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Panahi's defiant taxi drives 'candid' camera through streets of Tehran

Memento Films Distribution

In “Taxi”, this year's Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, Iranian defiant director Jafar Panahi finds another way of working around a ban from making films – this time by posing as an unlikely cabbie.

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The 54-year-old is revered by art houses and film festivals, but his work is outlawed in Iran, where the government considers it subversive. Panahi was jailed in 2010 for “propaganda against the regime” and banned from making films for 20 years. This didn't prevent him from smuggling out two movies, “This Is Not A Film” (2011) and “Closed Curtain” (2013), both filmed in the secrecy of his home. “Taxi”, which opened in French cinemas this week, is his third production made in defiance of the ban.

In theory, Panahi still has a six-year jail term to serve. But he is apparently free to roam around Tehran in his car, picking up fares as he goes along. Digital cameras mounted on the dashboard allow him to film the streets and his interactions with passengers, supposedly unseen by the authorities' prying eyes. The footage is interspersed with shots taken through an array of other mobile devices, in a clever portrayal of the power and ubiquity of video.

The gallery of passengers includes Panahi's feisty young niece, two pesky ladies carrying a goldfish in a bowl, a wailing woman with her bloodied husband fresh from a road accident, and an unlicensed DVD peddler who claims he once gave Panahi a copy of Nuri Bilge Ceylan's “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia”. “I can get you rushes from films that aren’t even finished yet,” the man boasts. Here's the filmmaker telling the regime that despite all its bans, his and other movies will always find a way around the censors.

Light tone, weighty subjects

A light-hearted humour pervades the film, punctuated by sobering moments when tales of hardship and repression come to the fore. The passengers touch on several (perhaps too many) weighty subjects, at times superficially.

In one absurdly comical scene, the injured man insists his fellow passengers film him reciting his will, in which he bequeaths his wealth to his wife and not his brothers, while they rush him to the nearest hospital – which, like most other places, the hopeless cabbie cannot find. No sooner have they left the car than the wife begins harassing Panahi on the phone to get hold of the video, apparently forgetful of her ailing husband. The issue of women's property rights (or lack thereof) is surely important, but its treatment here is not the most subtle.

Crime and punishment are more recurrent themes, suggesting hot-button issues in Tehran (or at least in Panahi's mind). When a male passenger enquires about the cameras on the dashboard, Panahi says they are there for protection. This prompts a heated exchange between the man, an advocate of capital punishment for thieves, and a female teacher appalled by his views. "We have the second-highest number of executions after China, what good has that done?" she asks.

What is the source of violence? The hungry thief or the society that starves him and then punishes him with death? Panahi appears to raise several questions, not all of which are clear. “I want to see what a thief looks like,” he tells a friend who has been violently mugged by an acquaintance, as the aggressor walks off. “What for?” his friend replies. “He looks like you, me, and everyone else.”

As in his other films, the perpetrators of violence are faceless or invisible, identified only as they leave the scene. As a result, their menace is omnipresent, like the voice of his tormentor in jail, which Panahi suddenly thinks he can hear, stepping outside the car to see where it came from.

“It's what happens when you've been blindfolded,” says his last passenger, referring to the filmmaker's time in jail. She is a prominent lawyer and activist who has also experienced jail (Panahi does not name her and we will do likewise). Inevitably, this sequence is overtly political. The lawyer carries a large bouquet of roses. They're for her client, a girl who has been jailed for attending a men's volleyball game, which is forbidden in Iran. It is a true story (the girl has since been released after an international campaign). Incidentally, it is also the plot of one of Panahi's earlier films, “Offside”.

'Sordid realism'

The critique of Iran's stifling regime is perhaps most vivid in Panahi's exchanges with his precocious, know-it-all niece. A would-be filmmaker herself, she has been given strict guidelines by her teacher on how to make wholesome movies: headscarves for female characters and strictly no ties for men (unless they're the villains); names should be Islamic, not Iranian; politics and economics should be kept out, along with “sordid realism”.

The niece, who is busy taping everything she can on her camera, soon uncovers a flaw in her teacher's rules. When filming a newly-wed couple in the street her camera catches a street boy picking up a banknote dropped by the groom. She summons the boy and begs him to return the note so that her film can be “distributable”. Giving in to her pleas, the boy awkwardly tries and fails to return the money, in a scene so contrived and unnatural it ridicules the government's command to “film the real world, but without the ugly parts”.

The argument can easily backfire, particularly in a film built on a deceptive premise. In the opening minutes we are led to believe this is a documentary, though it soon becomes apparent that “Taxi” is in fact full of heavily scripted lines delivered by non-professionals pretending to improvise. This is very much Panahi's impression of contemporary Tehran, but spoken by other, supposedly objective characters. It still makes for interesting and thoroughly worthwhile viewing – as well as another brave act of resistance by an artist who refuses to be silenced. But the ruse leaves an uncomfortable feeling that we are perhaps also, to some extent, being conned.

 

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