By the very nature of its existence, Jafar Panahi’s latest film Taxi Tehran (2015) is a bold act of defiance. It’s his third such exploit since he was convicted by the Iranian government five years ago and banned from filmmaking, but is a far less wilfully serious affair than either 2011’s This Is Not a Film or the more recent Closed Curtain. Where the latter began to buckle beneath the collected weight of its expected, necessary, indictment of the state, this is a more light-hearted, but still deeply humane cab-ride through modern Iran.
The set-up is infused with a whimsical and winking air – Panahi himself, chuckling away in a sort of front-seat-selfie – has taken to the streets of Tehran, ‘disguised’ behind the wheel of a taxi. The camera mounted on his dashboard makes this his own spin on Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten (2002), where the aim is equally to scan the complex horizon of Iranian society, but where he himself takes the place of Mania Akbari. Indeed, the cap that he wears, does little to conceal his identity but while he may hog the frame, he mostly grins with delight and takes a marked backseat to the provocative discussions that occur in his four-wheeled travelling soap box.
“You’ll be accused of sordid realism,” one friend and passenger warns him, but in ostensibly retaining ambiguity as to the nature of events – documentary? fiction? both? – he raises a middle finger to that particular government restriction. There’s a purposefully hapless quality to his constructed narrative – for that is what it is. He’s adopted the character of a taxi driver with no idea of his way around the city, but this is a neat ploy to allow his passengers to offer direction, and thus for his characters to take control. Panahi may not be obviously at the front of the pit conducting the orchestra, but their playing to his meticulous score. The exchanges often adopt a comic tone – from a fan recognising him (“Mr. Panahi!”) to a woman balancing a goldfish bowl on her lap – but through them is a freewheeling tour of contemporary Iranian society and the opinions on it, with recurring emphasis on debates surrounding crime and punishment.
It all comes to a head when his niece is filming from the car for a school project and captures footage of a boy stealing. There are implications not just for the morality of the populace, but also for the position of filmmakers in society, and the potential benefits of the aforementioned “sordid realism”. At one point his niece cries “un-distributable” in a knowing comment on this film as a whole, and Panahi’s own brand of cinema. That’s in Iran, of course. Fortunately for the rest of the world, Taxi Tehran is available to see and it offers another crowd-pleasing rebuke to his cinematic exile; Panahi doesn’t need permission to make intelligent, thought-provoking and enormously entertaining new works – in between fares, of course.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson