In 2010 he was arrested and convicted for "colluding in gathering and making propaganda against the regime”—part of a wider crackdown by Iranian authorities on political opposition.
Around the same time, two major political parties were suspended, reformist newspapers were shut down, and the “House of Cinema,” Iran's largest professional guild for filmmakers, was declared illegal.
The film consists of a series of loose vignettes as Panahi drives around Tehran posing as a cab driver and picking up various fares.
Some of the passengers appear to be total strangers, mildly bemused by the camera on the dashboard and their driver's obvious inexperience; others are familiar with Panahi and seem quite aware of what the filmmaker is up to.
The action remains almost entirely in the conversations Panahi strikes up in these encounters, and his passengers are a consistently engaging, philosophical bunch.
A schoolteacher and a mugger grapple with the ethics of petty crime, while Panahi's lawyer describes the dispiriting case of several young women who are jailed for attempting to watch a men's volleyball game.
Panahi's work reasserts the radical essence of creative expression in all its forms, from the slickest Hollywood production to the lowliest cell phone recording.
His debut feature, , won a top prize at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, and all of his films since have been festival-circuit hits.
But the director's loose, humanist approach and concern with social injustice—women's rights in particular—frequently led him afoul of the Iranian government: (2006) were all banned from exhibition within Iran.
And yet here he is, with another movie, a work of political art that asserts that the very act of recording, of turning on a camera, is an act of subversion.
Panahi has been a prominent figure in Iranian cinema for decades.