Jafar Panahi’s latest offering is a playful journey through the capital of Iran and Iranian cinema itself
Jafar Panahi, Iran’s most newsworthy filmmaker, won the Golden Bear in Berlin this year for Taxi Tehran. He has premiered all of his films there since the girl-power football fable Offside in 2006 – even the ones, like this latest, which he’s succeeded in making despite being under government-mandated house arrest. His preceding two pictures, This is Not a Film and Closed Curtain, were made in secret in Panahi’s own home, contravening the six-year ban the Iranian state placed on his filmmaking in 2010.
It’s clear from Taxi Tehran that restrictions on his activities have loosened up a little. Shot from a dashboard-mounted camera, the film consists wholly of Panahi driving around the Iranian capital in a cab, picking up an assortment of friends and strangers in an open-ended 80-minute journey. He may technically have produced this film illegally, but some sort of accommodation has clearly been reached, or it would have been very easy for the authorities to stop him shooting.
In any case, it’s one of his looser, more playful pieces of work – not an example of firebrand activism he’s taking to the streets, but a self-reflexive jeu d’esprit in which his smiling face anchors the tone. He’s a terrible cabbie – frequently sidetracked by odd jobs, ejecting passengers before they’ve reached their destination, often going completely the wrong way.
The equation he’s making is between the skills required of a driver-for-hire and that of a director keeping his film on course. As in the last two projects, this throws up wider questions about what cinema even is, who it’s for, and how the conditions in which it’s made and distributed inevitably affect how it’s received.
One of Panahi’s first passengers is Omid, an old acquaintance who used to flog him pirated DVDs – not just commercial titles such as Season 5 of The Walking Dead, but arthouse ones, like Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s much-celebrated Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.
The Omids of this world may be a bane to the Hollywood studios, but they’re a boon to Panahi and other Iranian film buffs, who would often have no other way to obtain and watch foreign films. The irony, of course, is that Panahi’s own films aren’t allowed to be shown in Iran – he’s producing work purely for export these days, and having to run his business in similar cloak-and-dagger fashion.
The ethical questions surrounding crime and how to address it – tackled in earlier films such as Panahi’s powerfully tragic heist drama Crimson Gold (2003) – are much on his mind throughout this. There’s a debate between one passenger who believes that petty thieves should face public execution, and another who argues that desperate circumstances could turn anyone – even this film’s director, of course – into a law-breaker.
Later, Panahi’s 10-year-old niece Hana – who is making her own student film – hops in and catches a boy on the streets in the act of pocketing someone else’s cash. Because her teacher has instructed the class to avoid “sordid realism” in their films, Hana tries to get this money returned to its rightful owner on camera.
Wittily, Panahi’s guerrilla exercise teases out the social value film can have while studding itself with in-jokes about the gentler forms of realism that export more easily and keep his global audience happy. Two ladies on a mission with a bowl of goldfish hail him down, and an allusion is clearly intended to the struggles of seven-year-old Razieh to buy a fish in Panahi’s bewitching 1995 debut, The White Balloon.
For the casual arthouse viewer, Taxi Tehran has a bit of a paradox to contend with: one one level it feels like a joshing and accessible entry-point into Panahi’s work, but it also depends for so much of its effect on these sly nods and homages. A working overview of Iranian film is needed to get the most out of it. Even the act of confining the whole film inside a car makes it a cinematic conversation that Panahi is having with his contemporary Abbas Kiarostami, who did the same thing in his films 10 (2002) and Taste of Cherry (1997).
It works best as a reminder of everything Panahi wants to say as his curfew nears its close – the services, like the proprietor of a lit cab in the city centre, he’s still restlessly eager to give us.