There is a moment in “Taxi,” Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s Golden Bear winner and his third film since being banned from filmmaking (a punishment given for allegedly spreading anti-Iranian propaganda), in which the director’s niece, Hana, films a boy picking up fifty tomans that fell out of a man’s pocket. She calls to him, gets him to admit to his crime and pleads with him to return the money so her film won’t be “undistributable.” If the money is not returned, she explains, her movie will fall victim to a clause banning “sordid realism.” The boy walks back to the man and, for a brief moment, considers returning the money, placing it back on the ground where he found it. Ultimately, however, he picks up the money again and declines to draw the man’s attention.
Panahi has repeatedly demonstrated his belief that all films must be marked not by verisimilitude – conventions that stand in for the “real” – but by reality itself. “Closed Curtain” is defined by the entrance of Panahi himself into the film at the halfway point, causing it to morph from a thriller into a Surrealist psychodrama. The tactic recalls a memorable moment in a more acclaimed film Panahi made before his legal troubles, “The Mirror,” in which a child actress suddenly refuses to continue playing her part.
In both films, reality intrudes into filmmaking, first in the manner of a performer refusing to play a fiction, and more radically in “Closed Curtain,” when the reality of imprisonment and creative restriction invades Panahi’s mind, preventing him from focusing on or being logistically capable of making the movie he wanted to make. That belief holds true in “Taxi,” but this time Panahi attacks the government more directly, using its ideology against it.
“Taxi” is obviously not the first film made in an authoritarian country that highlights the injustices of government, or even to do it in this manner. Cristian Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days,” one of the Romanian New Wave’s defining films, follows its characters unflinchingly without even providing a humanizing close-up. It begins with a nearly empty fish bowl, a visual metaphor for the entrapment of its characters. Through all the ordeals they endure, the camera stays detached but observant, a replication of the heavy surveillance that characterized Nicolae Ceaușescu regime. By repurposing the aesthetics of Romania’s reality to lay bare class tensions and the horrors wrought by Ceaușescu, Mungiu created a powerful and deeply critical film.
From Russia, “Leviathan” and “The Fool” achieve a similar effect, by using Russia’s image of itself against it. Both films are about a lone righteous man in Russia who is punished for his goodness by both family and government. Given Russia’s Christian leanings and authoritarian government, the films become twisted takes on the story of Job — “Leviathan” even invokes it directly – with Russia playing a malevolent God determined to pounce on the righteous. Nevertheless, Panahi’s film stands out because it demonstrates precisely how corrupt governments come to fall prey to their own aesthetics and beliefs in many of the films that have helped defined national cinemas of the past decade.
What Hana learns when the boy refuses to give back the money is that reality itself does not conform to the state-mandated rules of filmmaking and, moreover, that, the mere act of making a film cannot change reality. In the scene prior, she and Panahi meet with an old neighbor, who shows a recording of his own robbing to Panahi, saying he recognized his attackers but will not turn them in; they needed the money, he claims, and the entire city is still talking nervously about two men that were recently hanged for minor crimes.
Afterward, Hana reads off other rules of filmmaking, including that “good guys” cannot wear ties and must have the names of Islamic saints. “How would we manage with the old neighbor you just met?” Panahi asks his niece, “He has an Iranian name and a tie.”
“That was real life!” she exclaims. “For a movie we would change him.” Panahi replies, “You mean make a new person from scratch?” He’s obviously perturbed by the suggestion that a film should hold no resemblance to reality. Indeed, “Taxi” skirts the line between documentary and fiction, planned and maybe even scripted, yet with people playing themselves, muddling the line where one ends and the other begins.
The resulting message is clear. A film must be based in reality to convince, and reality, like “Taxi,” is sordid. Throughout the film, characters rely on video recordings to ascertain truth: A man who has been hit by a car can leave everything to his wife in spite of legal prohibitions by testifying his will on a cell phone camera; Panahi’s neighbor has his attack caught by surveillance footage; two men were hanged on television in an attempt to prevent future crimes. Reality is a powerful tool.
“Taxi” is instructive not merely because it outlines this point but because it proves it in its own production and distribution. Iran bans the making of films that could generate negative impressions of the country or that contain “sordid realism,” yet it televises — records and distributes — a hanging to “make a statement,” as Panahi says, thereby defying the same regulations it imposes.
The actions of the government betray its belief that filmed reality can affect change, so Panahi does as they do, not as they say, appropriating his country’s ideology in order to criticize it, just like recent directors from Romania and Russia. His own “undistributable,” sordidly realist film will be seen — an extended sequence with a DVD pirate leaves no doubt about that — and it will teach a great deal about films of a similar kind and the governments they criticize in the process.