by Ben Diamond
What’s it like to be an outlaw in the film world? Jafar Panahi should know. He was banned from making films for twenty years by the Iranian government in 2010. That hasn’t stopped him, though. He made This Is Not a Film in 2011, shot on an iPhone inside his apartment, a creative re-imagining of the film he wanted to make before he received the ban. The film was reported to have been smuggled to the Cannes film festival on a flash drive hidden inside a birthday cake. And now we have Taxi Tehran. Panahi moves from the prison of his own apartment to the open prison of the city itself. I find the whole conceit of this film deeply amusing – Panahi moonlighting as a cabbie (what use is a film-maker who can’t make films?) for some extra cash during his state-enforced creative dry spell, but at the same time engaging in his altruistic tendencies – in good spirits for most of the film, he waives his passengers’ fares. The taxi itself becomes a space for dialogue, exploration and interrogation.
This is a film which starts playing games on the audience from the very first minute and never lets up. Panahi has set many tricks and traps which force us to consider what a film is. The first two people to get in his cab have an argument about crime and punishment (what else is there?). It feels like a documentary. But the third observer in the back of the cab, after the other two have left, challenges Panahi, says he recognises him as a filmmaker, that the other two must have been actors, and that the speech one of them delivered was very similar to that of another character in one of his previous films, Crimson Gold. But, of course, this man is also an actor. Deceptively simple in concept, Panahi actually, upon consideration, appears to have created a piece of art which performs daring feats of intellectual somersaults. And underlying it all is a real sense of dread, and menace – despite no violence or threat occurring onscreen, the feeling that Panahi is being watched and shaped by hostile forces is ever present. This opening scene is a good example of the film’s dizzying dance around the ideas of what is planned, what is unplanned, and who is in control of the script – Panahi? Or is he simply trying to capture things that are out of his control?
Panahi’s most important passenger is his young niece. She has a camera of her own and has been instructed to make a short film as part of a school project. But her teacher has issued the class with a whole list of instructions – what she can’t film, what the protagonist should look like, what the content of the film should be. Panahi leaves his taxi at one point and the footage switches to his niece’s camera – she tries to capture something herself. But it doesn’t go to plan – so she starts to direct the young boy she is filming from the window of the taxi – which goes horribly wrong. Of course, once again, what is real and not real is blurred. The whole thing is scripted and planned, surely? By now, we are so far down the rabbit hole of films within films that a thrilling fog has shrouded all intentions and meanings in the film. But Panahi’s deep, deep meditation as he switches his focus to the young girl – the next generation of filmmakers, who will all grow up with smartphones capable of filming anything, all the time – radiates from Tehran outwards.