Director: Jafar Panahi.
Starring: Jafar Panahi. Iran 2015. 82 mins. Persian with English subtitles.
After making several realist dramas about the challenges of everyday life in his native country, Jafar Panahi fell foul of the Iranian government. They threatened him with imprisonment, prevented him from travelling and banned him from making films for 20 years. Since then, he has covertly made three extraordinary works of art. Filmmakers are often described as ‘brave’, but there is perhaps no director working today that the term applies to more.
His 2011 feature This Is Not A Film was famously smuggled from Iran to Cannes on a USB stick hidden inside a cake, and with Taxi Tehran – which won the Golden Bear at Berlin in 2015 – Panahi again demonstrates creativity and wit in the face of adversity.
Shot, as the name suggests, on the vibrant streets of Tehran and almost entirely within a taxi, the film adopts a laid-back approach, and is perhaps Panahi’s most accessible. Panahi, playing a loosely fictionalised version of himself, is in the driver’s seat, picking up a diverse group of passengers. Each one candidly expresses their own views on life, the universe and everything.
The action is viewed largely from the perspective of a dashboard-mounted camera looking in, rather than out, discreetly capturing the ebb and flow of a cabbie’s typical day. This allows Panahi to present a well-rounded perspective on Iranian society and the absurd censorship rules imposed on artistic freedom in Iran.
Despite staying within the confines of the taxi, the film remains visually engaging throughout. As passengers come and go, perhaps the most remarkable is Panahi’s niece Hana, an aspiring filmmaker in her own right. She begins to film, explaining that she’s collecting footage for a class assignment. Her teacher has asked her to shoot something ‘distributable’. But of course, in Iran, that involves jumping through certain hoops, one of these being the avoidance of ‘sordid realism’. This isn’t always easy, as Hana discovers when she inadvertently films a street boy as he pockets some money accidentally dropped by a distracted bridegroom.
There are frequent convenient episodes like this and we can assume that everything is staged, but such is the air of spontaneity that it’s hard to tell; Panahi is no stranger to blurring the boundaries of reality and fiction.
Taxi Tehran is Panahi’s third film made under semi-clandestine conditions, and is another daring act of dissent from a vital filmmaker. It is a hesitantly optimistic exploration into life lived under a constant veil of political and religious oppression.
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