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TEHRAN TAXI (2015, France)

SUNDAY 20 November 10.00 am 
TUESDAY 22 November 8.15 pm 
RUNNING TIME 82 minutes

SYNOPSIS:
Banned Iranian director Jafar Panahi takes to the streets of Tehran in a taxi with his camera secreted on the cab’s dashboard. Winner of the Golden Bear Berlin Film Festival 2015.

REVIEW BY JONATHAN ROMNEY:
Much loose talk is bandied around in the film world about directors’ bravery and the heroism of “guerrilla” film-making – but those terms genuinely mean something when applied to Iran’s Jafar Panahi. After making several robust realist dramas about the challenges of everyday life in his country – among them The Circle, Crimson Gold and the exuberantly angry football movie Offside – Panahi fell foul of the Iranian government, which threatened him with imprisonment, prevented him from travelling and banned him from making films for 20 years. He has protested by working under the wire to make three extraordinary works, contraband statements that are at once a cri de coeur from internal exile, and a bring-it-on raised fist of defiance.

This Is Not a Film (2011, directed with Mojtaba Mirtahmasb) showed Panahi cooling his heels under house arrest in his Tehran flat, and evoking the film that he would have made had he been allowed to pick up a camera. He wasn’t technically making an actual film, Panahi argued – yet he was manifestly making one anyway, as the world saw when the result was smuggled to Cannes on a USB stick hidden in a cake. However, the less successful Closed Curtain (2013, directed with Kambuzia Partovi) was a claustrophobically self-referential chamber piece, and suggested that Panahi’s plight was getting the better of him.

However, his survivor spirit and delight in cinema’s possibilities have endured and re-emerge to sparkling effect in Taxi Tehran For this spare, witty exercise, Panahi rigged a taxi with three hidden video cameras and surreptitiously filmed a drive round Tehran, with himself at the wheel ferrying assorted passengers – presumably actors for the most part. One assumes that everything is staged; yet such is the feel of brisk spontaneity that it’s hard to tell.

The first two passengers are a man who grumbles about tyre thieves, and proposes to hang them all, and a woman who objects that Iran hardly needs more executions. Brusquely, the man tries to silence her – “Law and sharia have spoken … so chill out, lady” – before exiting with a comment that casts ironic light on his self-righteousness. Eventually revealed in the driving seat, Panahi himself is soon recognised by another fare, who suspects that he’s shooting a film, and that the previous passengers were actors. Things now get pretty self-reflexive: a short, stout customer identifies himself as Omid the DVD bootlegger. He’s the man who keeps Tehran supplied with Woody Allen and The Walking Dead, but he’s also probably local viewers’ only conduit to Panahi’s own work; this Danny DeVito-like character may be a bumptious clown, but he’s a genuine hero of samizdat [the clandestine copying and distribution of literature banned by the state] distribution.

As passengers come and go, the most telling section involves Panahi’s young niece Hana (played by herself), an aspiring film-maker in her own right. Her schoolteacher wants her to shoot something “distributable”, but in Iran that involves certain criteria – including the avoidance of “sordid realism”. Hana films a street boy as he pockets some money accidentally dropped by a bridegroom; she then imperiously beckons him over to the cab to berate him, as he has made her project undistributable by causing her to shoot an episode of sordid realism.

Later, Panahi gives a ride to a woman who’s going to visit a hunger striker in prison; the passenger isn’t named, but she is a real-life figure, human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, who reminds Panahi that they themselves have both been on hunger strike in the past. Sotoudeh strikes the film’s most optimistic note when she extends a rose to the camera, and implicitly to the world audience, “because the people of cinema can be relied on”. The film concludes on a dark, abrupt note, but Sotoudeh’s gesture of hope and goodwill resonates above and beyond the ending.

Taxi Tehran may not be artistically groundbreaking – the film is partly a nod to Panahi’s compatriot Abbas Kiarostami and his pioneering in-car drama of 2002, Ten. But Panahi has made a work of invention and brio that remains visually lively throughout, despite its formal restrictions. There are no end titles. Panahi has recently had to be cautious about crediting collaborators, for their own safety; but this time he notes, in a sardonically piquant closing caption, that he can’t name anyone because Iran’s ministry of culture and Islamic guidance only approves the credits of distributable films.

Heaven knows how long Panahi can continue to make films in this way, but his latest outing raises the spirits no end. Reviewing This Is Not a Film in 2012, the great Philip French commented, “There is unlikely to be a wittier, braver, more serious film shown in Britain this year.” Three years on, exactly the same can be said about Panahi’s latest. I don’t know whether Philip ever got to see Taxi Tehran, but I think he would have relished this expression of faith in the act of film-making as a vital and joyous undertaking.

Source: www.theguardian.com 1/11/2015 Edited extracts/accessed 4/1/16

 

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