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19th November 2015

Review: Taxi Tehran

Taxi Tehran is a slow and subtle drama that has much to say about the state of Iranian cinema

Jafar Panahi is an Iranian director currently banned by the state from making films. Despite this, and being under house arrest for a period, Panahi has continued to make films, getting others to smuggle them out of the country on his behalf. Taxi Tehran’s setting, a taxi fitted with hidden cameras, can therefore be seen as a functional way of overcoming the restrictions placed upon him.

The film is excellent: Its dialogue, setting and characters give the audience, a primarily Western one due to Panahi’s predicament, a new perception of Iran—as a country filled with people trying to subtly undermine the state’s restrictive power.

It is easy to overemphasise the restrictions of Panahi’s own situation, and just see the message he is trying to get across in the film as the result of it. Taxi Tehran can be seen as a direct protest against government policy—a film which shows the artificial nature of Iran’s cinema rules. However, to a greater extent, Taxi Tehran acts as a testament to the power of film as a medium for protest, advocating for its use as a way of conveying interactions and emotions as well as being something to enjoy.

The film shows Panahi driving around Tehran as a slightly incompetent taxi driver. Cameras hidden within the cab reveal the conversations between Panahi and a range of eccentric characters whom he picks up. A man and a female teacher have an argument about capital punishment. Two women have a mission to release goldfish into a sacred pool to ensure a further year of good luck. A wife loudly wails over her husband who has been injured in a motorbike accident, while trying to ensure she can inherit the house.

The informal and chatty dialogue between Panahi and his passengers, combined with the filming style, make you feel like you are part of the scene, being taken on a literal cinematic journey.

The first passenger to recognise Panahi is Ovid, a character who makes his living illegally renting DVDs. He asks many questions about Panahi’s past films. His business serves as evidence that laws cannot suppress the production and distribution of films. Film is a running theme; Panahi’s past films are brought up by various characters.

Panahi picks up his niece Hana from school (played by his real life niece). Their relationship is playful; Hana demands a banana split from her uncle and makes fun of him for his bad car. The immediacy of the setting once again gives you a feeling that you are experiencing a real relationship.

Hana has been given a project to make a film at school. Her teacher has provided her with a list of rules, compiled by the Iranian government. She has been told to avoid the presentation of “sordid realism.” When Hana oversees a young boy picking up some money dropped by a groom, she encourages him to give it back, to provide her film with the right moral message. As Panahi points out in the film, reality cannot be sordid—it is just the truth.

This parallels with the ambiguity of the film’s ‘truthfulness.’ Are the characters real or fake? Does it matter? Taxi Tehran is able to reveal truths about the restrictiveness of the Iranian cinema setting through a series of presumably fictional interactions. In this way, Panahi undermines the idea that notions of “realism” can be applied to film.

It is easy to focus on what this film can tell us and ignore how watchable it is. It is not dramatic but is completely engaging, despite its slow-moving pace. Certain scenes, such as the one with the injured husband are perhaps a bit prolonged. But the conversations are subtle and the characters are realistic yet eccentric.

Taxi Tehran demonstrates the ways in which film can undermine authoritarian regimes. Filming events and conversations, whether true or untrue, gives audiences the opportunity to assign their own meanings to what they are being presented with.


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