I had no idea that I would be driven (pardon the pun) to review a film so early into the new year. More so by a foreign documentary, focusing more on the subtitles to stay up to speed. However when it came to Taxi Tehran (2015) watched at a time when protests in Iran have gone on for nearly a week now after promises of reform have not gone away in the memories of the voters who brought Supreme leader Khamenei, who will do anything to suppress the public from having a voice. It was the voice of a single director in 2010 was given a 6 year jail sentence and a 20 year film-making ban that includes distribution, promotion even a travel ban unless of religious grounds. In the eyes of the West this was against all that it means to be a filmmaker, the agency to express oneself creatively, in the case of Jafar Panahi cinematically. He has since made a few films under the ban that have been made in very unorthodox yet still very creative, first releasing This is Not a Film (2011) on a memory stick to Cannes before making, an extended home video of him under house arrest, at times jumpy and confusing, Panahi is owning the camera on this film set and prison. Before moving onto Closed Curtain (2013) a brief return to conventional film.
That same year Taxi Tehran was released, filmed from a number of camera positioned in a taxi he drove around. Documenting the passengers and the lives that they bring with them to the car. The aim to help expose the suppression of Iranian film censorship tries to cover up the realities of life in the country. I could give an overview of the film but I feel that would not really do it justice at all. Even at its short length we seem to spend at lot of time some passengers. We’re thrown in the deep in with two very different passengers, a man and a woman from different parts of society, the man very vocal on capital punishment for most offences whilst the teachers in the back is willing to listen to the criminal in order to understand them, looking at the root causes. Coming from a profession that nurtures and listens before passing judgement. Whilst the man, who we learn is a mugger – or so he says, sees that as fair and just to kill thieves. These two passengers set up the clear differences that are in Iran, opening out eyes to those living in the country, who aren’t representative of the oppressive government.
With the arrival of a smaller passenger, a DVD bootlegger who in the West we wouldn’t think about encouraging his crimes of piracy. However Panahi has another take on it all. The bootlegger doesn’t take before he blows the drivers cover, talking opening about his “business” to the director who does nothing to stop him. What he sees and we learn is that the bootlegger is bringing in culture, films that are otherwise banned, ideas and images that would have to be censored if they came in through official channels. For a while the two “work” together to help the distribution of Western culture reach the masses. Interrupted by the wife who hopes that her injured husband doesn’t die. In tears he records his last will and testament to ensure his wife gets everything, not left homeless. For a few moments I wonder if the gentlemen has died in that backseat, has he ensured his wife security. I have to reminded myself none of this is scripted, only the end credits come close to that.
Things lighten up with in the form of two elderly ladies and a bowl of goldfish. They must reach their destination of a spring before noon, they lives literally depend on the fish making it to the water. They are delightful to listen to as they bicker and worry over a superstition. Even in Iran you can find dotty old ladies, showing wherever you are in the world, somethings are universal. They soon leave us to spend time with the drivers niece, a very precocious young lady who knows her own mind and is not afraid to tell everyone. She wants to talk to her uncle, who she clearly admires, yet doesn’t understand his situation. Her class has been given a month to make a movie. I thought he was going to give the same advice he gave to the bootleggers film student customer – not much except to find his own material. Instead we have this wonderful perception of what film is, the film censorship that she clearly doesn’t understand (blames it on her teacher). Wanting not to end up like her uncle her direction with the camera is more inline with government policy, without understand it’s origins or meanings. We learn how contradictory they are, ties for bad men, not depicting reality, it’s all about smoke and mirrors, depicting a fantasy that escapes everyday life, instead of responding to it. Now I know why Panahi was banned.
He takes time out to talk to a man whom he grew up with, who hopes will be able to assist him. It’s disturbing how close people are in this part of Iran. It’s not so easy to send people you know to a possible death sentence. It reminded me of how quick justice can be dealt with as we saw in A Separation (2011) that sees a man almost wrongly convicted of murder, when all the facts are stacked against him. All he wants to do is look out for his family. His next passenger is a flower-lady, a soon to be disbarred lawyer, whose as open-minded as our driver, they share each others pain. Both know what is going on the country, they are more than aware of what goes on behind closed doors. I wish we could’ve spend more time with her. Instead picking with the niece whose eyes are slowly opening to the complexities of life in her country.
We see that even in the space of just over an hour, life in Iran is rich and diverse. Filled with laughter, joy, great pain and sorrow, as it is in any other part of the world. Panahi is shining a light on that world that his country would otherwise not like us to see. It’s an eye-opener, yet at times not surprising. After seeing Ai Weiwei’s show at the Royal Academy a few years ago I was left speechless at times. Himself fighting the suppression of his own government that wont allow him to speak. Both artists are fighting their own wars on the different fronts. Maybe the protests might one day lead to the directors ban being overturned. He’s clearly loved by all that know him as he once against risks it all for his passion and believe in breaking with censorship that only inhibits him to make films. It’s a refreshing film that doesn’t shy away for a minute from the truth, something his government shy’s away from.