oddly ominous kite-flying scene. The idea of such an innocent act, a scene where Elly seems content and in the moment6, unconcerned of how to get out of this vacation or why she was brought here could portend something as ominous as her disappearance, which happens off screen, has incredible resonance. A labyrinthine set of lies, a vicious blame game and the inherent mystery of the stranger feed into an epic drama driven by revelations that only put that cast deeper in a grave of regrets they seem to be digging for themselves.

The film never heightens tension through snappy editing or even extra-diegetic music (the film features no score whatsoever). Farhadi also takes an incredibly natural approach. Conversations and dynamic reactions by characters feel straight out of a Robert Altman movie. The film also features strong performances throughout. Several actors perform through sudden pain, like a splinter in the hand and a twisted ankle, which heightens their urgency in raw, genuine ways. One can’t tell if these moments are staged or are spontaneous moments caught on camera. It’s yet another level of truth and lie to consider in a complex story of telling lies. About Elly ultimately makes you think about the lies people tell and their consequences. It’s an inspired mystery that unfolds in plain sight without any dramatic irony.

Hans Morgenstern

About Elly runs 119 minutes, is in Persian and German with English subtitles and is not rated (expect a few swear words and some stressful, suspenseful moments). It opened this past Friday at the Coral Gables Art Cinema. For other screening dates as the film rolls out across the U.S., visit this link. The Gables Art Cinema provided an on-line screener for the purpose of this review. All images in this review are courtesy of Cinema Guild.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

ClosedCurtain-posterIt’s funny how the First Amendment gives U.S. citizens the right to be jerks. They can protest homosexuality at soldiers’ funerals, harass women at abortion clinics and publicly be racists. Something fundamental is lost in the cloud of such sensational wrong-headedness. The right of expression, no matter how you feel about something, is a human right recognized by the founders of the United States. It’s an important cornerstone because no matter what the government does in this country, we are allowed to call it out for the sake of our humanity. Theoretically, things should grow from there, in the best interest of society.

With sensational extremists wielding the First Amendment, the common U.S. citizen might sometimes forget the power this right gives everyone on a protective level. From the First Amendment comes the right to not only say what you want but to start conversations that can change things for the better of our collective lives, and the government is not allowed to get in the way. That cannot happen in many countries outside the U.S. One of those counties is Iran.

As noted in my 2012 review for This Is Not A Film (Film Review: ‘This Is Not a Film’ highlights Iranian filmmaker’s talents while under house arrest), Filmmaker Jafar Panahi was arrested and later banned from making films in Iran for 20 years. His crime? He and another director were busted in 2009 trying to document the Green Movement’s attempt to overthrow the country’s authoritarian regime through organized ClosedCurtain02protests. Panahi was sentenced to six years of jail time, placed on house arrest and, what he considers worst of all, denied the right to make movies for 20 years. This is the guy who was part of a group of Iranian filmmakers who brought attention to his country through powerful films like White Balloon (1995). Now he resides in a state of legal limbo, the threat of jail constantly looming over him. He treads lightly during rare interviews and with the two films he has made since his arrest. Therefore, it’s important to bring an open mind to his work, and be prepared to read between the lines for the rewards of obscured narrative.

Just as with his previous film, Closed Curtain (Pardé) needs to be approached as another abstract tribute to cinema without it even being a movie that features the narrative coherence most moviegoers are accustomed to. The film opens with a lengthy shot through a panoramic window obstructed by a black accordion security gate. This is the director’s villa in Iran. As he says in this recent interview with The Daily Beast, “They freed me from a small jail … only to throw me into a larger prison when they banned me from working.” The metaphor is not lost in the image. Through the latticework, we can see the Caspian Sea below a bright, clear blue sky. A tiny, distant taxi rolls to a stop, and two small figures get out. The trunk is opened, bags are carried, and eventually one figure walks up to the house. This unfolds over five minutes, in one lengthy unbroken shot. Don’t call this filmmaking.

