Taxi Tehran review – a joyous ride

The Iranian film-maker turned taxi driver Jafar Panahi combats his persecutors with guerrilla tactics, sly humour and good grace – like an anti-Travis Bickle

Jafar Panahi is the Iranian film-maker and democracy campaigner facing official harassment with unique wit, grace and humanity – all apparent in his new movie Taxi Tehran, whose quietly defiant good humour and charm will grow on you, as they grew on me when I first saw it in Berlin earlier this year. It is engaging and disarming: a freewheeling semi-improv piece of guerrilla film-making, cleverly staged and choreographed, with the discursive, digressive qualities of an essay film.

In 2010, following his protests against President Ahmadinejad’s democratic legitimacy, Panahi was sentenced to six years’ house arrest on the spurious charge of crimes against the state, together with a 20-year ban on film-making and leaving the country. Yet he has continued to work, shooting films covertly on smartphones and camcorders, smuggling them out of the country as digital files, technically avoiding the ban by having his direction credited to other people, or – as with this one – no credits at all.

Once these complex and subtle films appear abroad, Panahi leaves it to Iranian officialdom to react or not as it wishes, and as far as can be judged, the authorities do not want to appear any more foolish and ham-fisted than they do now. At any rate, the appearance of each of Panahi’s films is now almost a kind of procedural miracle, not seen since Yilmaz Güney directed the 1982 Palme d’Or-winner Yol from prison.

Taxi Tehran - video review

Panahi appears as himself: reduced to driving a cab. The great film director is now a humble taxi driver picking people up on the streets of Tehran, dropping them off, amiably allowing customers to share a ride, sheepishly admitting he doesn’t know where anything is, and never asking for money. If Uber had a special app for hailing free rides from cineastes … well, that would be him. He’s a fictional variant of himself, shooting a zany ridealong selfie on his dashboard-mounted videocam. Or maybe he’s Iran’s equivalent of Larry David, shruggingly accepting his own woes and his own tense celebrity and spinning it all into his creative work.

He has a bizarre mix of clientele. A couple of women get in with some live goldfish in a bowl, leading to predictable disaster when Jafar hits the brakes too hard and winds up having to replenish the bowl with water he would normally use for the radiator. He takes a gravely injured, blood-spattered man and his keening wife to hospital. There is an aggressive young guy who starts arguing with a fellow passenger about whether hanging thieves is a good deterrent.

Panahi allows that argument to echo with a conversation he has later with a friend who has been attacked in his shop, apparently for standing up for a man and woman caught stealing money. In this way, the questions of crime and punishment are coolly, indirectly raised.

Panahi has to pick his niece up from school. She is mortified that her supposedly prestigious film-director uncle only has this nasty little car. She is studying film, and the precocious tyke starts talking about what’s “distributable” and tells him how she has been told to avoid “sordid realism”. Panahi smiles enigmatically: he knows how much sordid realism to avoid. Another young guy studying film asks him about existing works and Panahi says: “Those films are already made; those books are already written. You have to look elsewhere…”

Jafar Panahi’s neice
Jafar Panahi’s neice in Taxi Tehran Photograph: PR company handout

Perhaps an unemployed director is like a taxi driver, cruising the streets, looking to pick up ideas, but benignly: an anti-Travis Bickle, and perhaps being under house-arrest feels like being a driver unable to leave his cab. Certainly, shooting a film inside a car is discreet, and good for evading bans. Abbas Kiarostami has also used the car as a symbol of imprisonment, aimlessness and loneliness in films such as Ten (2002) and Taste of Cherry (1997).

Taxi Tehran comes to two separate crunches. Panahi picks up a friend who is a lawyer, disbarred and prevented, like Panahi, from practising her trade. They discuss the case of Ghoncheh Ghavami, the Iranian woman jailed for trying to attend a men’s volleyball match. Panahi maintains a smilingly fatalistic attitude to it all. Later, Panahi’s feisty niece starts making a short film for her school project; she accidentally films a boy taking money that isn’t his and dramatically intervenes in the situation. Panahi is maybe playfully showing the authorities that film-making is a force for good.

Taxi Tehran is the work of a unique director – and survivor.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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