Taxi

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(Dir. Jafar Panahi, Iran, 2015)

Back in the Driver’s Seat

If the one-two punch of modern masterpieces This Is Not a Film and Closed Curtain are any indication, it seems the devastating circumstances preventing filmmaker Jafar Panahi from continuing to create have not only failed to keep him from doing so, but have also strengthened his artistry. I’ve written at length on the inherent worth of the director’s five excellent films prior to his twenty-year ban from filmmaking, but none of those early works reach the levels of profundity, poignant self-reflexivity, or daring craftsmanship of his two recent films shot in defiance of the government intent on keeping him silent. It should come as no surprise, then, that Panahi is at it again. Taxi, his third feature since the ban, is another personal diary entry of an artist unable to express himself freely, and yet it radiates a boldness absent from its direct predecessors that a more hopeful Panahi only hinted at in the final moments of Closed Curtain. Gone is the extreme secrecy surrounding the production of these illegal films, gone are the names of the strategically credited co-directors, and gone is the tiptoeing around Panahi’s actual role in all of it. This is a film by Jafar Panahi, and he’s unapologetically back in the driver’s seat.

Appropriately, then, Taxi finds Panahi quite literally in the driver’s seat of the film’s titular vehicle as he roams around Tehran picking up a variety of intriguing characters whilst once again painting a vivid portrait of the city he calls home. (Comparisons of form to Taste of Cherry and Ten are inevitable, but they stop there, for Panahi no longer works in the shadow of Kiarostami and is an artist worth being evaluated on his own merits.) A swiveling dashcam captures interior conversations as well as the action on the streets outside, thus the entirety of the film is shot from within this set on wheels. Predictably, Taxi follows no linear plot but consists of vignettes nearly resembling mini comedy sketches as Panahi’s various passengers fill the frame with their eccentricities and cross-sectioned stories – a pair bickering over conflicting ideologies, an overeager pirated video vendor, a bleeding man and his hysterical wife who decides to keep his video-recorded will after he recovers (just in case), two superstitious ladies with a couple of goldfish, and Panahi’s own niece Hana, to name a few.

References to Panahi’s previous work abound both explicitly as his subjects recall his past films and in clever visual allusions – the aforementioned goldfish harkening back to the director’s debut The White Balloon, early dialogue lifted from Crimson Gold, picking up his niece from a school resembling that of Mina’s in The Mirror, mention of a young woman imprisoned for sneaking into a public sporting event as in Offside. Both This Is Not a Film and Closed Curtain entertained such references as well, but where those two mourned their creator’s inability to create what he wanted to create, Taxi plays more like a greatest hits collection; a deserved victory lap for all that’s come before.

It’s not all lighthearted reminiscing, however, and in its back half Taxi explicitly takes the Iranian government to task for the continued injustice toward filmmakers across the nation bound by the ridiculous guidelines slyly read verbatim by Panahi’s niece who’s studying film in school. Hana’s film teacher dutifully outlines what constitutes a distributable film – those featuring head-covered women, no tie-wearing men with good Islamic names, and no politics or relevant social issues to speak of. With her cheap digital camera, Hana commits to making one such distributable film that avoids the “sordid realism” that the government unreasonably fears. She begins shooting the innocuous sight of newlyweds emerging from their wedding, but inevitably, reality gets in the way. A young boy collecting trash swoops in to snatch a fallen wad of cash from the groom’s pocket, and Hana implores him to return it to provide upstanding societal moral fiber for her distributable film. When he fails to rectify his criminal deed, Hana is disappointed by her own failure to produce an acceptable piece of filmmaking.

Cleverly, Panahi posits Hana as a stand-in for himself. The trash-collecting boy is not unlike the type of subject he has been interested in throughout his socially conscious career. It’s not difficult to imagine Panahi’s defiance speaking volumes through this short sequence. He’ll never kowtow to his oppressors by producing disingenuous, government-approved garbage just to have his work distributed in his own country, but he’ll also refuse to keep quiet. Taxi is an explicitly political document as one character mutters toward the end, “they don’t want it shown, but they do it themselves” in reference to the gross injustices committed by the very government bent on shielding its people from ever witnessing such realities. In a time of seeming progress with regards to Iran and its long-standing Western enemies as prisoners are released and nuclear deals are negotiated, Panahi’s film is an apt reminder that this great nation has a long way to go in restoring peace and justice.

The film ends with some of the most stunning imagery of Panahi’s career as a rose rests on the dashboard, the windshield of the car providing a frame, as the camera takes in the bustling streets of Tehran all around them. The film’s final static shot finds Panahi and Hana emerge from the taxi and exit the frame followed by the startling sight of carjackers who break into the car, disable the dashcam, and mutter something barely decipherable about a missing memory stick. It’s a brilliantly ambiguous finale that adds fuel to the debate over the blurred duality of fiction and reality that marks much of Panahi’s impressive oeuvre. Most of Taxi is surely very carefully staged – just as This Is Not a Film and Closed Curtain were before it – and yet it’s still probably too real for those who fear it. After the narrative-busting Closed Curtain that solidified its director’s reputation as one of the greats working today, Taxi may seem to some as a bit of a letdown, a minor work treading now-familiar territory. But, I hope his latest isn’t seen as merely thematic leftovers. It’s an important film and an important statement for its creator. He’s opened the curtains that threatened to extinguish his blossoming career, and he’s made a public declaration that he has no intention of giving up the driver’s seat ever again.

