I only recently saw Taxi Tehran and it was quite the experience. Jafar Panahi’s new film doesn’t feel like a film. It’s an outright statement of his undying love for his craft. Panahi’s new film is a social exposé through the prespective of the middle-class Iranian. Indeed, when you limit one’s freedom of expression, it only paves the way for more ingenious ways around it. Jafar Panahi has been banned from film-making for a while now. But that didn’t stop his from releasing his previous film “This is not a film” in a USB cable hidden in a cake to the Cannes film festival. Once again, it hasn’t stopped him from making Taxi Tehran.
The first ten to twenty minutes gave us a snapshot of life in Iran through Panahi’s looking glass. It’s documentary style is unmistakable. But then you realize that it isn’t a docu. It’s fictional. And yet, something so corporeal seeps into the life in motion and you start to feel a little overwhelmed. Panahi’s camera captures everything, himself included. It’s as if the process of making a film, the actual film itself and the reality found in it coalesce into one cinematic experience and laid bare for all to see. It’s actually quite astonishing. But perhaps Taxi Tehran’s greatest symbolic effect, notwithstanding it’s realistic power, is the fact that Jafar Panahi’s ban from making movies and house arrest only gave rise to an even more defiant and creative film-maker. One can only imagine the amount of risk this man took to film something like this. But he was never unfazed. He rigged a taxi with 3 cameras, took up the driver’s seat, and produced a work of art that strikes at the very workings of Iranian society. To film or not to film; That has probably never crossed the mind of this artist.
Taxi Tehran is unbelievably real. I’d mentioned it before but I have to stress how I wasn’t able to fully convince myself that the movie was planned or staged. The film opens with Panahi driving about and fetching two separate passengers at the same time. But pay close attention if you’re watching. The dialogue is the fundamental mechanism of the film, which is quite ironic if you look at Iranian society as a whole. One of Panahi’s themes in the film is the unspoken truth and vehement oppression of free speech. An early conversation between a man who complains about his brother’s stolen wheels and a teacher who disagrees with his perspective on crime and punishment sets the early tone for Taxi Tehran. It isn’t afraid to surface the hidden views of Iranians which may have been political incorrect and therefore silenced in real life. Panahi tackles issues hands on by making dialogue flow naturally, by setting up the scene in such a natural way, he gives Iranians the right and empowerment to express without the prosecution of judgement.
At several points in the film, some people would point out that Mr.Panahi doesn’t fit the Taxi driver mould; He neither talks nor drives well. One of his friends even comes in and says “I recognize you, you’re Jafar Panahi the film-maker! What are you doing driving a taxi?!” Whether its taking a passive role as an observe or an integral part of the action, Panahi is inextricably linked to the core message of the film. The supposed ban on his film-making is hinted throughout…whenever he appears on screen, he himself is the real flesh and embodiment of the fight for liberty; The other actors serve to widen the scope to a systemic level. Jafar Panahi has thoroughly impressed me.
A host of interesting characters seemingly taken right from the Iranian middle-class gives Panahi’s constricted space more room to breathe. Surprinsingly, he’s able to not just give one perspective but a multi-layered exposition of many facets of his culture. The social hegemony is no more obvious than when a young trash collector picks up a big note off a recently-wed couple and reasons with Panahi’s niece about the justifications of his act. It is a powerful scene that enfleshes the social hegemony that plagues the morality of society.
Many characters, in fact all of them, left deep impressions on me. The two women in their 50s trying desperately to reach a certain sacred place on time to deliver their goldfish is hilarious and yet subtle in it’s message about superstition. The film student who consults Panahi on how to make his first feature film gets a response that feels like Panahi’s own path “You have to find your own way.” But the two characters who left their deepest impressions on me have to be Panahi’s precocious niece Hana and Panahi’s friend who’s an ex-lawyer. I won’t want to give too much away in case you want to watch (You have to. This one is in the same thread of importance as Spotlight). But I will say this. One of the most memorable moments come from Hana who says that her school teacher says a film cannot have “sordid realism” aka. too realistic. It must also be ‘screenable’ aka. on Iran’s terms. But the greatest irony of all is that the film they’re in right now is the total and complete opposite to that. Through their conversations, you’ll find that Panahi’s taking little hilarious satirical swipes at his country as well as celebrating his love for his people. He always seems to find that extra bit of life and humanity in his film, grounding it in the fact that Iranian people, no matter what western portryals of it may be, are simply just trying to survive. They’re just everyday people, hustlers, workers, and good people under the suppression of authoritarian bureacracy.
A sweet moment at the end exists when Panahi’s friend and former human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh extends a gesture to the film’s camera, forever imprinting it as the most powerful scene in of a film full of it. Her words resonate with cheerful optimism and a sheer joy and hope whilst making a strong statement about cinema. Indeed, Panahi’s film encompasses both the ugly side of reality and his and his fellow actor’s strength in hope. In the end, Jafar Panahi’s cabbie ride through Tehran picks up stories of people but these stories don’t leave us like the passengers. These perspectives live on and live to tell a tale. His taxi is like a metaphor; Personal stories are engaged and Panahi ‘drives’ them, at great peril to his own safety, from the enclosed heart into the public sphere for the love of cinema and for the love of his people.
Rating: 9.5/10 I have to swap this into my top 10 movies of 2015. No doubts about it. What a film….what a film indeed.
A clip of Taxi winning Best film at the Berlin International Film Festival. Jafar Panahi couldn’t be there to accept the award because of house arrest so his niece accepted on his behalf. You could see the face of pure bliss and joy on the little girl’s face.