Once inside, the older man with bushy, gray hair (this is Panahi’s longtime collaborator screen-writer and the film’s co-director Kambuzia Partovi), anxiously puts down his bags and closes the curtain. Then, in the obscurity, hidden from the outside world, comes the film’s first of many surprises: He pulls a dog out of one of his bags. The dog, named Boy, appears to be a mix between a Papillon and a collie and has a standout personality thanks to its naturaClosedCurtain04l grin and a rather surreal scene involving a TV remote. After the writer blacks out all the windows in the house by nailing up black, heavy curtains (a metaphor not only for the filmmaker’s ban but also Iranian culture) he settles in to work. But then someone turns on a TV. The writer rushes to the living room and finds Boy with his paw on the remote. On the television: a news report featuring truckloads of dead dogs, including a close-up of one bleeding from its mouth, gasping for air. The news reader’s voice over reveals that canines have been banned under a new Islamic law. The writer takes out the remote’s batteries and scowls at the dog.

With this disturbing but profound scene, Boy rises above the melodramatic ploy most threatened animals become in movies. He stands as a representation for something bigger. The dog is now elevated to the status of martyr. That he’s rather cute helps, but the stakes feel bigger. The liberty of the writer and his dog becomes a matter of life and death. Their solitude is not only enhanced with the layers of curtains that seal them in the large villa but also their silence. ClosedCurtain05Boy hardly barks and the writer speaks hardly a word. The only soundtrack is the writer’s shuffling walk, the click of light switches and the rustle of wrappers on non-perishable food items. Just as with his last film, the film features no score. That would be too cinematic. The images are, however, beautiful. Boy, with his fluffy black and brown coat of fur, blends into the home’s brown and red color palette of wood and brick. The green of Boy’s fuzzy tennis ball, a toy that only gets minimal use indoors, stands out in contrast to this subtle color scheme.

Before a mundane solitude is allowed to settle in, there’s a lengthy scene documenting the writer’s struggle to sneak out Boy’s litter box. When it seems his mission is accomplished, he turns around to find a young man (Hadi Saeedi) and woman (Maryam Moqadam), dressed in black standing in his foyer. They appear almost like apparitions. “How did you get in here?” asks the writer. “The door was open,” responds the young man. It turns out they too wish to hide, as the authorities are in pursuit after busting up a party, just one more of the many things people are not allowed to do in Iran.

Tension looms over Closed Curtain, but it doesn’t come from anxious cutting or heightened stylistic flourishes like music or camera angles. We never see this intruding couple’s pursuers, but we can hear them outside. Eventually, the authorities are thrown off by the house’s blackedClosedCurtain01 out windows and go away. When the man leaves the woman with the writer, he warns him, “and be careful. She has a knack for suicide.” It’s a surreal portent in contrast to this woman’s smile. She later identifies herself as Melika, the sister of the young man who has left her at the house, and she will come to haunt the film’s narrative in an almost spectral sense.

It all unfolds almost in a stream of consciousness, and it is by crafty design because, eventually we learn, once again— and I will not spoil the series of surprises that follow— this is not a film. Instead, it is a glimpse into the creative consciousness of a director whose irrepressible imagination is being stifled. That’s a key notion to “getting” Closed Curtain. It’s an essay on Panahi’s desire to make a film he cannot finish. It is process trying to burst through the frame for thematic context that can only gel with what the viewer brings to it. You need not be Iranian to do this, just be sympathetic to the appreciation of artistic expression via cinema.

Closed Curtain may be filled with metaphors, but it’s also filled with Panahi’s heart for his craft and love for his neighbors and peers in a place where he has been denied an important human right: to be the creative person he cannot but help to be. Call it surreal, abstract or obtuse. The images that will continue to unfold as the film carries on to a startling, layered finale are also soulful, expressive and rambunctious. Closed Curtain is again another test of the limits of filmmaking and a subversion of them to offer something grander and more important: the human right to express oneself.

Hans Morgenstern

Closed Curtain runs 106 minutes, is in Farsi with English subtitles and is not rated (though it has a brief scene featuring some disturbing images involving dead dogs on a TV screen). It opens in South Florida this Friday, Aug. 8, at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which provided an on-line screener for the purpose of this review. If you live outside of our area, check the film’s website for screening dates in your neighborhood here (that’s a hot link).

