I watched Jafar Panahi’s Taxi Tehran (2015) at The Projector yesterday with Joel in our usual bouts of enlightened debauchery. For a film with the accolades of being banned in its home country and a winner of international film festival prizes, it did not disappoint.
While Travis Bickle in Francis Ford Cupola’s Taxi Driver (1976) was an alienated and resentful observer of Manhattan, Jafar Panahi who stars as himself in his 2015 feature film Taxi is an intimate participant of Iranian society (and also a dissident filmmaker reduced to a hapless cabbie). Shot entirely in the confines of a roaming taxi in the Iranian capital with in-car cameras and convenient interposes of on-screen diegetic video recordings, we as the audience are consciously aware of the fourth wall, but this awareness rather than distances the audience, instead enhances the realism of Iranian life that Panahi acutely captures. The result is satisfyingly a well-paced and compelling visual ride.
Through a mischievous rolling weave of passengers coming and going, we are awarded a glimpse of Iranian life and two major concerns that Panahi holds closely to his heart – firstly, filmmaking and secondly, the socio-political state of Iran.
It is first, Panahi’s ode to filmmaking. Motifs of film, camera and cinema are recurring, if not also over-saturated. Nearly every character is intrinsically connected to cameras – a film student, a peddler of banned and pirated foreign films, a severely injured man who films his will (as there is no paper to have it written), a man who shares cctv footage of himself being robbed, a niece on a school filmmaking assignment and two supposed Iranian internal security agents ransacking Panahi’s taxi for possible incriminating video footages.
As the conversations flow and ebb, they turn towards brief glances at film philosophy and theory. In a sub-plot Panahi’s precocious niece convinces a thieving boy to return ill-gotten money as part of her film project – a possible allusion to societal force of filmmaking and the filmmaking community.
It is secondly, an exploration of the definitions of crime, with a successive torrent of discussion of what is legal and what is not, both conversationally and visually, sparked by the succession of passengers and their personal stories. The film itself is by all means illegal, with Panahi having been imprisoned then banned from filmmaking, giving interviews and leaving Iran – in essence a prohibition from commenting on Iranian politics.
In a country under a totalitarian theocracy, almost of Panahi’s passengers would be political criminals.
By extension, Taxi is also thus an observation of Iranian censorship and repression, through the stories of a dissident lawyer and a discussion with his niece over state guidelines on filmmaking. While the Iranian culture police is averse to depictions of “sordid realism” in film, Taxi flies in face of this aversion.
The message he elicits is clear – filmmaking should bravely express realism, and beyond that, filmmaking remains a potent societal force. More than just being a film, this film is Panahi’s playful act of defiance in face of governmental opposition to his dissidence.
Taxi Tehran will still be showing at The Projector for a while more! Catch it while you still can!