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Panahi’s Tehran

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On the Five Films of Jafar Panahi Before the Ban

Since my first viewing of the radically paradigm-shifting This Is Not a Film in 2012 (my first encounter with the artist), I have become a devout Jafar Panahi evangelist. Between then and now I’ve made it my mission to get my hands on everything he’s directed, and unsurprisingly the films that comprise his small oeuvre prior to the events detailed in his above-mentioned modern masterpiece and most easily recognized film are nothing short of astonishing. And, though I too would consider This Is Not a Film his greatest work yet (its follow-up Closed Curtain a close second; still waiting to see this past year’s similarly lauded Taxi), it’s a shame that the five films leading up to Panahi’s infamous, yet unexpectedly fruitful ban from filmmaking don’t get the attention they deserve. There are those who dismiss This Is Not a Film entirely, citing its unlikely release (smuggled out of the country on a USB drive baked into a cake) as the sole reason for its welcome critical reception and elevated status over his previous efforts. And, though I strongly disagree with this borderline pretentious dismissal, I do believe This Is Not a Film and Closed Curtain are better understood and more fully appreciated in light of what came before.

From his Cannes-approved debut The White Balloon in 1995 to the boundary-pushing Offside in 2006 that ultimately pushed the Iranian government too far, Panahi’s first five films are each impressive works in their own right and together paint a compelling portrait of modern-day Tehran – at once a bustling metropolis full of life and a major urban center plagued by corruption and injustice and in need of widespread change. Whether he’s mining unexpected comedy from his subjects’ frank dialogue or depicting harsh societal realities with his neorealist-influenced style or toying with cinematic form à la Abbas Kiarostami (an inevitable comparison in any discussion of Panahi’s output), it’s clear the filmmaker is a firm believer in the power of his craft. Why else would he risk further consequences by defying his ban not once, but thrice so far? Certainly, the circumstances surrounding the director’s tragically stunted career don’t automatically create meaningful cinema, but when the art is this intelligent, challenging, and utterly captivating it’s nearly impossible to overlook Panahi’s multi-film treatise on the great city of Tehran.


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The White Balloon (1995)

After directing a few short films and serving as assistant director on Kiarostami’s Through the Olive Trees, Jafar Panahi was ready to shoot his first feature length film. The White Balloon was destined to entertain comparisons to Kiarostami’s work, especially since the Iranian master helped his protégé secure funding and penned the script for Panahi’s debut. It also likely conjured memories of Kiarostami’s own recent Where Is the Friend’s Home? that put him on the map in the previous decade due to both works featuring a young child at the center with a seemingly minor conflict that sets both narratives in motion. (It’s well-known now that producing films about children helped Iranian filmmakers dodge censorship given the sheer number of restrictions on filming the interactions of adult men and women, especially in domestic settings.) And yet, from the film’s opening shot Panahi was poised to establish his own authorial voice distinct from that of his mentor.

For one, as the film opens the camera moves, fluidly, almost rapidly – something Kiarostami almost never allowed – as a concerned-looking woman (Fereshteh Sadre Orafaiy) weaves in and out of a crowd of shoppers and revelers on the eve of Nowruz (the Iranian New Year) searching for her wandering daughter. Though one may not notice upon first viewing, Panahi also introduces us to most of the supporting characters young Razieh (Aida Mohammadkhani) will cross paths with over the course of the film as they populate this scene-setting prelude. From the first moments of his first film, Panahi sets the stage for a body of work concerned with these chance encounters significant enough to alter our own individual paths no matter how briefly, thus painting a wholly realistic portrait of a world where every passerby has a story, and no one person’s story is more important than another’s. This is crucial in understanding how Panahi handles his characters. The shifting perspectives at the end of The White Balloon, early on in Offside, and most noticeably throughout The Circle may be jarring at first, but in the context of his greater canon, it reveals a remarkably generous attitude toward his fellow human being. Everyone has a story; and choosing to tell stories of those most often ignored – children, women, ethnic minorities – has defined Panahi’s pleasingly inclusive work ever since.

