The People of Cinema Wear Winged Sandals: An Essay on Jafar Panahi’s Taxi

Jafar Panahi’s Taxi screens at the MFAH Oct. 23-Nov. 1.

taxiTaxi  is a short movie with a simple premise, which is impressive, because in that simplicity, it manages to open up a lot of lanes of thought.  Jafar Panahi’s Taxi  screens at the MFAH Oct. 23-Nov. 1.

Panahi plays the part of himself as an incompetent cab driver who picks up passengers and talks and mostly listens (most importantly, about film and censorship). Simple premises, when done right, which Taxi does, are focused frameworks for deep, purposeful explorations.

It’s a love letter to cinema. It’s a case study on everyday video technology. It’s an exploration of cameras, creativity, and voyeurism. First let’s ask ourselves, “Who are the people of cinema?”

I feel compelled to mention a number of other Iranian directors and films, because my exposure to Iranian cinema – predominantly through the MFAH’s film programming – always feels circular to me. Films shown at the annual Iranian film festival are usually some of my favorite films of the year. The museum has a history of showing Panahi’s work. So my experiences are bound together, they each inform each other, I cannot think of one without thinking of another. I have always felt a vague “family resemblance” of values, virtues, and practices in these films. They contain intelligence, honesty, and bravery that is rare in Our World Today. As a moviegoer, I am grateful for having found a place to see films that I consider integral to my understanding of myself and the world.

We begin with a few minutes at a traffic light. Seen from a dashboard camera, it’s a busy intersection, full of the wonders of every other busy intersection. People drive just as shitty as Americans do: cutting each other off, blaring their horns, narrowly avoiding striking down the pedestrians who sleepwalk across the street, heads down, hypnotized by their phones. (How humanizing! They’re just like us! Aren’t we really all in this together? Playing Candy Crush and avoiding death by vehicle at the crosswalk?) Even the belligerence of the corporate branding plastered up and down the streets feels like home.

This shot is comforting to me, but it takes me a while to figure out why. Is it because I’m accustomed to paying attention to what happens outside my window when I’m waiting in traffic? No – now that I think about it, I don’t really pay attention. Nobody does. I check my phone and I change songs on Spotify. I catch the green light or get honked at.

And what is the dashboard camera nowadays? It’s ubiquitous. Well, we watch clips of outrageous traffic collisions, heartbreaking police brutality, mildly entertaining web series. We’re all already incredibly acquainted with an extended amateur filmography that takes place entirely in cars.

Jafar Panahi.
Jafar Panahi.

I’m not sure if it’s sad or just normal now that I discover familiarity not through everyday life, but through my experience of having watched a recorded episode of everyday life. Should it feel strange to me? I feel strange about the fact that it does not feel strange. Some people spend hours watching videos of other people playing video games on the internet.

Panahi, much like his mentor and peer Abbas Kiarostami, knows how to let a camera be. Set a camera at the base of the mountain and watch a car ascend for five minutes! But really, I enjoy spending four minutes getting to know the rhythm of traffic in Tehran. That rhythm anchors the film, it’s the setting, if there is one. It can be hypnotic. (Which surprises me because traffic in Houston makes me want to tear my skin off and take flight to an imaginary and irrational land.)

The long take is a foreign art. Maybe someday Americans will adopt this useful and innovative technology.  When it’s used correctly, which here it is, it can bring out both detail and mystery from almost nothing. For someone suffering from the ailment of opinion that long shots are a test of patience, I would prescribe watching even longer shots. Watch a film that has just one take. Shahram Mokri’s Fish and Cat is a great Iranian film filmed in one take. It screened last year at the MFAH. Watch that.

Several scenes play out in front of the car. The dashboard camera has a way of capturing the most pedestrian, banal, but completely real anxiety that is sitting in your car and waiting for someone to come back. But really, what’s taking him so long in there?

We’re entering Jahani’s world. But he’s entering it too. He’s a crappy cab driver. He doesn’t know how to get anywhere. His passengers are surprised and amused by his incompetence. It’s all really charming.

Panahi (the cab driver) picks up a bootleg DVD salesman. In the car they discuss Woody Allen and other American classics. The salesman tells Panahi that they know each other because Panahi rented Once upon a time in Anatolia (not Iranian, Turkish, but amazing and also screened at the MFAH). They stop by a buyer’s house so he can browse through the selections. “What do you have in art house?” The young man asks. They get down to some “rare, old Kurosawa.” The trigger for my empathy is not a sentimental “appeal to humanity,” but a connection in my own faith in my good taste in film. Am I one of “people of cinema” yet?

The bootlegger tells the buyer that Panahi is his partner. Panahi, his partner in crime in DVD bootlegging? How strange. Panahi (the cab driver) smirks. This is a deep moment. We’re starting to grasp who all – even bootleggers (strangely enough especially) – the “people of cinema” are.

