Berlin Film Festival: Jafar Panahi Tweaks Iran and Shariah Law in Taxi

BERLIN—Riding from the Berlin-Tegel airport to my hotel on a crisp, sunny day last week, my cab passed the magnificent golden-angel statue known as the Victory Column, a monument erected by the city in 1874 to commemorate assorted Prussian military victories of the day. But people all over the world who care about movies know this statue as the congregation spot for angels in Wim Wenders’ 1987 Wings of Desire, a picture that was filmed in a very different Berlin, one still bisected by a wall. As we drove by, I spotted a young woman posing for a photograph at the foot of this seemingly mile-high pillar; three nearly identical black-and-white dogs clustered around her, all aspiring to at least a minimal degree of obedience. This little scene—people and dogs enjoying the city on a beautiful winter day, using a massive and regal monument as the backdrop for a casual family photograph—made me extremely happy to be returning. How many cities boast a welcoming angel that’s also among the most famous of all movie locations?

I wish I could say that the 2015 Berlin Film Festival’s opening picture, Spanish filmmaker Isabel Coixet’s Nobody Wants the Night, lived up to that welcome. It was dispiriting to watch the normally awesome Juliette Binoche sleepwalk through her portrayal of early-20th-century adventuress Josephine Peary, a society lady with a fondness for shooting polar bears in the great white north. Sadly, nobody wants the night, and nobody wants this picture, either: Most of the critics and journalists at the press screening I attended filed out glumly, though a few were having a grand old time re-enacting some of the nuttier scenes, such as the one in which Rinko Kikuchi, as an Inuit woman about to give birth, announces in a quavery, excited voice, “Small person coming!” If I didn’t have fellow witnesses, I might not be sure if I actually saw Nobody Wants the Night or just invented it in my jet-lagged stupor.

It’s sad when a festival opens with a dud, but it’s hardly the end of the world. Luckily, the outlook brightened soon with Taxi, the latest from Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who is still barred by his government from making movies—unless the powers that be lift the ban, it will be at least another 15 years before he’s free to get back to work as usual. Still, he has been ingenious about finding workarounds: In his previous two films, 2011’s This Is Not a Film and 2013’s Closed Curtain, Panahi, with varying degrees of success, explored the limits of what it’s possible to say when you’re barely allowed to leave your house, let alone assemble a cast of actors or a film crew. The semi-documentary This Is Not a Film had an aura of despairing urgency; Closed Curtain was more of a Pirandellian exercise, far less immediate and far less effective. With the witty, capricious Taxi, Panahi—thankfully—heads in another direction, using a kind of Taxicab Confessions approach to examine the precarious state of free thought and freedom of expression in his beleaguered country and even, on occasion, to poke fun at himself.

The gimmick of Taxi is that a perhaps not-so-hidden camera has been affixed to the dash of a cab, recording the sometimes serious, sometimes enjoyably affable conversations between a revolving cast of passengers and the driver—Panahi himself, semi-disguised in a smart driving cap. One passenger, a seemingly average citizen, outlines the benefits of Shariah law as it applies to tire thieves, even though, as we'll come to find, his own line of work isn’t exactly honorable. Two elderly, bickering women slide into the backseat with a goldfish bowl, the inhabitants of which seem to be of the utmost importance. A lawyer on her way to see detainees in prison laments the ever-tightening restrictions she must help her clients navigate; as it turns out, she’s worked with Panahi himself. She looks right at the “hidden” camera and playfully admonishes, “I know what you’re up to!”

At one point, Panahi picks up his young niece, a chattery, precocious girl of about 10, who’s making her first film as a school project. The teacher has given the students a set of strict moral guidelines that must be followed—characters should bear traditional Islamic names, for example—in order for the film to be “distributable” within the country. With her little camera in tow, unable to square the reality she sees around her with the acceptable, “distributable” version of it, she represents the shaky bridge between filmmaking’s present and future in Iran.

As a filmmaker, Panahi is missing out on his own personal present, but you could say he’s making the best of it with Taxi: It’s a tactful but potent political comment as well as a supple, entertaining dramatic exercise. Still, something about it has nagged at me.

This Is Not a Film, Panahi’s first post-sentencing feature, was smuggled out of the country and into Cannes via a flash drive, which, legend has it, was handily concealed in a cake. No one I’ve talked to knows how Panahi was able to get Taxi to the Berlinale—presumably it wasn’t so hard. But the fact that Panahi keeps making and showing these modest mini-movies with the government’s tacit “we know you’re doing it but we’ll look the other way” consent somewhat undermines his cause. The Iranian authorities clearly know that preventing Panahi from making and showing these films would only make them look like the unreasonable tyrants that they really are; it’s in their best interest to sit back and let him do his thing, albeit on a limited scale. In the best possible scenario, Panahi will soon be free to make the types of movies he should be making—polished, emotionally textured feats of storytelling that address something other than his own victimization. As enjoyable and ruefully cheerful as Taxi is, he’s run that theme into a dead end.

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