A filmmaker banned from making films by an oppressive regime, decides to operate a taxi and, while doing so, films his passengers as he takes them (and us), on a virtual car-pool tour of his hometown, Tehran.
Tehran Taxi is, in some respects, that simple.
It is also a film that would be difficult to fully appreciate without a certain amount of context, for the filmmaker in this case is Jafar Panahi, the celebrated Iranian director who, in 2010, was banned by the Iranian government from making films and placed under house arrest. And, while his punishment may have been somewhat relaxed (he is now allowed to leave his home), the ban on making films, imposed due to Panahi’s continued contravention of Iran’s strict filmmaking codes of conduct, still stands.
The result is a film that exists somewhere between documentary and fiction without sitting comfortably in either camp. And as this story of a filmmaker driving his friends, family and strangers around Tehran unfolds, so do layers upon layers of meaning. It’s a film that asks a lot of questions. And, I mean, this is a film which should not exist, and in a lot of ways resists the common classification of a film (see also Panahi’s 2011 film This Is Not A Film), leading to one of the big questions Panahi asks of us – just what exactly is a film? And why?
It’s this searching interrogative approach that is so central to the film. Passengers in Panahi’s taxi poke and prod at each other, questioning and challenging the other’s beliefs and behaviours, all in an attempt to reach some understanding or agreement on the right way for a person, or a society to be. At the very least, these passengers and Panahi are trying to get some clearer picture of the way things are. ‘The way things are’ perhaps being something a reportedly oppressive regime, preoccupied with their presentation over the reality of who they actually are, is not too interested in examining.
Panahi knows this. The film is easily interpreted as a barely disguised rebuke of the country he calls home. He pokes and he prods, teases and stirs, raising challenges to his own government and policy makers, regarding the successes and failures of their governance. Not so subtly pointing out hypocrisies and failures of justice that exist within Iranian society.
But for all that, this may give you the wrong impression. There is very little about the film that is off-puttingly self-righteous, or hectoring. And in yet another sleight of hand Panahi pulls off, the overriding attitude of the film is one of warmth and good humour. For all he is up against, and as strong as the temptation must be to succumb to bitterness and anger, the impression we are left with is of a spirited and generous man who, fueled by a gentle defiance, has produced a film which, despite taking place entirely inside of a taxi, provides the audience a window into an entire world.
Tehran Taxi plays at ACMI from the 27th of December to the 17th of January.