This is no more evident in his debut than in The White Balloon’s much-discussed finale that pushes his loose narrative into near-tragic territory to cap off an otherwise adorable tale of a relatively minor problem for two children. After Razieh and her brother Ali (Mohsen Kafili) finally convince someone to help them retrieve their money that’s fallen into a roadside gutter, the pair hurriedly vacates the frame abandoning their savior on the side of the road to purchase that coveted goldfish. Panahi’s camera, however, doesn’t leave with them. It rests on the unnamed Afghan boy (Aliasghar Smadi) who lent the siblings his rod bearing balloons for sale and purchased them chewing gum to pull the banknote from the gutter. Razieh and Ali walk back through the frame with the plump goldfish in hand and right past the balloon seller once more without an offer for repayment or even a “thank you.” Panahi’s film ends here on a final sustained freeze-frame of the boy as he picks himself up to leave with one last white balloon over his shoulder.

It’s a surprisingly ambiguous finale for a mostly straightforward film, and yet there’s unmistakably a reason behind Panahi’s audacious choice to title his film after a narratively unrelated object that stays with us through the end credits. Throughout The White Balloon, we’re captivated by this silly story of a little girl who loses a rather insignificant amount of money – a feat of bravura filmmaking to be sure. Panahi frames Razieh’s problem as a major conflict worthy of our time in his well-chosen camera angles from the eye-level of small children (positing the world as quite literally larger than life), capturing two tremendous performances from Mohammadkhani and Kafili, and infusing his narrative with a sense of urgency set in real time against a countdown to the New Year. And yet, what’s perhaps more impressive than convincing his audience to care this much is dramatically subverting our expectations when Razieh and Ali no longer deserve our sympathy.

In the film’s final shot, our allegiances shift to that of the balloon seller. When Razieh and Ali get what they want, they leave and head home for the New Year celebrations. As the flummoxed young vendor pauses before standing to leave, we’re left to ponder his circumstances. As a minority, more than likely a refugee, the boy may not have the luxury of taking a break from his work or even celebrating with family that may or may not be with him in Tehran. Is Panahi’s choice to linger on this boy’s situation a subtle form of politicizing? Raising awareness for the plight of a group of individuals most often cast aside in society? Given the number of openly political films that followed The White Balloon, it doesn’t seem that farfetched to imagine these as the director’s veiled intentions. It’s a powerful and bold statement in a political climate that rarely favors artistic freedom of expression, and one that sheds light on the wildly diverse city of Tehran.


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The Mirror (1997)

For his sophomore feature The Mirror, Panahi furthers both his concern for the affairs of small children and his exploration of Iranian society through the microcosm of a few bustling streets in Tehran. The setup is remarkably simple: a young girl (Mina Mohammadkhani, notably the younger sister of the protagonist in The White Balloon) grows increasingly worried when her mother fails to pick her up after school and decides to try to find her way home on her own. In the film’s first half, Panahi once again thrills with his roving camera, unearths a profoundly sympathetic performance in his convincing lead, and widens the scope established in The White Balloon to capture fleeting, minor moments between peripheral characters that populate Panahi’s Tehran. There are compelling fragments of untold stories here – a man who offers the girl a ride who may or may not get in a motorcycle accident, a love-struck couple swapping glances separated by the gender divide on public transportation, a bitter elderly woman bemoaning the way her children treat her – as Mina bumps into various individuals on her way home.

At first, The Mirror may appear to be nothing more than a variant on Panahi’s winsome debut, but a sudden mid-film outburst from the film’s subject is sure to keep viewers on their toes. After Mina finds her way onto yet another bus that might take her in the right direction, she stares seemingly innocuously at the camera only for a voice off-screen to bluntly exclaim, “Mina don’t look at the camera!” No sooner, little Mina throws her bag down, tears off her fake cast, and declares that she no longer wishes to be in the movie. The bus stops to let her off, the film stock changes, the crew comes into view, and the audience is left completely stunned. The illusion of cinema has been gloriously shattered as Panahi and his crew hurriedly decide what to do next. When Mina stubbornly demands to leave the set and walk home herself, Panahi convinces a few members of the crew to pile into a car and follow her since she accidentally left her mike on. The film, then, takes on a dramatically different visual tone as the girl is mostly shot from a distance as cars and passersby at times obscure the camera’s view of her.

And yet, as Mina soon confesses to a passing taxi driver, she does actually need some directions getting home. Gone is the façade that her mother picks her up at school and that she’s worried about finding her way home, but essentially the film’s second half picks up right where the first half ended as Mina attempts to make her way home. Thus, Panahi posits that fiction simply mirrors reality. Panahi’s film, then, is heir to Kiarostami’s groundbreaking Close-Up, the most obvious frame of reference for The Mirror. And, as with that landmark work of blurring the ever-fine line between fiction and reality, we may never know just how much of The Mirror’s cleverly cleaved halves is real and how much is staged.