So that’s Panahi the cab driver, but there’s also Panahi the director. But are they the same? And does that question matter?

taxi-2In 2010, after years of conflict with the Iranian government, Panahi was convicted for “assembly and colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic.” They sentenced him to six years in prison and banned him from making films for 20 years. They were very specific: Do not direct, write screenplays, or do interviews. He was put under house arrest and forbidden to leave the country. In 2011, he broke the ban on filmmaking by creating This is not a Film. Shot on SD camcorders and his iphone, it was smuggled out of the country on a USB flash drive hidden inside of a cake.

This is not a Film follows Panahi trapped in his own home, trying to construct an ordinary life within his boredom, loneliness and exile. He does not direct. Instead, his friend films him putzing about his beautiful apartment describing scenes from his previous films, attending to his domestic duties, and anxiously awaiting phone calls. He does not write a screenplay, he instead reads and re-enacts scenes from a screenplay written before. Moments of anguish and curiosity point to the real emotional frustrations and celebration that pass through him. Coming from a career as a more or less traditional director, this is a crisis of transformation.

In response to injustice, he adapts. He is, to borrow a concept from Italo Calvino, choosing lightness. Calvino wrote, “Whenever humanity seems condemned to heaviness I think I should fly like Perseus into a different space. I don’t mean escaping into dreams or into the irrational. I mean that I have to change my approach, look at the world from a different perspective, with a different logic and with fresh methods of cognition…” He does not crumple, or fight to return to his previous state. He finds different perspective. Fresh methods.

I see Taxi as an extension of this lightness. How will he go about making his next film if he cannot make films or leave? He’s exiled twice over. He made a film (or not a film) in his apartment. It seems natural to go out in the city.

The taxi is his pair of winged sandals. He takes flight. And so what does this freedom or lightness enable him to do? It certainly sets limitations and parameters on the logistics of getting it made, but it also unburdens him from his past and certain expectations and traditions in filmmaking. He’s free to do something new.

Panahi, continuing with the bootlegger, picks up a woman and her husband. Her husband has just been in a motorcycle accident. He’s bleeding out all over his wife. “Please film my will!” the husband pleads, “use your phone.” Through Panahi’s iPhone, the bleeding man, certain of his impending death, begs God for forgiveness, and uses what he believes are his last breaths to make sure his wife gets her due when he dies. He makes sure to say the law states she will not get anything. Panahi’s teeth bite quickly, and recede, but they are sharp. As the EMT’s pull the man out of the car, the bootlegger keeps filming. It’s not his will anymore, it’s something else. But what is that something else?

The more I think about it, the more present (overwhelming and immeasurable in terms of data storage uploaded each day) it seems, the less of an idea I have to call it. Is it just video? Video, video, and then more video. This moment isn’t a pause for judgement, but I see it as a pause for, “hey, what do you think is going on here?” What is the bootlegger seeing? What is he feeling and when did it switch?

This brief moment of intensity dies down almost immediately. The woman repeatedly calls Panahi, asking for the video, in case her husband dies. He seems annoyed and impatient, reassuring her that he will make a copy and send it to her later when he gets home. The video is a will and testament, but it’s also just a file on a phone. It is unremarkable and gravely serious at the same time. Do we get the future we deserve?

In popular discussions of cameras, phones, or technology, we lean towards thoughtlessness. We moralize, police or grasp in the dark: Do selfies cause narcissism? Do mindful people take pictures in nature? Are selfies empowering? Do these dull and exhausting questions rot whatever brain cells we have left? Do they impede our fresh thinking? So how else can we think about video and our lives?

Panahi’s filmmakers, film dealers, and reluctant film co stars are trying understand the world on a basic level. It isn’t noble or artistic or good or bad. Part of it seems more basic. What happens when someone puts a camera up to their eye and sees through the lens? An impulse or feeling or whatever we want to call it can be creative, voyeuristic, curious, but it’s still wondering what we understand about the world in that act. That to me is separate from moral or aesthetic concerns about individual photographs or trends in photography or whatever trends are in our times.

But it’s easy to take this all for granted. Or I am making something out of nothing?

Remembering that feeling for ourselves, or watching the process, sweeps a space around ourselves and our cameras or relationships to images to reconsider these vague, subtle, but seemingly basic phenomena. If you question a “basic” thing, you tend to get the answer, “because that’s how it is.” Which to me means there’s something more. Are selfies good? Are selfies bad?

On a technical level, it’s all very seamless. Maybe that’s why it works for me. It’s hard to edit footage made with really great fancy cameras, and finding a way to combine different resolutions and aspect ratios and color palettes, that’s even harder.

In theory, we know mastery has nothing to do with owning expensive cameras, but we forget this. (Once you buy that new DSLR, that’s when you’ll start taking pictures again.) It’s easy to revert to default notions of craft, production value, and the false dichotomy between professionals and amateurs. There’s a lot of excitement in low-tech or everyday video. The realistic limitations can produce unique and novel tones. The weird color corrections, automatic aperture, and focus adjustments on an iPhone are freed from their status as imperfections and merged – with craft of course- into his coherent visual schema. POV or consumer products have a tendency to be misused as “documents” or gimmicks, as if we have to pretend inside pretending. Panahi never falls into that.

