Jafar Panahi made Taxi, his seventeenth film, in 2015, despite the fact that the director has been under a government-imposed 20-year ban from filmmaking for “spreading propaganda against the system.” Taxi won the Golden Bear in that year, the highest honor awarded at the Berlinale international film festival.
In 2010, when the ban on his career was first imposed, it seemed as though Panahi’s career might be at an end. In an open letter read aloud on his behalf at the Berlinale the following year, he addressed his fellow filmmakers: “They have deprived me of thinking and writing for twenty years, but they can not keep me from dreaming that in twenty years, inquisition and intimidation will be replaced by freedom and free thinking… I will look for the manifestation of my dreams in your films, hoping to find in them what I have been deprived of.” But in the years since, Panahi has made This is not a film (2011), Closed Curtain (2013), Taxi (2015), Three Faces (2018) and more.
This context moved me when I first saw Taxi, because there was no hint of bitterness in the narrative or on Panahi’s face. He does not fall into the trap of self-pity either, there is not even anger in the film. Panahi is the protagonist, posing as a taxi driver in Tehran, picking up different passengers who add their own story to the larger one. Some of them are funny, in the way life often is. Panahi’s choice of characters often references his earlier films like The White Balloon, Offside and Crimson Gold, among others. These interactions drive the narrative in a manner reminiscent of Panahi’s mentor, Abbas Kiarostami, in particular his film Ten. Technically, Panahi should not be out on the streets, due to his house arrest. But the camera, fixed on the dashboard, never leaves his car.
This film found me at a lost moment in my life. After a long week, I’d decided to go to the local art house cinema near the Scottish university town where I was living and working back then. There were hardly any people in the theatre, and I didn’t know that what I was about to watch would become a favourite. Or that one day, many years later, I would share this favourite with the bunch of students I’d be teaching back home in India; the film fit into the week I was teaching, but really that was just an excuse to share it with them. Again, I didn’t know any of that. I was a demotivated graduate student trying to put together a thesis, but as Taxi ended, I felt less alone. In the next few months, even when I did not remember plot details, I often went back to that feeling. It inspired me. This is what hope looked like. My own struggles with academic writing seemed small.
Another thing I did not know then (do we ever know anything?) was that I would find another resonance in Taxi. Yet another change in time and context would deepen its implications.
Panahi had made his film in a kind of government-imposed lockdown, and now my students and I were experiencing his film in an Introduction to Film Studies course. It was February 2021, and the pandemic was almost a year old. After months of callous, insensitive decisionmaking from the Indian government, including an unplanned lockdown, fatigue was beginning to set in. We were making do with what we had. The nightmare of the second wave that would engulf India in April and May was still months away.
Like many others who taught during the pandemic (and often in more difficult situations than mine), I was teaching online. I was teaching students I’d never met in person. I could never read body language, only guess it through silence, bored faces or engaged smiles. For many teachers, the pandemic required us to face a class of switched-off cameras and muted microphones. Many students were forced to deal with unstable internet connections. And all these difficulties for students came in the context of financial or emotional instability brought on by the pandemic. Many were forced to give up studying entirely; there were even reports of students dying by suicide because their parents could not afford a smartphone or an internet connection, further amplifying the inequalities of access of the Indian education system to a tragic, cruel degree.
Panahi’s act of picking up the camera and making something of whatever was in front of him now held a new resonance. We felt stuck. He was stuck, too. Perhaps some students saw their own desire for filmmaking mirrored in the film. He hadn’t stopped dreaming or making films. Someone said it was the best film they had seen in the course. I was the adult in this situation, but I was surprised by how personally I took this comment.
Sometimes curating a film course is a way of sharing what has meant something to you, in the hope that it can mean something—even if something different—to someone else. On the best days class discussions on a film can have a personal, sincere quality. I remember a time from my own student days when someone I had barely known for a month in a film appreciation course revealed something very personal after watching a film, and then never brought it up again. Saying things directly is not everyone’s strong suit.
One segment of Taxi that most students enjoyed involved Panahi’s young niece, Hana. Hana wants to make a film for a school project, but has to contend with a range of do’s and don’ts from her teacher. Her recounting of the rules that make a film “distributable” is not just Panahi’s comment on censorship, but also an acknowledgment of the creative, innovative ways in which generations of Iranian filmmakers have found a way around it. Taxi continues that legacy.
My favourite moment, though, is one towards the end, involving real-life activist and lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh. In the film, she is on her way to meet an innocent girl serving time in prison. At the same time, she is grappling with a possible ban on her law practice. As she leaves the car, she acknowledges the camera on the dashboard and leaves a red rose for “the people of cinema.” In a startling moment—she looks directly at the camera—she says, “because the people of cinema can be relied on.”
That gesture gave me goosebumps. She is addressing us, the audience. We have been made complicit; we are witness. The moment underlined that this was not just a fiction, that there was more at stake here for everyone involved, but it also reinforced why the film needed to be a fiction. That moment is even more chilling to contemplate now, because in 2019 Nasrin herself was sentenced to prison for 38 years (eventually reduced to 12 years), for “collusion against national security.”
Nasrin and Panahi needed the camera to be there; my students and I needed to watch the film. To understand what it means to continue to make something and put it out into the world knowing that the people who need it will get it, as we did. This was before Nasrin’s prison sentence, and before the word covid really meant anything, but the exchange personified hope and warmth to me when I first saw the film. Six years later, it still does.