Taxi Tehran

Directed by Jafar Panahi

On UK DVD & Blu-Ray February 22nd, 2016

by Bernie C Byrnes

Winning a Golden Bear and Fipresci Prize, Taxi Tehran‘s cinema release enjoyed notable critical acclaim garnering 4 and 5 star reviews all over the shop. Berlin Jury president Darren Aronofsky described the film as “a love letter to cinema…filled with love for his art, his community, his country and his audience.”  No mean feat considering in 2010 Panahi was sentenced to six years house arrest and a 20-year ban on film-making. Yet like his previous two films This Is Not a Film (2011) and Closed Curtain (2013), Taxi Tehran was made despite the ban.

Unperturbed by the Iranian authorities, Panahi has continued to make films illicitly on smartphones and camcorders, sneaking them out of the country (This Is Not a Film was loaded onto a USB drive and smuggled out of Iran in a cake), avoiding punishment by having them credited to other people, or like this one, having no credits at all. Speaking of the ban, Panahi said: “Nothing can prevent me from making films since when being pushed to the ultimate corners I connect with my inner-self and, in such private spaces, despite all limitations, the necessity to create becomes even more of an urge.”

To make Taxi Tehran, Panahi fitted three ‘hidden’ cameras and ‘secretly’ filmed a drive round Tehran. The reason I use inverted commas around hidden and secretly is that everyone who enters the cab talks openly about the fact that they are being filmed and in turn use cameras of their own to film him filming them. The assorted passengers are played by non-professional actors, whose identities remain anonymous, with the exception of Hana Saeidi, Panahi’s niece, and human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, both of whom play themselves and Panahi who also appears as himself: reduced to driving a cab.

This peculiar array of passengers: Omid the DVD bootlegger, a couple of women with some live goldfish in a bowl, a gravely injured, blood-spattered man and his hysterical wife, all have something to say about Tehran and about the act of film-making. Questions of crime and punishment are raised through a friend who has been attacked in his shop for standing up for a man and woman caught stealing money, a man who grumbles about tyre thieves and proposes to hang them all, and a woman who objects that Iran hardly needs more executions. Taxi Tehran is an unashamedly self-reflexive piece and while his niece Hana, an aspiring film-maker, talks about wanting to shoot something “distributable” (which in Iran involves the avoidance of “sordid realism”), Taxi Tehran transforms the interior of Panahi’s car into a stage for crimes, confessions and deathbed declarations.

Nasrin Sotoudeh, who reminds the audience that both she and Panahi have been on hunger strike in the past, creates the film’s most hopeful moment when she extends a rose to the camera claiming “the people of cinema can be relied on”. Panahi seems to be talking of himself when he replies to a young man studying film: “Those films are already made; those books are already written. You have to look elsewhere.” And what a brilliant way to do so, as a taxi driver surreptitiously cruising the streets of downtown Tehran.

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