Is there any place in the world where Americans, right and left, can come together about Iran? How about the backseat of Jafar Panahi's taxi cab?
In "Taxi," his third feature since being officially banned from filmmaking for 20 years by Iran's government in 2010, Iranian film director Jafar Panahi gets behind the wheel of a cab in Tehran, turns off the meter, lets the dashboard camera record all that transpires during a tour of his country's largest city and leaves his viewer both insecure and inspired -- insecure about his driving skills, but elevated over the state of tenacious creativity and artistic truth.
Without giving away too much, there is a sequence in the film during which passengers get in, tell their stories and move on, that features the director's niece, Hana, an acerbic youth and budding filmmaker herself. It is among the more powerful moments Panahi has ever captured about the power of the camera as a moral witness, and its ability to change reality as you watch it -- in this case for the better. It's the very dramatic culmination of a film that otherwise cruises picaresquely through the streets of Tehran, its various characters -- including rather cranky ladies with a goldfish in a bowl -- getting in and out of Panahi's cab, sometimes recognizing him, sometimes not.
It becomes apparent pretty early on that this is not a documentary -- at least a couple of the people are plants, although the two ladies might still be in the dark about the crazy cabdriver who dropped them off because he couldn't find where they wanted to go.
Panahi makes sly references throughout "Taxi" -- which won the top prize at the Berlin Film festival this year -- to his earlier work, a body of film that has kept him in constant conflict with the Iranian authorities because of its critical content, and led to the order forbidding him to make films. (Since then he has made "This Is Not a Film" and "Closed Curtain," both of which, like "Taxi" skirt the law). Panahi also defied officials at JFK back in 2001 when he refused to be fingerprinted and photographed because, as he said, he was not a criminal. One supposes he could be considered one now, but as "Taxi" points out more than once, truth is a matter of perspective.