In the third film he has made in secret, banned filmmaker Jafar Panahi drives a taxi and encounters everyday Iranians' opinions about their society.
Tehran Taxi is Jafar Panahi’s third film since he was banned from filmmaking by the Iranian government, and while it’s lightly mischievous and cheekily self-reflexive, it amounts to an eff you to the authorities, firstly by its mere existence, and secondly through the series of calculated challenges to the regime that are threaded throughout.
The influence of Panahi’s former mentor Abbas Kiarostami can be seen clearly in the film’s form – a taxi journey in which all of the action (mostly conversations between passengers) are filmed from inside the vehicle. The model here is Kiraostami’s Cannes Palme d’Or winning A Taste of Cherry, a series of conversations between a truck driver and various passengers themed around death, and even more obviously by 10, built around 10 conversations filmed inside a moving vehicle by a fixed camera.
Panahi also uses a fixed position camera but allows himself enough flexibility to toy with it. The opening – indicative of the film’s playfulness - has a dashboard camera pointed through the front windscreen. We watch as the car crosses a junction and then is hailed by a man on the side of the busy Tehran road. Just as it seems we’re going to be limited to the point of view of the car’s occupants, the new passenger unexpectedly swings the camera around onto himself in the front seat and a woman passenger – who’s quietly been sitting in the back all along.
We soon discover the cab driver is none other than Panahi himself (who seems pleased by his little joke) – swiftly recognised by the new passenger. An argument erupts between the male and women passengers about the death penalty – the first sign that in-between its self-reflexive winks and nods, the film will take pot shots at government policy. It’s Panahi’s way of saying he won’t be silenced.
During a series of passenger rides in the vehicle, Panahi’s preceding features are either mentioned directly (viz. his women soccer film Offside) or indirectly. For example, two women enter the cab holding a bag containing water and a goldfish, a reference to his first feature, The White Balloon, depicting a determined young girl’s quest to buy a white goldfish.
A little later, a cheerful lady seller of red roses enters the cab, on her way to visit someone in prison (a seeming reference to The Circle, about the condition of women prisoners both inside jail and in the wider society). She turns out to be a lawyer who’s waiting to discover whether she will be banned from practicing for three years after complaints by her own lawyers’ association. Panahi’s own status as banned filmmaker is discussed quite openly.
Anther passenger is the director’s young niece, which gives the filmmaker the chance to change the camera set up (she loves filming with her smart phone – we see some of the images she sees) while taking an amused look at the determination of young Iranian girls reminiscent of the girl in his earlier The White Balloon.
The ending, which I won’t give away, is a delicious twist.
The film is lightly entertaining, making its points about oppression in Iran gently. If it doesn’t carry the weight of some of his best work, such as The Circle, it would be unfair to expect otherwise given the conditions under which it was made - it’s semi-miraculous it was made at all.
The film deserves however to be seen by film school students and other budding filmmakers around the world as a lively example of how to make feature film when you have nothing – no money and no resources other than a small camera, a smartphone and a car.