By Joanna van der Veen
What does an internationally renowned filmmaker do when he is banned from making films, writing screenplays, giving any form of media interview or leaving the country? He becomes a taxi driver, of course.
That’s the idea behind Taxi Tehran, Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s third film since being banned from all of the above. Panahi was arrested in March 2010 and later convicted of “assembly and colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic”. Alongside the ban, he was sentenced to six years in jail, a sentence which was waived two years later due to the more moderate Hassan Rouhani becoming President of Iran. The fact that Panahi has rebelled and made any films is impressive, but Taxi Tehran is an excellent film in its own right, managing to be funny, poignant, rebellious and meaningful all at once.
In the film, Panahi takes centre stage and appears as himself as an ‘undercover’ taxi driver, his one gesture to disguise being a flat cap that is quickly discarded. Driving a cab kitted out with three not-so-hidden cameras, he drives around the Iranian capital, picking up a range of characters: amongst others, two rambunctious old ladies with the precious cargo of a goldfish; DVD bootlegger Mr. Omid; a bloodied man who’s been in a road accident with his wailing wife and Hana, Panahi’s charming real-life niece.
It’s reasonably safe to assume that most of the passengers are actors and that the bizarre situations Panahi and his cab get into are staged. That said, I naïvely didn’t consider this possibility until one of the passengers themselves suggested it. It must be the case though: Panahi is indisputably a brave man and an incredibly skilled director, but he’d need to be a magician to conjure up such a perfect stream of characters.
Watching the film, two things quickly become evident. The first is that Panahi is a terrible cabbie. He doesn’t know the names of streets or how to get to popular destinations, he constantly takes detours and often drops his clients off before getting them where they want to go.
The second is that Taxi Tehran is a film that can be approached on two different levels. On the one hand, it is a gentle and humourous look at a cross-section of Iranian society, Panahi poking fun at himself whilst offering viewers the voyeuristic delight of a new form of reality TV.
On the other, it is a reflection on Panahi’s own situation and the problems inherent in Iranian society. This is brought out most obviously through Panahi’s conversation with Hana, who has been tasked with making a “screenable” film for school. She dutifully reels off the various criteria such a film should fulfil, including men not wearing ties, characters having saints’ names instead of Iranian ones and an avoidance of ‘sordid realism’, the meaning of which is somewhat elusive. Of course, Panahi’s own films do not meet this high benchmark – a fact reflected by Taxi Tehran’s lack of end credits, alongside an explanatory caption saying that those involved in the film can’t be named because Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance only approves the credits of distributable films.
Another of Panahi’s passengers is human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, on her way to see a hunger striker in prison. In the course of their conversation she conjectures that, even after being released, ex-prisoners like Panahi can feel more imprisoned than ever after. Panahi’s taxi begins to take on greater metaphorical significance – it may be a powerful film-making device, but his new persona and vehicle is also a representation of just how trapped he is.
At the beginning of the screening of Taxi Tehran, Bath Film Festival’s creative director Philip Raby said that, had someone told him that it would be the first sell-out film of the festival, he would have told them that they were mad. As I arrived there were people queuing for returns and a palpable sense of excitement in the cinema. What these things prove is that there is a continuing appetite for Panahi’s work and that its significance extends far beyond Iran. In the words of Sotoudeh in the film, “the people of cinema can be relied on” – and hopefully this will give Panahi the strength to endure.