Being banned from making movies has done wonders for Jafar Panahi’s career. The Iranian director has made -and smuggled out – three films while under house arrest in Tehran and this latest even earned him the Golden Bear at Berlin.
He again makes a virtue of his predicament, creating a film about confinement, set entirely in a taxi which the director himself drives around the streets picking up various characters who are all filmed using just two cameras, both positioned inside the vehicle.
Taxi Tehran**** is a formal as well as a thematic exercise, offering a snapshot of Tehran life as well as a critique of government control. It’s also very funny.
Jafar first gives a ride to a female teacher of liberal persuasion who enters into an argument about hanging and execution with another passenger, a man who eventually reveals himself to be a mugger by trade, although one who only rips off rich people.
Then Panahi picks up a wailing woman and her bloodied husband who’ve just been involved in a bike accident. As he drives them to a hospital the man requests a film be made, on a mobile phone, of his last testament, in which he leaves his estate to his shrieking wife.
Another passenger is a dwarfish, black market DVD seller who instantly recognises Jafar. “I got you Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris once, you remember?” He even enlists the director in flogging DVDs to one of his clients, getting him to recommend the “artsy” titles. They both agree, however, on the cultural service films can offer and the seller is proud of his peddling despite the risks under this regime.
Another two passengers are superstitious women with two goldfish in a bowl, who want to go to a religious site, Ali’s Spring.
Then comes Panahi’s niece, a precocious girl of around 10 years old, who’s making her own movie for a class project and has to follow certain rules set down by her teacher. With her own little camera, she, in turn, films a street story while she spots an urchin finding some money on the floor. She even attempts to understand her uncle’s ban for what the censors have called “sordid realism”, a path she now seems destined to follow despite her teachers telling her what’s “screenable” and what’s “unscreenable”.
Along the way, the passengers refer to Panahi’s films such as Mirror, Crimson Gold and Offside. He’s clearly a well-known figure in his city. A glamorous human rights lawyer gets in, on her way to a prison where a female inmate has gone on hunger strike.
Iranian cinema is very good at car movies, films shot from dashboards of squeaky vehicles that rumble along dirt tracks or city streets. Panahi’s film expounds on this tradition gleefully and cleverly, creating at tiny marvel of film making and resourcefulness that also reflects on the absurdity of banning people from making or watching movies. And it’s worth staying for the credits – there aren’t any, apart from a note explaining why.