So, what then does The Mirror achieve? Is it merely Kiarostami-lite, a spellbinding deconstruction of cinematic form that pales in comparison to similarly themed works that came before? Not so fast. If Kiarostami is a filmic philosopher, one whose extreme wide shots, provocative film titles, and documentary-narrative hybrids force contemplation on grand scale questions of humanity and life, then Panahi operates in smaller spheres detailing the effects of society and life on a few. Where Close-Up’s straddling the line between reality and the illusion of reality says more about cinema than people, The Mirror walks the same line to comment on the very people who fill the screen. In one such telling sequence, Mina the performer runs into the elderly lady from the bus after she’s given up acting in the film. She sits down with her on the bench and complains about the crew’s insistence on her pouting and crying too frequently, the implication being that Mina herself would not have gotten that upset about not knowing the way home. When she asks the woman how she could put up with the filmmakers’ demands, the woman startlingly admits that she wasn’t acting. The “lines” she recited during her scenes were actual scenarios from her own life. It’s an unexpectedly poignant moment that highlights the very real circumstances of Panahi’s subjects – individuals with concerns, conflicts, and hopes of their own.


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The Circle (2000)

Following the success of The White Balloon and The Mirror, Panahi treaded into deeper political waters for his third feature The Circle – arguably the greatest work of his pre-ban era. There were hints of the female perspective in his first two films – the casting of two young girls as his leads, the rather amusing yet frank discussion on the role of women in the home that takes place in the back of a cab in The Mirror, or even the character of Mina herself in The Mirror who, in the film’s second half, is fiercely independent and unafraid unlike the character she plays – but with The Circle Panahi devotes an entire film to the plight of Iranian women living in modern-day Tehran. It also marks the most substantial break from the tutelage of Kiarostami. His influence is deeply felt in both The White Balloon and The Mirror, but The Circle is the first of Panahi’s films to establish an aesthetic, tone, and subject matter firmly his own.

In fact, his bold decision to risk censorship in telling stories of the limitations that women face in Iran preempted his mentor’s similar, yet far less controversial Ten by two years. In this way, then, The Circle instead recalls the important works of Satyajit Ray and Kenji Mizoguchi who dared to tell stories of women’s hardships in India and Japan, respectively, when it was popular for neither to do so. Of course, Panahi stood to lose a lot more and did – after success on the European festival circuit, the Iranian government banned The Circle in Iran thus beginning the many issues the director would go on to face in his home country and have since defined his cinema in recent years.

The Circle, like its immediate predecessor, is aptly named after the structure of its narrative. It begins somewhat abruptly with a middle-aged woman in a hospital waiting room as her daughter gives birth inside. When a nurse appears at the window and reveals that her daughter has had a baby girl, it throws this older woman into a panic who relays to the nurse that her son-in-law’s family thought it would be a boy. What may seem like the beginning of a joke to Western viewers immediately registers as anything but when the woman verbally fears that her son-in-law may even divorce her daughter. She urges her relative to inform the rest of the family at once. As this new unnamed woman leaves the hospital and is turned down when she asks a small group of woman for change to make a phone call, she promptly exits the frame and isn’t seen again. Rather than continue the story of this “unfortunate” birth, Panahi picks up another story of the three women gathered nervously around a phone booth who we eventually learn have just escaped from prison for some unknown reason.

The rest of Panahi’s film unfolds in this way; half-told narratives of various women over the course of one evening in Tehran and the problems each of them faces. Refreshingly, there’s no contrived structure surrounding this passing off of the narrative. Panahi follows a young woman (Nargess Mamizadeh) attempting to flee the city by bus and a woman (Fereshteh Sadre Orafaiy, one of only two professional actors in the film) seeking an urgent, secretive abortion for the longest duration of the film’s runtime. But, he also lends screen time to a troubled mother (Fatemah Naghavi) who abandons her young daughter when she can no longer care for her and a prostitute (Mojgan Faramarzi) who gets picked up by the authorities while her prospective client is released with no consequences. (In the film’s best sequence, Panahi cuts back and forth between close-ups of the prostitute and a newlywed bride in the backseat of a passing car. The woman stares at the bride, but is it a look of longing or one of understanding? It’s likely no surprise that Panahi draws parallels between these two women whose circumstances may not be that different.)

Throughout, Panahi realistically sheds light on the different forms of oppression women face on a daily basis under fundamentalist Islamic rule. Women can’t smoke in public, purchase bus tickets without a male escort, rent hotel rooms alone, or receive abortions without their husband’s or husband’s father’s consent. The characters in Panahi’s film are imprisoned easily and are often ostracized from society and their families if they break any of the many, many rules set before them. One gets the impression it’s nearly impossible to breathe for women in Panahi’s Tehran. But, is it a fair portrayal? Reportedly, the Iranian government ultimately banned Panahi’s film for its unfair and resoundingly negative treatment of the nation’s women. It’s certainly a very one-sided argument; there is no other way to interpret Panahi’s film. Yet, in light of the rest of his balanced work, it’s clear that Panahi is a champion for the underdog, telling stories for those whose voices aren’t often heard. He absolutely has an agenda here, but The Circle is no mere message movie. In its clever narrative structure that brings this jaunt through an unfavorable Tehran full circle – the prostitute is locked up, and as Panahi’s camera pans around the cell the rest of the women featured so far come into view, imprisoned again as well – Panahi’s film is also an exercise in stretching cinematic form and pushing his own aesthetic forward. In retrospect, it seems to have anticipated the onslaught of unwelcome “we’re all connected” films that polluted American cinema in the decade to come. But, the narrative contrivance that brings his characters together in the end serves no other purpose than tragic metaphor (as opposed to a forced plot device) and affirms an established penchant for telling personal stories no matter how seemingly insignificant or incomplete.


