Released in some regions as ‘Taxi‘, and winning the Golden Bear under that simple moniker at this year’s Berlin Internation Film Festival, Jafer Panahi’s smart and engaging film features the director himself placed behind the wheel, with a revolving dash-mounted camera capturing scenes inside and outside the car, as he drives around the Iranian capital giving a series of free rides to a diverse assortment of residents. It’s set up to look like a documentary, and in a certain sense it is one, though it seems as if some (all?) of the people who temporarily occupy the cab are actors, whether professional or non-professional. What’s even more unclear is whether the film is completely scripted or semi-improvised, while it’s also possible that one or two events that we see take place are actually real, ensuring that the usual lines separating documentary from fiction are cleverly blurred.
Panahi – an affable, regularly-amused presence here – has been arrested many times during his career because of the content of his films and the nature of his government, and was imprisoned in 2010 by the Iranian authorities before later being placed under house arrest. A 20-year filmmaking ban was imposed on the director, but his direct response came in the form of 2010’s This Is Not A Film, which was shot partly on an iPhone in Panahi’s house and was smuggled out of the country on a USB stick hidden inside a cake. Today he is free to travel around Iran but is not allowed to leave the country, and the filmmaking ban – defied once again with his latest piece – is still theoretically in place. It’s unsurprising, then, that many of the discussions that take place with passengers in Taxi Tehran revolve around freedom and the legal issues surrounding filmmaking, particularly with regard to censorship and distribution: one of the passengers rides around town delivering packages to people’s houses in the style of a drug dealer, except that he’s illegally pushing a mixture of arthouse flicks and the latest seasons of The Big Bang Theory or The Walking Dead to his customers, rather than actual narcotics; then there’s Panahi’s niece Hana, who is tasked with making a film by her teacher but is given all kinds of rules that will seem ridiculous to many non-Iranian viewers, all of which are imposed to ensure that her finished work paints the city and the country in a positive light; and then there’s the woman who enters the cab with her bloody, dying husband, who then desperately tries to record his last will and testament on a smartphone so that his wife will inherit his estate, rather than his brothers, who would ordinarily benefit under sharia law. The strict way that the law is applied in Iran is also a subject discussed in an argument involving a teacher and a freelancer (who remains mischievously tight-lipped about his profession), as well as an extremely positive human rights lawyer.
There’s an odd mix of humour and paranoia throughout. It’s hard not to laugh at the two old dears taking a couple of goldfish to a local shrine, for example, and the extended chat between Panahi and his niece is often amusing, but there’s also this sinister sense of surveillance looming large, a recurring theme of being unable to rely on others (even friends and family), and of people being very careful when choosing their words (or choosing what to do with incriminating video footage they own, as in one case). There’s a dark, threatening ending to the film, too, but very quickly you realise it’s merely a construct to enable Panahi to get his latest film out of the country. You’re left with nothing but admiration for the man, who continues to prodcue interesting, illuminating and subversive work while remaining in limbo, and the bravery of Panahi and everyone else involved here should be applauded.
Directed by: Jafar Panahi.
Written by: Jafar Panahi.
Starring: Jafar Panahi.
A note on the cast and crew: Due to political reasons Panahi’s film does not contain end credits, though he does thank the cast and crew. As per his example I’ve decided not to list anyone else involved with the making of Taxi Tehran here.
Running Time: 81 minutes.