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

It’s a marvel what one learns about filmmaking while watching the anti-film This is Not a Film. In 2010, acclaimed Iranian director Jafar Panahi was confined to his condo in Tehran under house arrest as part of his punishment for intending to make a film deemed subversive by the state. During his house arrest, he decided to turn on a camera and just record, all the while trying to deny he was even making a film. He reportedly had This Is Not a Film smuggled out of the country on a flash drive hidden inside a cake delivered to the 2011 Cannes Film Festival where it had its world premiere in 2011. The result offers a raw, insightful glimpse inside the mind of a creative genius.

This is Not a Film is so enlightening into the craft of filmmaking, it feels tragic that the government of Iran has denied this man the right to express himself. The film is set up with Panahi calling up a friend who turns out to be fellow filmmaker, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, about a “problem.” Panahi cannot specify details over the phone, so he asks Mirtahmasb to come over. It will soon be revealed that Panahi needs a camera operator. Setting up his own HD camera in a corner, recording his movements as he wanders or sits in a room, it seems, leaves much to be desired for this visionary.

His friend soon picks up the camera to shoot Panahi. After all, his 20-year ban from filmmaking does not stipulate anything about acting or reading from a script, Panahi reasons. There are also discussions over his iPhone with a lawyer who is working to appeal his sentence, which also includes six years in jail, as well as conversations with concerned relatives. But Panahi seems to delight in turning that iPhone into a camera. He transforms into another man during sequences when he explores his craft. He shares a clip from his 1995 film the Mirror with Mirtahmasb and how he feels like the little girl who wants to throw off the fake cast and quit acting, when she comes to realize the bus she is riding is headed the opposite way of her home. It offers witty insight into the subversive quality of his films.

Thinking about the resonance in his own work clearly shakes up Panahi, and he orders Mirtahmasb to cut, but the documentary director continues filming. “You are not directing. This is an offence,” he tells Panahi. But, just as this film has emerged commercially with US distribution, you cannot keep a good director down. Panahi breaks out a screenplay to read from and soon begins rearranging furniture in his home to help describe what would have been his next film in more visual detail, blocking off the set in his living room with tape. He describes each instance of intended action, from what happens outside a window when a door bell rings to where another character steps into the theoretical camera’s view. The need to direct is in this man’s blood. It’s an energy that simply cannot be repressed, no matter the threat of jail. During this extended sequence the viewer truly sees that filmmaking is what keeps Panahi alive.

This becomes a catalyst for more thoughts on filmmaking by Panahi, as he shares clips from The Circle and Crimson Gold as well as his own doubts and eureka moments, which brings him back to the “set” inside his home.

No fancy plot is necessary to rivet fans of cinema to This is Not a Film. Here is a true genius of film baring his creativity, thoughts in a pure search for truth in the medium. In the end, his defense of this work appears in his own honesty. Even as he tries to create a film via this non-film, he cannot help but feel he is telling lies by filming within the confines of his home.

As the “film” unfolds, the soundtrack beyond his home’s walls is worth noticing: the sound of fireworks and sirens in the street. Mysterious at first, as if there might just be a war going on outside, it is later revealed via a news report, that it is Fireworks Wednesday. Following protests of the recent reelection of the country’s unpopular president, a reporter on the television notes, the country’s leader has found no religious reasons for Fireworks Wednesday and has had it denounced as unreligious. What is actually happening outside are people shooting off fireworks in protest and police zipping about to arrest them.

As much as Panahi would argue this is not a film, the narrative within This is Not a Film plays out with more skill than many in Hollywood can muster. There are many witty set ups, as the film continues to unfold in surprising ways, from the introduction of his daughter’s pet iguana, Igi, to the resonance of the revolutionaries living it up on Fireworks Wednesday just outside Panahi’s confines. There is a moment early in the film when Panahi looks into the lens. “The city is real busy today,” he comments. And so is this movie. At a brisk 75 minutes, it is something not to be missed.

As of this post, after the appeals court upheld the original sentence of a 20-year ban from filmmaking and six years in prison, the director has made his intentions known that he seeks to appeal to the country’s supreme court. Though he remains out of jail, he could be sent there at any time. Amnesty International continues to collect signatures in reverse Panahi’s sentence. You can add your voice here.

Hans Morgenstern

This is Not a Film is not rated, runs 75 minutes and is Persian with English subtitles. It opens in South Florida on Friday, May 18, at 7 p.m., at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which provided a DVD screener for the purposes of this review. For more screening dates across the US, see the film’s official website.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)