Every once in a while, there comes a film that makes you reconsider the boundaries of cinema and what it can truly be capable of. In general terms, this arrives in form of spectacle-driven features that push the bounds of the imaginative eye through accelerated visual achievement. But, the other kind, the less acknowledged kind, is, on the contrary, reserved, minimalist and a little more powerful for it. For those types of films force us to question what the medium should be used for. Away from fantastical representations, it offers an insight into a truth that we could never gauge ourselves.”
In Taxi Tehran, we find an astonishing piece of docu/mockumentary-realism that catches a fleeting snippet of Iranian society against the backdrop of the oppressive totalitarian structures that keep it in check. Following the traditional vein of Iranian cinema, Jafar Panahi once again hazes the borders between reality and fiction, filming entirely with dashcams and iPhones while himself portraying the Tehranian cabbie who ferries passengers across his nation’s capital. Giggles resound when Panahi is first revealed as the driver ten minutes in. It’s a deliciously meta touch and one to be somewhat expected from a national cinema that has as much of a notion of the fourth wall as a Brechtian outhouse. Of course, what are directors if not the operators of their own artistic vehicle, steering us from junction to junction along the narrative roadways of their vision. As we, in our preppy pretentiousness, become lost in the unravelling symbolism and meaning of it all, Panahi has moved swiftly on to pick up another fare.
There’s a simplicity here that urges us not to overthink things. The director refuses to become locked up in the self-reflexivity and instead rests more attention on the passengers he carries and their personal day-to-day problems. Figures enter and exit his cab doling out mere snapshots into their lives. One sequence sees a wife lead her badly beaten husband to a hospital. What first appears as horror soon morphs into comedy, with the man droning on about his now-impending death (with unexpected chimes of Monty Python’s ‘I’m not quite dead, sir”). He then reiterates the fact that, under law, his wife will not be able to inherit his possessions, as if, in his final breath, to rub it in. In another, a passenger actually recognises Panahi and asks him what he’s doing here. He never gives a conclusive answer, and we don’t really need one. An ‘anti-theft device’ is the closest we get to uncovering what the director is trying to achieve. It may prove telling later, but for the moment Panahi just wants us along for the ride.
You might think that Taxi Tehran’s boxed-off setting wouldn’t make for enticing viewing. However, through its episodic structure, we find a film that is suffused with an intense range of emotion: tenderness, shock, regret and most of all humour. However, the film’s definitive brilliance is spurred from its ability to use this self-reflexivity as a springboard to highlight the morally obtuse nature of Iranian society and the clear disconnect between power and people. A government insists upon what can and can’t be said in letters black and white; whereas, on the ground, civilians are left to deal with all the niggling uncertainties. The film opens with a man and woman arguing over whether capital punishment can be justified. It closes with a discussion on the complexities of the Iranian judicial system. What is most striking is that these conversations are being had on the ground in the most mundane of settings and not among the higher political powers. This ambiguity, it seems, is the plague of the people who, like Panahi, suffer the burden of a complex and unjust society by a state power that refuses to see nuance. Ignorance, for them, is bliss. But what Taxi Tehran offers is too compelling to ignore.