The Taxi Driver from Tehran

in 65th Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival

by Mode Steinkjer

Will Jafar Panahi’s brilliant new Taxi not only speed through the streets of Tehran, but also into the Iranian cinemas? We can only hope. After the Berlinale 2015, where the film was awarded both the FIPRESCI award for a film in Competition and the Golden Bear, authorities stand face to face with an unique opportunity to show that the climate for Iranian artists is not so freezing cold anymore. The lightness in this film and the filmmaker’s bright, witty and distinctive look upon his situation and surroundings, constitute perhaps a call for change in itself.

Jafar Panahi may or may not be under house arrest any more after a December 2010 sentence that banned him from making films or participate in any political activities for the next 20 years. His conviction to six years in prison has yet to be enforced. Nevertheless he finds himself in a terrible and frustrating situation, unsure of his future as a filmmaker and as a human being. That makes Taxi as artistic effort even stronger. Even though the film’s critique of the authorities in Iran seems vague, its strong message of freedom represents all artists struggling to overcome censorship wherever they live. And with Panahi himself literally behind the wheel, Taxi contains an unmatched boldness that shows how free speech always can find its way through repressive obstacles.

Taxi is above all a wonderful and deeply personal film. It is obviously written, directed, acted and improvised by a brave filmmaker using his fantasy to overcome the barriers he is facing. After This Is Not A Film (In film nist; 2011) and Closed Curtain (Pardé; 2013, co-directed with Kambuzia Partovi), this third post ban-film from Panahi represents a return to his main field as a storyteller. Once again he is determined to continue portraying the people of his native Tehran, their everyday struggle with religious dogmas, ever changing laws and general distrust. Panahi’s sympathetic and satirical eye for the conditions faced by Iranian women and the working class in a socially divided city, is the heart of Taxi – just as it was in his pre ban-films like The White Balloon (Badkonake sefid; 1995), The Circle (Dayereh; 2000) and Abbas Kiarostami-penned Crimson Gold (Talaye Sorkh; 2003), that brought upon him the ban by the Revolutionary Court due to its “anti-regime” content. Taxi is a subtle take on reality. It is funny, smart and ironic, providing a seamless blend of documentary elements, actors and coincidental events to create a portrait of the artist as a not-so-young man any more. This is above all propounded through one of the film’s main passengers, Panahi’s little niece who in several ways becomes the future voice of the Panahi family as well as the country itself.

The episodic feeling of the film creates a multi-layered storyline confronting everyday life in contemporary Iran. All the camera work is cleverly done by Panahi himself from inside the car, fooling both audience and clients into believing that he as a “cabbie” uses surveillance cameras for safety reasons. And even if his inner GPS sometimes seems to be buffering, his mind is always present. Just look at how careful he is not to discuss with his passengers and their attempts to make him comment on censorship or politics. He participates without saying, and thus he avoids controversy upon himself. He will just smile and step on it through the noisy streets of Tehran, giving away several references to his earlier works “en route”. Among these there is an almost surreal sequence where he picks up two elderly, rather annoying ladies carrying a goldfish in a bowl. The goldfish can clearly be seen as a symbol of Panahi’s art, starting with the story about an innocent little girl who is facing a corrupted society when she seeks out to buy a goldfish in his debut film The White Balloon. Now the two women have to bring the fish back to its original surroundings. In Panahi’s taxi, that is not an easy task.

This and other scenes in the film suggest the boldness in Jafar Panahi’s current work. After two films in a row made under almost hermetic conditions, Taxi comes out as not only a striking beacon of determination, but as a manifestation of the filmmaker’s thriving fantasy and unstoppable urge to continue. Above all, it is a brilliant film regardless of under which circumstances it was made. A universal and humane piece of art by a true craftsman, made possible due to an original exploration of human behaviour. Apart from picking up film lovers as passengers along the way, let’s hope this Taxi and its driver never stop in their attempt to find all possible destinations all over the world.

Edited by Neil Young