Film of the week: Taxi Tehran

Fugitive from censorship Jafar Panahi takes to the road – and finds the modern world joining him in his panoptic mobile movie booth.

One of Sight & Sound’s best films of 2015.

Trevor Johnston
Updated:

You could almost construct a mini-history of recent Iranian cinema from people in their cars. Those battered saloons criss-crossing landscapes ravaged and majestic to dreamlike effect in Abbas Kiarostami’s Life, and Nothing More… (1992) and The Wind Will Carry Us (1999). The same filmmaker turning four wheels into a space for private revelation and narrative experiment while Mania Akbari negotiates the traffic-choked capital in 10 (2002). The green sports car on the run from the authorities as Rafi Pitts conjures up rare images of social friction in The Hunter (2010).

Now writer-director Jafar Panahi himself takes to the driver’s seat in Taxi Tehran, the third feature he’s made under semi-clandestine conditions in defiance of the court order banning him from filmmaking for 20 years. As with its evident model 10, the action here is largely viewed from the perspective of a dash-mounted camera looking in rather than out, discreetly registering the ebb and flow of a cabbie’s typical day and allowing Panahi to present an apparent slice of life that becomes a personal rumination on the status of the moving image within the challenging context of Iranian state control.

Broadly, that simultaneity of public and private realms, being out and about in the city (or country) yet still sheltered enough to be able to speak your mind, is what the setting of the car has afforded all these filmmakers, bringing with it the implication that once you step outside the vehicle you’re in an environment where words and behaviour must be kept within strictly defined and policed parameters.

For Panahi in person, of course, that distinction is even sharper, since the creator of a series of astringent celluloid portraits of lives running against the grain – women falling foul of the legal system in The Circle (2000), a pizza-delivery man taking to robbery in Crimson Gold (2003), a female football fan’s attempt to get into a big game in Offside (2006) – has been living in the shadow of his 2010 conviction (since upheld by the appeal court) for “colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic”.

Taxi Tehran (2015)

His six-year prison sentence could, in theory, come into effect at any moment, yet in practice it’s obvious that restrictions on his movements have been relaxed, even if foreign travel remains out of the question. So where Panahi’s previous post-conviction titles This Is Not a Film (2011) and Closed Curtain (2013) dealt with the very particular conundrum of how he could possibly continue to make films while under a filmmaking ban, the focus in Taxi Tehran widens considerably as he and his camera make it out of his front door and on to the streets.

Of course, it’s a kind of gag – internationally lauded filmmaker reduced to driving a cab – but one intended to draw attention to Panahi’s legal plight. Not that everyone recognises him. The first couple of passengers, self-confessed mugger and female teacher, are too busy arguing with each other over the whys and wherefores of hanging under sharia law to pay Panahi much attention. All this unfolds in a lengthy take that has us wondering whether we’re seeing documentary observation or the work of adeptly scripted non-professionals.

Next up is a vendor of bootleg DVDs, who laughs when he spots the director behind the wheel. As their exchange plays out, the film’s position somewhere between fake documentary and canny construct becomes rather more apparent, underlined by seamless cutting between different angles from the dash-cam to follow the conversation and replicate Kiarostami’s formal methods in 10. It’s a marvellously deft way of introducing the film’s key thematic concern: who sets the boundaries on what we can and can’t watch. The vendor declares he’s providing a cultural service, yet he’s primarily in business because state censorship makes much of his merchandise undistributable through regular channels. Rifling through a deck of knock-off discs is clearly a bittersweet experience for Panahi, since such underground channels put material in circulation even as they deny the artists any financial payback.

Taxi Tehran (2015)

Still, in Tehran as in any other modern global city, the facility for individuals to make, consume and exchange their own moving images is a part of everyday life now. As Panahi drives, we encounter a former neighbour keen to show him footage of a burglary-in-progress he’s filmed and stored on a tablet; the DVD seller’s smartphone comes in useful when they pick up a man badly injured in a bike accident and the latter’s wife insists on grabbing his last will and testament on video (primarily because, in opposition to regular Islamic practice, he wants his wife rather than his brothers to inherit). For the distraught woman who subsequently pesters Panahi in desperation to get hold of the footage, such digital images evidently possess legal validity, possibly even leverage against Islamic traditions and the courts. It’s another subtle reminder that technology has created a new battleground within Iranian society – particularly pertinent to Panahi’s own plight – where the ability to record real-life images is one thing, but the value of those images is defined by who has ownership of them and what use the owner can make of them.

Without ever seeming like he’s ticking off a series of boxes, Panahi keeps chipping away at these issues when he picks up his niece from school; she starts shooting him on her digital camera, explaining that she’s collecting footage for a class assignment – though she is under strict instructions from her teacher to avoid “sordid reality” and keep the mood positively on-message, steering clear of anything “undistributable”. Panahi himself knows all about that word, since much of his filmography has been officially suppressed from domestic release. Nevertheless, his film has lessons for the girl, showing her that the world won’t necessarily play ball with her teacher’s controlling agenda – as we see when a street-kid picks up some cash dropped by a distracted groom during his wedding video and then refuses to give the money back, undistributable be damned.

In the midst of a bustling narrative, though, it’s the quietest interlude that proves the most powerful. As his niece calmly watches the world pass by through the passenger window, Panahi lingers on the shot long enough for us to take the point that this curious, intelligent little girl holds her nation’s future in her grasp, if only she can learn to think for herself. Moreover, the film’s subsequent interjection from a female lawyer ferociously critical of the regime’s insidious tactics for breaking its opponents certainly gives her much to ponder.

Taxi Tehran (2015)

A film that is very much about the specifics of Panahi’s restricted present also harks back to the remit of the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults, the educational organisation that decades ago did so much to foster the burgeoning cinematic creativity of Panahi and Kiarostami. In encompassing such direct criticism of the state security apparatus, this is a courageously forthright offering from a filmmaker already facing the possibility of jail, yet ultimately it’s aimed at a younger generation of Iranians. Panahi is addressing those coming of age at a time when ease of access to digital image technology makes it doubly important for them to look beyond the ideological parameters being set out before them, and to grasp the notion that freedom of conscience and freedom of distribution are inextricably linked.

As unassuming as it is inspirational, the film is, however, far from naive about prospects for change. A chastening last-minute reversal indicates that Panahi may be defiant but he’s far from complacent. It’s the last but by no means the only ‘sordid realism’ on view in these frames, so best not to expect Taxi Tehran in Iranian cinemas any time soon. ‘Undistributable’ and proud.

More from this issue

Access the digital edition

Back to the top