“All you need to make a movie is a car and a camera” isn’t quite the exact wording of Jean-Luc Godard’s apocryphal quote, but is as good a mantra as any to describe much of the work of the Iranian New Wave which has featured highly in world cinema since the 1990s. Abbas Kiarostami’s films like Ten and Taste of Cherry play out almost entirely within the confines of a vehicle, as do some of the most memorable scenes in Jafar Panahi’s earlier film The Circle. Outside the obvious thematic connotations of a car – a symbol of modernity, of status – in these films it assumes particular meanings as a private space in the public sphere. Men and (especially) women can talk openly about the state, religion, gender in ways they wouldn’t out on the street; observing the outside world while not entirely in it, while also being able to traverse boundaries that are based on geography, class and other barriers. And so it makes perfect sense as the location for Jafar Panahi’s third film in defiance of his 20 year ban on filmmaking, extending practically (he’s no longer under house arrest, but still needs to film discreetly) and thematically from the first two films, while fitting them in with his wider body of work.
This Is Not A Film toyed with Panahi’s initial reaction to the restrictions placed on him, and the toil of an artist no longer allowed to practise his form, and Closed Curtain was an effective evocation of the pure paranoia and fear, of the base emotional effects house arrest and state surveillance elicits. Like the product of a fast-tracked cycle of the stages of grief, Tehran Taxi then feels like a fuller acceptance of his circumstances and a stronger realisation of his unwavering commitment to making films; a return to his early films and homage to artistic collaborator and now globe-trotting compatriot Kiarostami. In this unclassifiable pseudo-documentary Panahi plays himself as the driver of the titular vehicle, driving around the city of Tehran encountering various characters, turning his single location into a variety of platforms – a hub for subversive cultural endeavours through the dissemination of bootleg DVDs, a makeshift ambulance and personal vehicle for picking up Panahi’s own niece. And sometimes it’s a taxi as well.
Ostensibly a look across several segments of Iranian society, on paper this film is strongly indebted to Kiarostami’s Ten, likewise a film constrained within a taxi.1 The character of Panahi’s niece – a revelation both dramatically and comically in this film – seems based on Mania Akbari’s son in that film as a foil for the driver, as a thorn in the side character with a child’s intuition spurring on some of the best moments of each film. Likewise Taste of Cherry‘s protagonist’s excursion with different characters, trying to give our suicidal lead different perspectives and meanings to live from, Panahi does something a little different. As he refuses fares, it’s clear he is collecting something else from those who come into his cab – stories, experiences, dialogues that illuminate Iranian society today. Parts of this film feel overly familiar in the terrain of Iranian cinema in a way his previous films didn’t (one passenger accuses Panahi of rehashing dialogue from his earlier, Kiarostami-scripted Crimson Gold) but no less genuine. The lingering power of an earlier Panahi like The Circle works for the same reasons; introducing us to characters before jettisoning them as we latch on to others, gaining glimpses into their lives, before they leave the taxi and we see them (in some masterful long takes) blend into the backdrop of the millions of lives that make up the city of Tehran.
Many of the great Iranian films, like many of those I’ve mentioned and perhaps most triumphantly in Mohsen Makmalbaf’s A Moment of Innocence, mesh fiction with documentary in an attempt to somehow discover the very essence of cinema. Perhaps the end goal remains elusive or unable to be articulated, but Tehran Taxi follows in this tradition as Panahi works acts of cinematic alchemy, pulling narratives out of thin air and investing us into a sequence of mini narratives that he teases out, never to be followed through to a satisfying conclusion. We’ll never know if a pair of superstitious, goldfish carrying women reach their sacred spring or not, and this serves Panahi’s wider point. Cinema and audience empathy can be created out of nothing, and his ability to draw stories in these circumstances proves the power of pure storytelling in the face of restrictions and limitations in a way the Dogme 95 movement never did. His meta-commentary on cinema itself may not be continually novel or refreshing2 but the continual creative inspiration throughout this film makes this an enjoyable, fascinating and accomplished piece of cinema, whatever that happens to mean.
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