By striking director Jafar Panahi down, the Iranian government has only made him more powerful than they could possibly imagine. Banned from making movies and baselessly convicted of crimes against national security, the filmmaker has nonetheless successfully exported three bona-fide masterpieces in the five years since his sentencing. Although ‘Taxi Tehran’ boasts neither the raw anger of 2011’s ‘This Is Not a Film’ nor it’s incredible origin story – the footage was loaded onto a USB drive and smuggled out of Iran in a cake – this spry, sharp and relentlessly clever middle finger to censorship is Panahi’s boldest act of defiance to date.
Reflecting Iranian cinema’s fascination with cars and their unique properties as a space that’s simultaneously both public and private, the film finds Panahi behind the wheel of a cab in downtown Tehran. Shot to resemble a documentary (but far too pointed and plot-driven to be mistaken for one), ‘Taxi Tehran’ slowly transforms the interior of Panahi’s car into a stage for crimes, confessions, deathbed declarations and even a goldfish-related tragedy.
Each passenger who climbs into his mobile prison cell is quick to notice the camera mounted to the dashboard, but none of them are disturbed by it (the cast are uncredited to protect their identities). In fact, most have cameras of their own and look into Panahi’s lens as though it were a mirror – a self-admitted criminal mistakes it for an anti-theft device, a lawyer compares it to Big Brother, and Panahi’s adorable young niece eagerly likens herself to the heroine of a film her uncle made before she was born. Such reflexivity has always been key to the director’s work, but he’s never had this much fun smudging the line between fiction and reality.
Many of the characters at the heart of these miniature dramas recognise their cabbie, who’s a celebrity in his home country even if his movies are prohibited from screening there. From its opening long-take to its gut-punch of a finale, this is a brilliantly humane testament to the fact that, in the twenty-first century, cinema is truly everywhere, and Jafar Panahi is still in the driver’s seat.