What starts out as a light and funny taxi ride through the capital, a two fingers up to the establishment that prevents a brilliant filmmaker from what he does best, is in fact a feature which gives the audience the most accurate and honest view yet of the position and strength of cinema in a regime which is afraid to show its true face.
Jafar Panahi’s films have always focussed on showing reality, whether it was through documentary filmmaking, feature filmmaking or a hybrid such as Taxi Tehran. Without trying to make a political statement as such, showing the true faith of women, children and the poor in Iran has made him an enemy of the state. Arrested in 2010 and banned from making films for twenty years, Panahi shows that he is not one to give up. His never ending sense of humour shone true in the film released secretly during the first few months of his ban, entitled This is Not a Film.
When smuggled out of the country in a cake, the documentary managed to make its way to Cannes and so his voice continued to tell the story of the underdog in his society, only this time it was himself that was the subject and the face of the disadvantaged.
Worldwide solidarity was demonstrated by those in the industry that could still speak out. Filmmakers, festivals, fans – all have supported Panahi and his work, which has continued to be shown at festivals. A year ago, the third film released since courts ordered him to no longer work won the Golden Bear at the 65th Berlinale.
Panahi says: “I’m a filmmaker. I can’t do anything else but make films. Cinema is my expression and the meaning of my life. Nothing can prevent me from making films. Because when I’m pushed into the furthest corners I connect with my inner self. And in such private spaces, despite all limitations, the necessity to create becomes even more of an urge. Cinema as an Art becomes my main preoccupation. That is the reason why I have to continue making films under any circumstances to pay my respects and feel alive.”
Acting as a cabbie, driving around a yellow taxi through Tehran – a taxi rigged with three cameras – a sullen, sweet and prodding Panahi records conversations with his passengers about the current state of Iran, and especially its cinema and film policy and the freedom of the arts.
A conversation with an over enthusiastic bootleg DVD salesman shows us the popularity of film and its persistence under any regime. A conversation with a film student teaches us that all film matters, not just the work of approved masters. We also encounter the filmmaker’s real-life little cousin, who is working on a school project, shooting a film within the confinements of what is allowed and what isn’t – rules so confusing and vague they lead to hilarious and ridiculous situations. However, reflecting upon her words, they show the harsh reality for Panahi and his fellow Iranian filmmakers.
As an audience we don’t know who is entering his cab as a genuine passenger and who is in cahoots with the filmmaker. We don’t know what is fact and what is fiction, not even the credits will tell us as they are absent for safety reasons. What we do know is that the fictional parts in this film are also fact, and it is for this reason that this feature can be classed as both documentary as well as drama.
Delivered with Panahi’s brilliant sense of humour, subtle and inviting, the simple yet effective concept used ensures we get more than a glimpse of Iran, its people and their views on cinema. It is documenting reality with flair and, luckily for us, an unstoppable amount of creativity.
The documentary Taxi Tehran is showing from 26 January until 18 February at the BFI Southbank. Click here to find out more.