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.)

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.)