Taxi Tehran

**1/2

Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

Taxi
"It’s a wonderfully subversive act...but on its own merits (which I’m sure is how Panahi would want it to be judged) it seemed to me overlong, repetitive and self-indulgent."

IT’S impossible not to admire directors who continue to pursue their craft, even when faced with official censure, imprisonment – or sometimes worse.

In 2010, Jafar Panahi was banned from making films for 20 years by the Iranian authorities, following his conviction on charges of “propaganda” against the regime. He’s not allowed to give any form of media interview, or even to travel outside the country.

But he’s circumvented the ban in several ingenious ways, starting with This Is Not a Film, the video diary of a period under house arrest, which was smuggled out on a USB stick hidden inside a cake.

His latest trick has been to take a job as a taxi driver and, with the help of a few hidden cameras and some like-minded friends, turn his experiences into a compact mini-drama that sheds light both on his predicament and the tragicomic contradictions of life in a modern Middle Eastern city that’s also the capital of an Islamist theocracy.

It’s a wonderfully subversive act in itself. And it would be great to report that the end result is a classic of guerrilla cinema and a perfect distillation of life in Iran. But on its own merits (which I’m sure is how Panahi would want it to be judged) it seemed to me overlong, repetitive and self-indulgent.

It opens with a windscreen’s-eye view of Tehran as Panahi cruises along, ostensibly looking for a fare. The streets look clean and quiet, the tower blocks, cafes and shops identical to those you’d see in any Middle Eastern city.

But when his first two passengers – a bumptious "wide boy" entrepreneur and a female teacher – get on board and almost immediately have a heated argument on the death penalty, it becomes clear that Panahi is keen to show a society where all is far from well. And one where the voice of hardline authoritarianism has a habit of drowning out even the mildest form of dissent.

This sets the pattern for the rest of the film, a series of vignettes highlighting various facets of Iranian life. A man injured in a road accident insists on having his last testament filmed on a camera phone to ensure his wife isn’t disinherited by his brothers if he dies. Two old ladies carry fish in a bag to a shrine for good luck – echoing the plot of Panahi’s beautifully assured debut, The White Balloon. And, in the longest sequence, the director picks up his niece and ferries her around while she bemoans the problems of making a video essay for her school project, which will reflect Iranian life while avoiding “sordid realism” – and berates her uncle for not driving a cooler car.

The scenes are clearly staged – either that or he picked an absolute dream day to put the “for hire” light on – and you can only take your hat off to the people willing to help him out, knowing it’s bound to place them even more firmly under the official radar. This is partly why no-one is named in the closing credits – though, as Panahi also ironically notes, the “ministry of culture and Islamic guidance” only allows credits on officially-distributed films. But there are a few too many scenes where passengers feign surprise at ending up in a taxi with the illustrious Mr Panahi or deliver addresses to camera about what a top bloke he is and how important cinema can be in cocking a snook at authority. It’s all undeniably true, but we get the message quite early on.

And the cab-bound cameras make for a somewhat static experience, with several longeurs in between the action, stories that tail off into anti-climax and a frequent sense of the real drama taking place elsewhere – though perhaps that’s the point.

I’m clearly in a minority here – it won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and has been glowingly reviewed elsewhere. And there are undoubtedly moments of drama, humour and pathos. It also vividly conjures up the atmosphere of day-to-day life in a fascinating country – one which, in the current climate, it seems inevitable the West will have to try to understand and engage with.

But I feel a straight documentary recording ordinary passengers’ conversations would have been more interesting (though probably impossible to make) – that or a series of short films focusing on some of the characters who share Panahi’s cab, such as the DVD seller who ferries illicit copies of Woody Allen and The Walking Dead to eager clients, or the human rights lawyer whose regular journey is to see a political prisoner on hunger strike.

For a more successful take on a similar concept, try Ten, by Panahi’s mentor Abbas Kiarostami. And for a truly joyous slice of Iranian life, try Panahi’s Offside from 2006, about a group of girls who try to sneak into a football match in secret. In fact, try the work of the Iranian New Wave in general, for a body of fascinating, life-affirming films. And I certainly hope we’ll be seeing the next instalment in Panahi’s battle against the authorities soon. Because he’s clearly someone who loves making movies. And he absolutely should be allowed to make them. End of.

Reviewed on: 11 Nov 2015
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Taxi Tehran packshot
An Iranian director forbidden to make movies works as a taxi driver, and installs hidden cameras in his cab…
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Director: Jafar Pahani

Writer: Jafar Panahi

Starring: Jafar Panahi

Year: 2015

Runtime: 82 minutes

Country: Iran


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If you like this, try:

Offside
Ten