MIFF 2015: Tehran Taxi

Jafar Panahi just can’t hit the brakes. The Iranian filmmaker has now made his third film since his government-imposed 20-year ban on directing, and with each successive film he’s managed to further rally against that unjust decision. While his first – This Is Not a Film – was confined to his apartment and his second – Closed Curtain – found him venturing to a house by the sea, his third film in this supposed imprisonment series, Tehran Taxi, has Panahi out on the streets masquerading as a taxi driver.

It’s another bold move that risks punishment, but at this point Panahi’s creative drive remains inextinguishable, a point that Tehran Taxi repeatedly drives home over its brisk but involved running time. Once again the camera liberates Panahi, this time in the form of what seems to be a couple of portable, GoPro-like mechanisms fitted to the cab. Technology has previously been Panahi’s saviour, from the portable digital cameras of his pre-sentence work to the iPhone dabbling of This Is Not a Film, Panahi uses whatever is at his disposal to communicate his artistic intent.

From the moment the film opens we are witness to the democratic potential of said technology, as Panahi fixates his camera looking outwards from the cab’s dash onto a bustling Tehran street. All is still and quiet, except for the street noise and folk music that plays over the top. For a brief minute Tehran Taxi is an essay film, a Man with a Movie Camera for the major Middle Eastern city, as we witness a city not unlike our own, energised and opportunistic.

Before we know it the taxi is thrust forward into the space, chaotically so (the rules of our roads need not apply here), and our entrance into this particular reality begins. Due to the nature of its setup it almost feels like the “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but rather this is real time and so our bodies can easily adjust to the rhythms. It’s our minds that become malleable soon after.

Panahi’s first customers are a thief and a teacher, a pair who just happen to engage in a debate about the moral and political aftermath of public execution, with the camera focused on them the entire time. As their argument comes to a close and they exit the vehicle, a third passenger who has been silently listening admits that he recognises Panahi as the driver and contemplates the validity of the exchange he just heard, especially considering that he’s heard it before, in Panahi’s previous film Crimson Gold.

It’s a peculiar and jarring moment where the veil of cinematic belief is lifted, and should be familiar to anyone with even a cursory interest in Iranian national cinema. In that moment you know that Panahi has set up this situation, and even the reveal from the passenger himself is a bluff, but due to the nature of the cinematography and the medium your mind can’t shake the “reality” of the scenarios that unfold. It’s a rupture that causes contemplation, and that’s exactly what Panahi desires.

From then on his passengers flow in and out of his doors like a river, and your mind is lulled back into a state of comprehending reality that is familiar. It’s a strange feeling, but one that is crucial for understanding Panahi’s message, which is simply that cinema, in any incarnation, is not only possible but also necessary.

There is a camera in some form in almost every frame of Tehran Taxi: from the GoPro cameras in the cab, an iPhone used to record a testimony of a dying man, a digital camera his niece uses to record her day, an iPad used to display a crime; there are even cameras in the background, those being captured by cameras themselves. We are making films every day without even knowing it, and Panahi wants to remind us that the responsibility is on us to use it wisely, morally and truthfully, in whatever form that may unfold.

If I can do it, you can do it, he seems to say, albeit through action not words, and the result is nothing short of liberating. Liberation is the central tenet of Tehran Taxi, mostly in the film’s very existence as an entity against all odds, but also in its call to arms for cinematic revolution. At one point in the film Panahi discusses the hanging of a brigand and the use of video footage of the event to deter future crimes of this nature. State authority already wields the power of the image against the people, and so through his simple act of rebellion Panahi invites others to play the same game.

When his niece, who is being asked to make a film for a school project, reads out the non-negotiable rules for making a film “acceptable” for screening, Panahi looks saddened but says nothing. His reaction takes the form of the very film in which he stars. When she states that a hero must not wear a tie and bear the name of a holy prophet, Panahi asks her if his friend they just met is a hero, to which she has no real response. Heroes are everywhere, he’s arguing, most of them unsung. Panahi is one of them.

Seeing is everything in Tehran Taxi, a film that pushes Panahi’s agenda further than ever before and fluently affirms his previous status and intention. It’s the first film of his since Offside that adores and worships people, with each character that enters his car being more astonishing and beautiful than the last. Near the end of the film a character hands over a single rose to Panahi for his cab. The camera frames the act as if the rose is being gifted to the audience. We’re all in this taxi too.

The film is full of small gestures such as this, but perhaps the most telling is when a burgeoning young filmmaker enters Panahi’s taxi and asks him what kind of stories he should tell. Panahi recounts that all books have already been written, all films already filmed and that he should go out into the world and see for himself the myriad of stories, people and faces that exist. The more of those we see the better off we are.

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