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Crimson Gold (2003)

For his second collaboration with Kiarostami as screenwriter, Panahi’s Crimson Gold continues the bleaker tone set by The Circle and recounts a few days in the life of an impoverished pizza delivery man whose socioeconomic status and circumstances drive him to commit a heinous crime. This crime – the murder of a jewelry storeowner following a failed robbery attempt – opens the film; thus Crimson Gold marks the first time Panahi utilizes a flashback narrative structure in his work. In what is clearly not an act of premeditated murder, Hussein (Hossain Emadeddin) rashly pulls the trigger on himself in front of a throng of passersby who witness the killing and hurriedly call the police. Though the filmmakers’ decision to reveal the film’s outcome at the onset threatens to lessen the impact of the story that follows, the troubled life of Hussein is riveting, if not wholly convincing enough to warrant its climactic tragedy.

More than a progressive narrative, then, Panahi’s film features a series of vignettes that highlight gross income inequality in Tehran and the resultant injustice that befalls those living in poverty. The midsection of Crimson Gold, bookended by the sequence of Hussein’s murder and suicide, is made up of four major sequences, each of them realistically documenting some form of corruption or injustice within the confines of one character’s story. Over the course of the film this widespread inequality is seen as both a personal offense – when Hussein, his future brother-in-law Ali (Kamyar Sheisi), and fiancée (Azita Rayeji) are repeatedly humiliated and turned away at a high-end jewelry store or when an old acquaintance of Hussein’s awkwardly gives him a large tip when confronted with Hussein’s current, unglamorous profession – and a societal danger – when the police use a profiling tactic to arrest young passersby who may or may not be attending a raucous party in an affluent district or when the police use extreme force when arresting a man in Hussein’s poorer neighborhood.

In the film’s final episode, Panahi also manages to comment upon the blind privilege of the wealthy elite as Hussein delivers pizza to a young rich man (Pourang Nakhael) whose greatest problem appears to be as trivial as a date gone sour. Preoccupied by his own self-absorption, the man invites Hussein in to dine with him and to provide a listening ear. But, when the offending woman calls, the man leaves Hussein to himself who explores the high-rise apartment, takes advantage of its amenities, and eventually winds up on the balcony with a staggering view of the cityscape below. Up here all of Tehran is beneath this rich man who only need give the rest of the world a thought when he desires. “A city of lunatics,” he calls Tehran at one point. He refers to a culture and society that he left behind when he emigrated to the U.S. for a time, but he might as well be describing the crippling inequality that forces someone like himself and Hussein into entirely separate corners of the city.

If Crimson Gold lacks the narrative heft of Panahi’s previous work, it makes up for it with its exhilarating camerawork courtesy of DP Hossein Jafarian working with Panahi for the first time, yet propelling the director’s aesthetic forward. The camera beautifully and fluidly weaves in and out of traffic capturing stunning shots of his characters on motorbikes or subtly zooms on the entrance to the jewelry store, the shot’s only source of light, after Hussein’s murder, then graciously pans up to shield us from his gruesome suicide. Too, Panahi’s dedication to revealing unflattering sides of Tehran despite inevitable censorship is certainly commendable. He not only serves as a beacon of hopeful resistance to other filmmakers in Iran, but also to the repressed voices worldwide who are forced to create art in secret or under oppression.


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Offside (2006)

For his unknowingly final film before the ban, Panahi returned to the more light-hearted comedic feel and focus on Tehran’s youth of The White Balloon and The Mirror. And yet, Offside is no less significant because of it. It’s as politically subversive as anything in The Circle or Crimson Gold, and it pushed the Iranian government far enough to incite the charges brought against Panahi and his supposedly defamatory art that altered the future of his career a few years later. The film follows six unnamed young women who attempt to sneak into the 2005 soccer match between Iran and Bahrain that determined which team would qualify for the 2006 World Cup. To Western viewers the setup might immediately register as something farfetched until we’re clued into the fact that women are prohibited from attending public sporting events in Iran. It’s likely that even in America we still might associate football, basketball, or baseball with primarily male spectators and fans, yet no one would think twice about admitting a woman to a game. They’re just as entitled to fandom as men.

