You talkin’ to me? - Panahi’s Taxi Tehran asks a few questions about life in Iran

I've commented before on the way that the Iranian political establishment often displays a dim-witted philistinism in its attitude to the country's film-makers, and in the case of Jafar Panahi this has long since curdled into official hostility. With Panahi’s new film Taxi Tehran now on in cinemas in Britain, here are a few further thoughts.

If you don’t know Panahi’s work, this isn’t a bad place to start. Taxi Tehran is the story of a film-maker called er, Jafar Panahi, who we see driving around Tehran in a taxi picking up passengers who are all then supposedly being filmed by the taxi's dash-cam. You see him variously putting up with their demands and their ranting, or, less onerously, chatting to them quite benignly from his driver’s seat. He also picks up his young niece, a super-confident pre-teen whose motormouth amuses her serene and (mostly) unruffled uncle.

That’s it really. Not much happens. People get in, people get out. Yet Taxi Tehran is also unmistakably full of Panahi’s trademark gentle-yet-tough set-pieces. We see a street kid scavenging for plastic bottles who is browbeaten by the bossy niece when she sees him surreptitiously pick up some money in the road belonging to a distracted and seemingly well-off young couple getting married. “Give it back”, she commands. He at first resists (he’s “poor”), but wavers and then actually tries to return the money but it's too late - the blissful couple have driven off, all the while being filmed by a third person who hasn’t noticed the dropped money, the boy, the niece, the taxi or anything. A strange, unpredictable little scene, but full of meaning and just one of dozens like it in Taxi Tehran.

There are lots of other interesting character-based vignettes. There’s a supplier of black market DVDs who talks about how he’s managed to get Woody Allen films for Panahi and offers a film student a “rare” Kurosawa and other “artsy” films. There’s a young guy who launches into a little tirade about the need for more capital punishment in Iran (not that there isn’t a lot already). There are two elderly women carrying a bowl of goldfish they want to take to a shrine for bizarre-sounding superstitious reasons. And there’s a smiling “flower lady”, a lawyer who says she’s on her way to visit Ghoncheh Ghavami, the real-life Iranian-British woman jailed last year for attempting to watch a volleyball match.

Yep, all of life is here. Or if not all, certainly some very nicely-composed slices of neorealism. And here’s the thing. Like the Italian neorealists or our own neo-neorealists (Ken Loach or Paweł Pawlikowski, say), Panahi is quietly - but very definitely - angry about a whole host of Iranian injustices, especially ones affecting women and children.

And some of it is obviously personal. Panahi, as readers will recall, has himself been convicted of “assembly and colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic”. He’s been given a six-year jail sentence (later turned into house arrest) and banned from making films for 20 years.

So for Panahi film-making itself has become a form of embattled artistic resistance. Like his earlier work This Is Not A Film, Taxi Tehran is an act of defiance and a film about cinematography itself. It's a meta film to end all meta films: a banned film-maker called Jafar Panahi plays a character called "Mr Panahi" who drives a cab while semi-casually filming its passengers (played by actors and real people) in a pseudo-documentary in which people either talk about film-making, film things themselves or talk about other things being recorded by cameras. Meanwhile, Panahi's niece spends most of her time recording events with her pocket Canon camera while cross-questioning her uncle about the principles of Iranian film-making. The neice's schoolteacher has set a film-making assignment, we learn, and she's been warned to avoid “sordid realism” and told not to depict good guys “wearing ties”. (No idea what that means...).

In Taxi Tehran everyone is filming everyone else. Panahi with his dashboard camera (plus the other film shots that are never explained), the niece with her ubiquitous digital camera, a blood-spattered man badly injured in a motorcycle crash who asks to be filmed formally saying he bequeaths all his possessions to his wife (to avoid Iran’s discriminatory inheritance laws), and … the authorities are presumably filming everyone else. The lawyer recounts how when Ghoncheh Ghavami's mother tried to visit her daughter in Evin prison the prison authorities took her into a room “with cameras everywhere” and tried to get her to say that Ghavami had never been on hunger strike. It’s like the scene in Jon Stewart’s Rosewater, where Gael García Bernal (playing the jailed journalist Maziar Bahari) is taken into a room with a camera to film his scripted “confession”.

It's a case of cameras filming people with cameras pretending to film other people with cameras (etc). Panahi has gone well beyond the usual life-imitating-art trope, and Taxi Tehran folds back in on itself in multiple ways.

But where, one might wonder, does all of this meta- and actual film-making leave the real, very-much-still-at-risk Jafar Panahi? Frankly, I've no idea. Taxi Tehran is the third film (or non-film) produced by Panahi since his ban and the authorities appear to be tolerating them. But I wonder for how much longer. Given the clampdown on journalists in the country, the jailing (for "espionage") of the British businessman Kamal Foroughi, and the sentencing to death of hundreds of people like Saman Naseem, you get the feeling that Panahi may be living on borrowed time.

In Taxi Tehran the lawyer warns Panahi to edit out her comments about how the authorities in Iran intimidate people otherwise this "sordid realism" will mean Panahi's little home-made taxi film will be "unscreenable". But in Iran it is anyway. And indeed here we are, watching it being screened. The comment is drenched in irony and even, amazingly enough, carries some of Panahi's typically genial humour.

At heart Panahi is a humanist film-maker who believes in the inherent dignity of people. Like Robert De Niro's much more famous taxi driver - though in a very different style - Panahi's Tehran road movie is asking a lot of searching questions about the society it depicts. If any of Iran's self-appointed moral guardians chance to watch Panahi's latest film they may very well wonder: is he talking to me?



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