Tehran Taxi movie review

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In December 2010, Iranian writer/director and social critic Jafar Panahi was arrested and later banned from filmmaking for 20 years after being judged guilty of creating anti-Iranian propaganda.

Since then he has nevertheless made three pictures including 2011’s This is Not a Film, which he shot almost entirely in his apartment and was smuggled out of the country on a USB stick hidden inside a cake.

Tehran Taxi is another self-reflexive documentary, though how much of it is staged and who among the participants are actors remains tantalisingly unclear. The director himself is the star; we watch him drive through the streets of Tehran as a makeshift cabbie with a camera-rigged car who, in simulated real time, gives passengers free rides and maintains a blithe, smiling aura as people around him come and go and confide their woes.

From the first shot, despite (and in part because of) its limitations, Tehran Taxi is a masterclass in spatial reveal — a film crafted with impeccable understanding of how visual information can be used to invest meaning in the otherwise prosaic or banal.

Ignore all the subtext and political observation and the film would still be a great self-contained story: alternately funny, dramatic, profound and frivolous. As an intellectual exercise juggling searing social commentary with a play-like structure comprised of character-based vignettes, it is captivating on so many levels —  at once a work of drama and seriocomic intensity, political critique, visual craftsmanship and meta reflection on the very nature of how and why films are made in the first place.

Tehran Taxi begins as the director’s car waits at traffic lights at a busy intersection, with a front-on image soaking up street life. A passenger notices the camera and inquires whether it is an anti-theft device. Panahi replies well, sort of, yes, and the frame spins around to capture the young man and a woman in the back. They squabble about the extent to which the death penalty may or may not be justified; in Iran taxis pick up multiple passengers travelling to different destinations, meaning the central (and only) location is a vessel to compare contrasting personalities in close proximity.

Things get intense quickly. When a victim of a motorcycle accident is bundled into the back of the cab, bleeding and possibly dying, he asks for his final testament to be recorded on video. For a moment we think: will Panahi admit to the presence of his cameras? Then another passenger films the distraught man with his iPhone, one of several scenes consisting of screens inside screens and cameras filming cameras.

It’s a great moment and — like most in Tehran Taxi — it comes with a meta twist. The passenger who witnesses this gnarly scene addresses Panahi after they drop the injured man and his wife off at a hospital. Ho ho, he says: nice try, but I know you staged it.

But did he?

The director doesn’t linger on that question, though it’s a fascinating one. An answer in the affirmative suggests a full-blown, frightfully well-acted and rehearsed sequence taking place illegally on the streets around unsuspecting people. If it wasn’t staged the scene is stunningly dramatic; observational documentary’s equivalent of a spontaneous volcanic eruption —  rare, intense and breathtaking.

When Panahi’s young and precocious niece arrives on the scene to discuss her homework assignment Tehran Taxi ramps up as a response to the director’s own situation. She has been tasked with making a film for school and must adhere to rules that govern whether or not it will be “screenable.” For example, she mustn’t depict any “sordid realism.”

This poses issues when the niece (who collected the film’s Golden Bear award for her uncle at the Berlin Film Festival) records a young boy finding money on the street that doesn’t belong to him, and subsequently tries to convince the kid to return the money lest her film become ineligible. Thus the idea of a filmmaker contriving reality to fit an external criteria, reversing and corrupting the concept of documentary capturing real life.

That critique is more pronounced in the final moments, before text appears explaining that the banning of the filmmaker means no credits can be displayed. It is one small but curiously powerful moment in an 82 minute running time jam-packed with them. Tehran Taxi is a ceaselessly innovative piece of work, intellectually and otherwise, and a single setting film unlike any other.

[box]Tehran Taxi is screening at the Sydney Film Festival and will get a wider theatrical release on June 20 [/box]

2 responses to “Tehran Taxi movie review

  1. I really enjoyed this film. So delightful and charming and yet at times also disturbing and thought-provoking. I’d so like to know how much was staged and what was genuinely spontaneous.

  2. It certainly kept me interested but I was still quite disappointed by this film. I had expected real footage but to me the whole thing seemed thoroughly fake, particularly the scenes with the niece.

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