Panahi uses this most basic, widespread trait indicative of much of the world – the love of soccer (particularly outside the U.S., though our national love for American football is probably comparable) – to instill universality in his characters’ struggle. Shot as if in real time during the actual match, Panahi returns to the thrilling urgency he established in The White Balloon – that film’s countdown to New Year replaced with a ticking game clock as Iran’s shot at qualifying for the world’s biggest sporting event hangs in the balance. Though the match sets the film’s narrative in motion, it ultimately plays a supporting role in what Panahi brilliantly achieves. We never catch more than a few glimpses of the actual game as the film’s characters are held in a humiliating sectioned pen just outside the stadium guarded by three young soldiers, but Panahi is, of course, more concerned with the conversations and interactions between his characters than regaling the outcome of a soccer match.

Perhaps more than any other film in his oeuvre, Panahi impressively provides a snapshot of a larger Tehran in this huddle of characters who’d like to be anywhere but with each other. The women, of various ages and backgrounds, swiftly bond over their unbridled love of the game, a zealous dedication that both confuses and complicates their captors’ situation. Two of the three soldiers are Tehrani imports, boys from rural areas who carry their own assumptions about the city and women in general. But, ultimately, they’re won over by the girls’ unwavering enthusiasm, and in its final moments Offside erupts into joyous pandemonium as the lines that divide women and men, urbanites and ruralists, soldiers and civilians, and law keepers and law breakers fade away as they unite as fans. The girls and soldiers alike emerge from the halted van en route to the police station with sparklers in hand to join the street’s revelers in what is easily Panahi’s most satisfying finale in his entire body of work. The injustices of the society he portrays haven’t been stripped away, but he offers an unexpected ray of hope in something as seemingly insignificant, yet universally loved as soccer.

With Offside, Panahi paints his most balanced portrait of Tehran yet. If The Circle and Crimson Gold threatened to villainize anyone belonging to a privileged class – men, those in authority, the wealthy – in their appropriately despairing tones, then Offside fittingly offers a slight corrective. Panahi presents a society more or less in collective opposition to an oppressive regime. More than once do we see men trying to help smuggle disguised women into the stadium, a group of guys assists one of the girls in escaping her captors in the stadium’s bathroom yet she willingly returns after a time so as to not get the soldiers in trouble with their superiors, and in the end fans make no distinction between sex, age, race, or profession as the city rejoices in their nation’s victory. As a chronicler of the everyday lives of his fellow city dwellers, Jafar Panahi has established himself as one of the most exciting, innovative, and politically important filmmakers working today. For better or for worse Tehran is his home, and his first five films offer a captivating (albeit admittedly incomplete) picture of one of the world’s greatest cities.

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Closed Curtain

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(Dir. Jafar Panahi and Kambuzia Partovi, Iran, 2014)

An Isolated Artist

Jafar Panahi’s seventh feature film and second under his official ban from filmmaking Closed Curtain is not the film he wanted to make. No, it’s clear from the subject matter of both this outing and its direct predecessor that these are the films he’s able to make given the tragic circumstances of his stunted career. The pair unmistakably marks a necessary change in the trajectory of Panahi’s oeuvre, and yet This Is Not a Film and Closed Curtain represent two of his best works thus far as well as remarkable achievements of cinema in general. To view them divorced from the reason why they exist is impossible, but it’s this unique aspect of their conception – a rare glimpse of a defiant artist continuing to create even without the adequate resources to do so – that place them in a class of their own within the world of cinema. And still, it’s not difficult to imagine Panahi would much rather be shooting the proper follow-up to 2006’s lauded Offside.

Closed Curtain is a delightfully complex filmic experiment, perhaps best understood as a companion piece to This Is Not a Film, but it’s also, crucially, a break from that non-film. In matters of form, Curtain abandons the video diary simplicity of its predecessor in favor of a narrative, until that too is wonderfully distorted in the film’s second half. And, though it continues in exploring the topic of Panahi’s ban and features the director himself as its primary subject, Curtain also distinctly represents a shift in tone and intent. If This Is Not a Film featured the director in limbo, Curtain deals primarily with the aftermath of his verdict. There’s no longer any question of Panahi’s undetermined fate, and thus his latest may stand as the true beginning of a new direction in his filmmaking; one influenced by its creator’s own experience. It should come as no surprise then that it’s also easily Panahi’s most personal film to date. There’s certainly an air of pervasive melancholy hanging over the film, but Panahi’s too clever and gracious a filmmaker to settle for a mere sympathetic portraiture of a tortured artist. It’s an intimate and self-reflective work to be sure, but it’s a challenging and engaging experience for its viewers as well.

The film opens in fictional territory as an unnamed screenwriter arrives at a beautiful beachside villa on the Caspian Sea with his canine companion in tow. Panahi dispenses with subtlety in the film’s opening static shot – the camera captures this arrival in wide shot from within the house behind a closed gate. It aptly picks up almost exactly where This Is Not a Film leaves off – Panahi behind the camera kept from the world outside, confined to his own home. There isn’t a single shot captured from outside the house in the entirety of the film. Of course, the secret production of the project necessitates this practical decision, but it also lends credence to the artistic asphyxiation Panahi suffers unable to shoot when and where he pleases.