Panahi picks up his niece. She’s making a film for school. (They have film class? She must be 10! Why didn’t my elementary have a film class?) She shoots Panahi, directing him, telling him that she needs a story. But she tells him a story about filming an altercation and the brutal beating of a neighbor. “But you have your story,” he says. “No,” she says “the film is undistributable.” And Panahi above all “should know what constitutes a distributable film.” Her teacher gave her a list of rules about what makes a film distributable. As she reads the silly, but appropriate and seemingly harmless rules, you can feel eradicating specters hovering in the distance.

They pick up the flower lady. She’s going to visit a woman arrested for going to volleyball game. “It’s just like your (2006) film Offside,” she says. The flower lady has been barred from practicing law. “It’s as if the Directors Guild forbade you to make movies.” Everything becomes much more directly self referential. Time is running out, and he clearly has more things he needs to say.

The flower lady sees his camera. “Better to remove my words from your movie,” she says. “You’ll be accused of sordid realism.”

The flower lady leaves and his niece asks, “What exactly is sordid realism?” Her teacher told her to “show what’s real, but not real real… if reality is dark and unpleasant, not to show it.”

Panahi (the cab driver) passively agrees with the flower lady. Like she said, some things shouldn’t be shown.

“But everything she said was real,” the daughter says.

We don’t always handle ambiguity well. And we are still mostly at a loss with what we ought to do with our self-awareness. Self awareness is not an end in itself. Sometimes, we admonish our own self awareness, as if it’s pathology related to our ability or inability to hold principles, or act earnestly.

On the flip side, simultaneously, we engage in self reference that aims for nothing but itself, in cleverness, a wink to let you know we’re smart. We haven’t all learned to live within that contradiction yet. Panahi’s self reference is never that. He is earnest, he is ironic, he is self referential, and he is deadly serious without taking himself so seriously that he reverts to the paralysis of neurotic confusion. He seems to understand and be at peace with all his own levels of truth and not so truth. At peace, not with the way that the world is, but with the fact that we live within contradictions.

Ambiguity can be just a fog, a manufactured weirdness that can make something interesting despite having nothing to say. Or it can be a ray of light that shines through fog, part of a mystical strategy for clearing a path to new clarity when we’ve exhausted our current modes of being or thinking.

What is the art of handling ambiguity? A few years ago, my girlfriend and I went to see Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy at the MFAH. It’s about a couple or not couple who may or may not be pretending to be husband and wife. I can still remember how ecstatic my confusion felt as the credits rolled. My girlfriend and I argued on the drive home about whether they were husband and wife. I went back the next day alone and felt confused again, but felt the pleasure in that confusion. That ambiguity, handled well, is what makes richness in a film. It what makes me watch Certified Copy for a fourth time on Netflix. It didn’t matter matter if they were husband and wife. It doesn’t matter if the people in Panahi’s Taxi are actors. But without that question, it would all be something else. Something much duller.

With film, thinking can be thinking, or it can be talking, or it can be something more silent and personal, returning to a feeling or image, and spending time inside that image and having no idea what it is but trying to know it still. When it comes together in the right way -which is unfortunately not typically the case- it can make the small world big and tiny thinky thoughts a little bit bigger.

We are living in the golden age of raising $50,000 on Kickstarter for shooting a web series on expensive high definition cameras. The “creative class” writes into advice columns asking for advice on being successful writers, harnessing the writer within. We meditate. We write three pages in the morning. We’re going to be artists someday. Underneath all this is a whimper, “What the hell am I doing and why the hell am I doing what I’m doing?” It’s easy, too easy, to lose yourself.

Necessity has way of finding itself, but realistically, maybe disappointingly to some, it isn’t an easy thing. It isn’t readily adoptable into a lifestyle improvement plan. It starts with a problem, oftentimes a very serious problem. And not all problems lead to solutions. Transformation is only as much bliss as it is violence and destruction, real destruction, not conceptual destruction in the sense of business disruption. Hardship is hardship. Problems are problems. This film doesn’t fix Janahi’s problems. It doesn’t reverse a global fog of ignorance and history of decay. But it’s good. It’s a constructive action that points forward. I’m sure we could all use lessons in the creative fruits of constraint and necessity.

We all want our nieces to be free to make a videos for class. We want to be able to watch a volleyball game without getting arrested. These are the things people are fighting for. These are the people Panahi is fighting for. He’s making films because he has no choice. And I’m not sure where that integrity comes from but it’s reassuring.

In Panahi’s own words: “Nothing can prevent me from making films since when being pushed to the ultimate corners I connect with my inner-self and, in such private spaces, despite all limitations, the necessity to create becomes even more of an urge.”

It’s not a long film, but, like most of his other movies, it’s good, and there’s a lot to ponder on. There is a moment when flower girl, placing a rose on the dashboard, says, “This is for the people of cinema, because the people of cinema can be relied on.” I think the people of cinema includes a lot of people: Panahi, the DVD bootlegger, the man buying the DVDs, his niece, the flower girl, me, you, and anyone else in the theater who is hopefully watching this film.