I want to be a writer, but I can never think of an engaging subject. For example, I’m sitting here pondering how to write about Jafar Panahi’s movie, Taxi, in a compelling way. It’s always a problem with these genre bending movies. Is it a documentary? Is it a scripted film? I’ve already thought myself into knots thinking about Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up. Now I’m thinking about Taxi? Why do I even care what genre these movies are in? What if I fuse a personal narrative and the exploration of the universal themes in the movie? I can’t figure it out. Maybe I don’t find myself interesting enough for this project. Here’s what I’ve got so far:
Cities are stories, both real and imagined. Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi in ‘Taxi’ invites us to wander Tehran with him, exploring the way that the circumstances, desires, and imaginations of those surrounding him stitch a portrait of modern Iran. In the film, Panahi drives a taxi, filming himself and his series of passengers largely through dashboard mounted cameras. Much like Abbas Kiarostami, for whom he worked for many years as an assistant director, Panahi fluidly fuses reality and fiction to create a film that’s difficult to categorize. The film, for example, has some people playing themselves engaging in scripted dialog about real events in their own lives. Considering the circumstances, it’s a remarkable feat. Panahi has been banned from film-making in his home country since 2010. This is his third feature since the ban.
It’s a solid paragraph, but is it engaging? Does it say anything that hasn’t been expressed in the exact way by other reviewers? How does Panahi come up with engaging subject matter? He’s lived under house arrest in a repressive country for years. He employs smugglers to get movies that haven’t been edited for content. Despite the restrictions, he’s able to pump out wildly creative and relevant content. It must have to do with his openness towards the world. Midway through Taxi, a film student tells Panahi that he’s well versed in cinema and literature but can’t come up with a subject for a film. Panahi responds:
“Listen, those films are already made, those books already written. You have to look elsewhere. It won’t come just by itself.”
Maybe I need to spend less time with my nose buried in books. Maybe I need to watch fewer movies. Maybe I need to be more mindful of my surroundings.
I’m sitting in a coffee shop on a Tuesday afternoon. Journey plays on the speakers. A woman in a red wool coat strolls by the window rummaging through her leather bag. Did she lose her wallet? I’m here writing this essay. Is anyone wondering what I’m doing? I feel a bit like Panahi’s niece in the film who’s constantly filming in the hopes of capturing an interesting subject. Everyone’s always writing about this film’s critique of Iran’s authoritarian government, but I want to look at it from a different angle. I tried writing from the typical anti-authoritarian standpoint, but it felt stale.
In the film, Panahi gently references the state of censorship and authoritarianism in Iran. There’s the human rights lawyer who’s been disbarred for standing up for the rights of her clients. There’s the stumpy underground video rental guy who carries an assortment of uncensored world cinema to his clients. Perhaps most amusingly, there’s Panahi’s camera wielding niece who has an extended conversation with Panahi about making a ‘distributable’ film for her grade school film project. At one point, she parrots her teacher’s explanation of the ‘sordid realism’ she’s supposed to avoid:
“…show what’s real, but not real real. Then [the teacher] said if reality is dark and unpleasant, not to show it. Personally, I don’t get the difference.”
There’s a woman sitting at the counter talking to a man named Steve on the phone about a government conspiracy to test exotic weapons technology on her in her sleep. She wears sunglasses indoors. She says that in the 1980s, the government put a chip into her when doctors operated on her colon. She says that they’re pumping her full of radiation, and it feels like pop rocks. She loses her connection and slams down the phone, convinced that the government is cutting off her call. Maybe this is the sordid realism that I should avoid. I know, I’m not in Iran, but describing it feels transgressive.
But if I can’t write about this schizophrenic lady in the coffee shop, what can I write about? How can I be creative while mulling over the decency of my work? I’ll gradually go blind to the great tapestry of subjects surrounding me. I’ll dive back into my books and movies. I’ll still be complaining about my lack of inspiration when I’m sixty. I’ll keep the paragraph.
How must Panahi feel when he’s constantly required by law to worry about upholding the moral strictures of Islam and the image of the Iranian state. Maybe he’s freer now in his filmmaking precisely because he smuggles his films out of the country in USB drives hidden in cakes instead of passing them through state censors. I think that angle might be unique. Something like this:
Panahi never forgets that the world is inspiration. All he needs to create a movie is the stories of the bustling city and the ubiquitous camera equipped gadgets surrounding him. Even as the state tries to crush him, he never forgets to be receptive to the events in the world around him whether they’re funny or infuriation or sordid or wholesome. As long as he has inspiration, he can make great art using the most rudimentary technologies of his trade.
If I were to meet Jafar Penahi right now, I bet I would ask him the same question as the film student. I’d ask him about his sources of inspiration, and he’d tell me that I need to look to the world. He’d say it to me with the same mirthful smile that he holds throughout Taxi. How does he remain cheerful when so much has been taken from him? How does he look so kind when his fellow man has attacked his livelihood? Maybe that’s the key to his inspiration. He remains open to the world while maintaining a kind-hearted sense of humor about it all. How do I do that? Maybe I should stop being so hard on myself. Maybe I should imagine that Jafar Panahi is always smiling at me and gently reminding me to look up from my computer screen.