Once inside, the writer (played by Panahi’s co-director Kambuzia Partovi) hurriedly pulls the curtains shut throughout the house, begins hanging his own darker drapes, and dims the lights. He hides from something, but Panahi doesn’t reveal from what. The writer goes about his own routine and sits down to write, but something always distracts him. In one instance, his dog named Boy switches on the television. Images of bloodied and executed dogs linger on the screen as voiceover narration relays some vague explanation as to why the animal is no longer welcome in this Islamic State. The writer quickly mutes the program and plucks the batteries from the remote to restore quiet. The brief sequence provides some context for this character’s need to flee and seek solitude, but one gets the sense Panahi has more on his mind than animal rights (not in any way, however, to diminish that important cause).

The pair’s hidden fortress is soon breached when the writer accidentally and only momentarily leaves the front door ajar when emptying Boy’s litter box. Turning around the man comes unexpectedly face to face with a worried-looking man and woman (Hadi Saeedi and Maryam Moqadam) standing inside the doorway. The three dispense with pleasantries and the intruders merely identify themselves as fugitives. And, just as quickly as they arrive, the man leaves, for reasons not entirely explained, charging the writer with keeping his sister safe and from trying to kill herself until he returns. The writer reluctantly agrees though he remains utterly suspicious of this mysterious newcomer as he tries to get back to writing. The two engage in some conversation, and though he does ask her a few questions regarding her identity and more than once begs her to leave, he seems less interested in why she’s there than we might be – another sign that Panahi has quite a bit more up his sleeve. When the young Melika disappears suddenly, Curtain throws off the façade of a straightforward narrative altogether.

She reappears not long after, but her reentry into the story marks a significant shift in both tone and narrative. As she determinedly tears down the curtains covering not only the villa’s enormous windows, but large-scale posters of Panahi’s previous works hanging from the wall too, Panahi himself casually walks into the frame. From here onward, it becomes clear that Curtain is really more about him and has been since the beginning. The writer and Melika retain their presence, but they become mere figments of Panahi’s imagination, projections from his psyche. The first portion of the film, then, plays out like some unfinished script with these two characters who take on another role once Panahi steps in front of the camera. The pair offers two distinct warring factions of the filmmaker’s thoughts as he grapples with the reality of a debilitating ban on his craft. The writer determines to keep writing even if forced to do so behind closed curtains. In contrast, Melika, described as “desperation itself,” may be best understood as Panahi’s documented depression and thoughts of suicide following his sentencing. Both seem to claim to represent a version of freedom – the writer continues to work, the woman sees death as the only viable way out of this artistic prison – but Panahi reveals the limits of their viewpoints: the writer’s circumstances inhibit his writing, the woman’s stance obviously offers no solution.

The remainder of the film follows Panahi and his interactions with his neighbors and house guests, and an unexpected visit from Melika’s sister – a clever adherence to the film’s original, fictional storyline. All the while, the writer and the woman wonder aloud what Panahi might do. The film’s structure could be described as somewhat surreal in its less penetrable back half – the filmmaker watches a video on his iPhone of Melika wading into the Caspian Sea and disappearing under the surface urging him to do the same, a brief shot of Panahi following her instructions plays in reverse, and Panahi and his film crew are seen shooting a scene from earlier in the film. No doubt these narrative detours richen the film, but they also don’t demand explanation or outright interpretation. What we see in Closed Curtain is what its creator feels. And, oftentimes emotions are better left not so easily spelled out.

To be sure, the film’s pervading sentiment is sorrow, but there’s also an inkling of hope. In the end, Panahi packs up his bags and prepares to leave – abandoning any thoughts of ending his life and refusing to compromise his art in isolation. As his neighbor leaves in one scene he intones, “There’s more to life than work.” The thought is well-intentioned but misplaced. Panahi’s reply – “Yes, but those things are foreign to me” – and departure from the beachfront villa suggest an artist refusing to give up. Is he willing to go beyond the threshold of the barred gates at his home in Tehran from This Is Not a Film and the curtains that concealed his work in this film? The final moments of Closed Curtain seem to answer yes. What that means for the future of Panahi’s work is unknown, but the fact that his next film has already been completed and made its festival debut gives us fans hope enough. We, along with his closest friends and family, pray that this oppression ends long before the twenty years are up, but if Closed Curtain is any indication of what he can accomplish in the meantime, the future of Panahi’s cinema is bright indeed.

