After struggling under state-imposed house arrest for several years, writer-director Jafar Panahi’s latest finds him roaming the streets of the Iranian capital by car. A quiet optimism has returned…
Anybody who witnessed the Iranian writer-director Jafar Panahi submitting to house arrest in 2010’s agonised selfie This Is Not a Film, or the doleful figure haunting his friend and frequent collaborator Kambozia Partovi’s thoughts in last month’s Closed Curtain would perhaps have been led to a stark conclusion: this guy needs to get out more. Good news: Taxi Tehran, Panahi’s addition to the long lineage of Iranian road movies, finds the filmmaker behind the wheel of a car, taking his newly self-reflexive cinema out onto streets that had appeared off-limits in his earlier films.
If some restrictions on Panahi’s movements have clearly been lifted, he’s still, to a certain degree, sealed off. His interactions with those who come to occupy the back and passenger seats of his vehicle are observed mostly from the perspective of a rotatable, dash-mounted digital camera, giving the film the look of another covert production. (The end credits confirm this suspicion: a short paragraph of text confirms that the film was not officially approved in its country of origin.)
What we’re listening to, in the main, are conversations Panahi presumably couldn’t have over the phone or in the street for fear of being overheard by or reported to the powers-that-be: a genuine chill can be felt whenever we see him stepping outside the car, at which point we wonder whether he might be leapt upon and restrained anew. (It’s a politically charged variant of that tension one might feel upon parking on double yellows in order to pop into the supermarket.) Clearly, though the director is free to cruise around these streets, he still has to tread carefully.
Yet where Closed Curtain looked to all intents and purposes like a dead end, Taxi Tehran shows us life going on in the face of such oppression. Certainly, it can be fractious: Panahi’s first punters happen to be a flagwaver for Sharia law (passenger seat) and a woman who plainly disagrees with him (rear passenger side), and the geography of the scene is such you suspect someone’s going to be throttled. It can also be painful, or tragic: at one point, Panahi ends up ferrying a protestor shot during a demo, and his wailing wife, to hospital.
Yet it can, as Panahi demonstrates, also be cultured: a pirate DVD seller makes an impression by touting everything from Kurosawa to The Big Bang Theory. And it’s frequently comic: take the two old dears transporting a fish to an arcane religious ceremony – a sequence heading towards a deliciously timed slapstick punchline – or Panahi’s precocious nine-year-old niece, the latest in a long line of resourceful young heroines in this director’s work (The White Balloon, The Circle, Offside), who berates her tardy driver for leaving her standing around the schoolgates.
The niece’s participation in a competition to make a short dictated by Iranian censorship rules typifies Taxi Tehran’s educational tone: it’s forever illustrating how Iran’s citizens are making and circulating their own preferred images. The protestor records a will on a cameraphone; another student asks Panahi for ideas for his graduation project. The theme is independent movement – of people, yes, but also words and pictures – which is why I suspect Taxi Tehran will be particularly inspiring for would-be filmmakers: if a marked man such as Panahi can make a movie, there should be no real reason you or I couldn’t.
Throughout this very pleasant potter around town, the director himself appears newly relaxed and amiable: back behind the steering wheel, he’s exercising a degree of control over his own movements in a way he simply hasn’t been able to in some time. It’s no surprise his latest should leave him and his niece headed towards a destination on Paradise Street, and even if its quietly unsettling punchline underscores the level of intrusion Iranian citizens are subject to in their daily life, it’s undeniably heartening to see this exceptional filmmaker back in wider circulation.
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