DIR/WRI/PRO/DOP/ED: Jafar Panahi
One of the most evocative features of Jafar Panahi’s Taxi Tehran is the director’s unruffled smile, which rarely falters as he drives (badly) around the streets of Tehran in a taxi. As a filmmaker, who is banned from making films or travelling outside his native country for making anti-government propaganda, Panahi’s smile evaluates the irony of his demoted employment to freely meander through the streets of Tehran and the confinement of his profession, where surreptitious cameras on a dashboard, in defiance of his sentence, symbolically capture the absurdity and reality of his situation. Following on from This Is not a Film and Closed Curtain, which were both shot in the relative safety of interior houses, Taxi Tehran, an eighty-odd minute, documentary-like style film, becomes more than another flagrant touting of the ban, it is representative of a wider confinement engulfing Iranian culture through its potent cultural and political restrictions, where each act of defiance, could signify the very last act of defiance.
As a former assistant to Kiarostami, a specialist of the chattering-and-driving trope, Taxi Tehran draws comparisons with his mentor’s Ten, also composed of a series of elliptical vignettes, in which a succession of conversations with the driver, express religious and political views, condensed into an intoxicating portrait of contemporary Iranian culture. Touching on wide variety of themes from a humanist perspective, old meets new and traditionalism meets modernity to illustrate the complexities and contradictions engulfing Iranian life. Panahi’s nuanced portrait rouses an eclectic mix of characters who penetrate the taxi’s interior with their chaotic urban bustle, ranging from the entertaining to the mundane, who either animate or puncture the driver’s mood through their philosophical discourses, creating an antagonism between the love and revolt for a culture that both suffocates and inspires through its contradictory repressive regime.
Restricted on the outside, the interior of a taxi now becomes the vehicle whereby passengers can exchange impassioned views on contentious topics, to which many citizens have become desensitized. Assuming the role of confidante, councellor and advisor, Panahi listens to discussions within the confinement of a taxi, inviting an ironic sense of surveillance and voyeurism both as passengers and as a filmmaker. Overhearing impassioned conversations on execution and human rights, meeting a black market DVD seller who recognizes Panahi, two superstitious elderly women who must take their goldfish to a spring by noon or they will die and a dying husband who insists Panahi films his final testament so his wife will inherit his money, evoke both a circumspective and openness to a culture that serves as a commentary on the similarities within the human condition and the continuation cultural oppression within Iran itself.
But as is common in Iranian cinema, it is through the eyes and mind of children that the most thought-provoking content about contemporary culture emerges. Panahi’s final passenger, his niece, lectures him on the tenants of Iranian filmmaking and the avoidance of ‘sordid realism’, as dictated by the autocratic regime, inviting reflection upon the relationship between cinema and culture, the director and the censorial theists of the Islamic republic and female oppression, the liberation the filmmaker’s niece now experiences to be cut short as she matures, a notion that sees Panahi’s smile fade.
Renowned Iranian cinema scholar Hamid Dabashi has been critical of Panahi’s three covert films, claiming that his flagrant defiance of the filmmaking ban has seen the director lose some of the sharp, social impact that informed his earlier films. While there is a sense that, as with Makmahlbaf and Kiarostami’s ‘Westernisation’ of their later work, the same political and cultural agenda that motivated an alternative type of freedom or oppression can create complacency in its social impact. While Panahi’s film is littered with recurring themes and style synonymous with Iranian cinema and does not approach his third circumspect film with any novel agenda, it is the narrative of continuation that becomes the its most potent message and arguably the most engaging of his three post-sentence films. He may have moved outside to the relative the freedom of the streets, however the continuation of the same oppressive narrative persists and he is going to still defy it.
Taxi Tehran is released 30th October 2015