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This Is Not a Film

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(Dir. Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Iran, 2011)

The Defiant One

For better or worse, This Is Not a Film has become defined by its unlikely release – smuggled out of Iran on a flash drive buried within a cake and delivered to that annual gathering of artistic elitism, the Cannes Film Festival. With a back-story that elaborate and sympathetic, it’s no surprise Jafar Panahi was in everyone’s thoughts and prayers at that year’s festival. And, for good reason: the presence of Panahi’s “film” and unmistakable absence of its creator appropriately highlighted the injustice that continues to affect filmmakers across Iran by censoring, banning, and even imprisoning artists for exercising their creative vision. Thus, This Is Not a Film feels like an important film, and it is. It also draws attention to a political struggle admittedly greater than itself. Therefore, it may prove easy to view it solely as an important statement, but that would be dismissively reductive. Even without the cake and the subsequent imprisonment of Panahi, This Is Not a Film remains a crucial and painfully relevant project based on its content alone.

Notably brief and brilliantly self-referential, Panahi’s non-film defies categorization and focuses on a day in the life of the filmmaker himself who tires of his surroundings living under house arrest. Prior to the events of the film, the Iranian government sentenced Panahi to at least six years in prison and a twenty-year ban on filmmaking. Having appealed the verdict, the director awaits the appellate courts’ final decision with the ban fully in effect. The first few still shots of This Is Not a Film establish this premise and feature Panahi eating breakfast, using the bathroom, and talking on the phone – the effects of this debilitating house arrest are already felt in the mundane tasks that occupy our subject’s time and the severe lack of varied camera angles (all intentional, of course).

After a discouraging conversation with his lawyer dashing any hopes of a revoked prison sentence, there is a noticeable change in Panahi. He begins to address the camera directly and confesses that most of what we have seen up until this point has been dishonest. He recalls a sequence in one of his earlier films The Mirror when the subject of that film breaks character and declares that she is finished with acting. The little girl defiantly removes her costume and storms out of the frame. Panahi admits to feeling this way: in desperate need of casting off the façade to create something of meaning again. To accomplish this, Panahi convinces his friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, a fellow Iranian filmmaker, to visit him in his personal prison and help him shoot a pseudo-film.

The film changes pace with another voice behind the camera. Panahi frequently addresses his friend Mirtahmasb who brings fresh camera work to the project. Forbidden from standing behind the camera himself, Panahi cleverly decides to direct a shelved film in front of the camera playing the parts of director and actor. A roll of tape builds a makeshift set on his large oriental rug, and an open-backed chair stands in for the frame of a window. He reads from his own screenplay and describes a scenario featuring a lonesome young woman trapped in her own room with nothing but a small window to gaze at the free world outside (the first hint that something deeper is going on here – the screenplay suspiciously resembles his current predicament). The director enacts the scene, and the result is quite impressive in what we as the audience are able to envision. It also gives us a rather inspiring glimpse into the creative thought processes of an artist as the preparation for staging a scene unfolds. The moment proves bittersweet: part way through his role-playing, he recognizes the absurdity and futility of his actions. “If we can tell a film, why make a film?” the dejected filmmaker bemoans. The emotion is real, and the assertion is troubling – a painter without an easel, a musician without an instrument, a filmmaker without a set.

Abandoning his makeshift set, Panahi moves on to other menial activities: feeding his daughter’s iguana (the director’s stand-in cell mate), fiddling with his iPhone on the balcony, flipping through channels on the TV. As night encroaches, Panahi and Mirtahmasb sit down across from each other at the kitchen table. Mirtahmasb’s camera continues to rest on his subject, but so as to return the favor Panahi begins filming his collaborator with his iPhone. The point of view switches to Panahi’s, and we see Mirtahmasb for the first time through a pixilated, digitalized screen. The shift is jolting but surprisingly apt. The frame bounces back and forth between the amateurish image capturing of a smart phone and the clearer picture of his DV camcorder until his friend decides to retire for the evening.

What follows is a startlingly unique sequence that provides for one of the most memorable filmic scenes of the year. Having walked Mirtahmasb to the door, Panahi bumps into a young man collecting trash for the apartment complex. The man becomes the director’s new subject who he follows into the elevator and interviews regarding his many side jobs to fund his art studies. Seemingly enamored by the possibility of a fresh face to shoot, the filmmaker rides with the man all the way to the ground floor. As the door swings open, and the overwhelming sound of fireworks and images of mysterious, bright flames burst into the frame, we are given an intoxicating, if brief, look at the outside world teeming with possibility for artistic expression. The trash collector wheels his large barrel toward the compound gate and warns Panahi of being caught with a camera.

Here This Is Not a Film ends as the noise of the bustling street and the screen fade to black. It’s an evocative final scene. Panahi stands on the brink of imprisonment and freedom. The streets of Tehran are at his fingertips, but the certainty of sealing his fate ultimately keeps him from crossing the fiery threshold. But, even if he remains trapped in this holding cell, he remembers his friend Mirtahmasb’s parting notion that evening to always keep the camera on. More than just an obligation to express his artistry, Panahi also acknowledges the necessity to expose and highlight the injustices bent on keeping him and others like him down. Daringly unique, effectively genre-less, and pertinent, This Is Not a Film stands as a welcome reminder of why we need film – maybe now more than ever.

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