There’s a scene in Panahi’s 2015 Golden Bear winner Taxi when the director meets a young fan looking for stories to film. The youngster asks Panahi which movies he should watch and which books he should read, and Panahi replies that no books that have already been written or movies already directed could ever provide the inspiration the boy is after. “One should look elsewhere”.
And elsewhere, or to be more precise, inside a taxi, is where Panahi stages his latest work. Officially banned by his country’s regime from making films and traveling for at least the next decade after being convicted on propaganda charges in 2010, Panahi must yet again resort to unconventional techniques to direct his thirteenth film. After This is Not a Movie, shot entirely with a home video camera and an iPhone, Panahi acts as a taxi driver and fills his cab with cameras to record his conversations with Tehran’s inhabitants who jump in and out of the car after sharing their thoughts on the country’s state, cinema and life itself.
We do not know whether the passengers are professional actors or whether all scenes are entirely improvised (though the latter is hardly the case). Early in the film a movie-smuggler (arguably one of Taxi’s most interesting characters) asks whether everyone else is just an actor, and reproaches Panahi for not warning him it was all fiction. Panahi, however, says nothing.
This unresolved question and constant jumping in between fiction and reality is, however, a hit-and-miss. There are moments in which it is hard not to see Taxi as a self-referential, self-aggrandizing effort: Panahi magnanimously rejects the money he is offered by his passengers and smiles happily when some of them recognise his face as that of the great movie director.
Where the dynamic does work is when Taxi gives in to his profound cinefile essence and turns into a means to deconstruct Iran’s present. At some fundamental level, Taxi is a love declaration to cinema itself. It is hard for a cinefile not to smile when the movie-smuggler invites a client inside Panahi’s cab and deals with art-house cinema as if it were class A drugs, with Pahani nodding at the names of Kurosawa, Kim Ki-duk and Woody Allen. But there are moments when cinema turns into an explicitly political instrument and the smile turns into a much more chilling sensation, as when Panahi and his passengers clash against the regime’s oppression and its coercive apparatus.
Are these moments improvised too? Panahi does not say, but the doubt here is probably even more powerful than a clear-cut answer. By the end, as the real seemingly merges with fiction and the drama reaches its climax, Taxi turns into a vehement, albeit somehow self-congratulatory, cry against a regime’s totalitarianism.