By Tara Judah
Attached to the dash, looking out onto an intersection, as passers by do just that, Jafar Panahi’s camera gives us taxi-cam POV. The view offers a glimpse of Tehran; what it ‘really’ looks like. Then, as the lights change, we advance over the intersection, and begin collecting passengers. Panahi offers us a view of the city, though it is fleeting. One of his passengers soon inverts this view, by 180 degrees. It is clear that things are not what they seem. Instead of an insider’s view of the city, Panahi plans to show us how the people of the city, driving or being driven, navigate their lives.
Next we learn that our taxi driver is not really a taxi driver – he doesn’t know how to get everywhere and, when he does successfully take people where they want to go, he doesn’t accept cab fare. The driver is Jafar Panahi. The taxi-cam POV is (supposedly) a hidden camera. The idea is to blend surveillance and social realism – itself a commentary on how to negotiate everyday life in Iran.
As the journey progresses we see some passengers recognise him. Others just so happen to talk or act openly about the state of things as he takes them where they want to go. One passenger, Omid, who deals in film piracy, tells Panahi that he knows what’s going on – that the other people being driven around are actors. His surety is a nod and a wink. Even if the entire thing is staged, it still makes sense for Panahi to film it as if it were cinema verite. Achieving social realism in a country that heavily censors and has a history of banning that style of filmmaking means that he needs to signpost, but not dwell, on the cinephilic polemic about what is ‘real’.
The encounters he has are often funny, always smart. My favourite of his passengers is his niece. He picks her up from school and she’s annoyed at him for showing up late; she’d planned to show off her famous filmmaker uncle in front of her friends. Now she has no audience. Well, locally anyway. She has the attention of the western world via taxi-cam.
Veiled truth or stark realism, Panahi is trying to put honesty and authenticity front and centre. He knows that a child’s performance can encourage the viewer to believe more in the authenticity of what is being shown. From canonical realist films like Vittoria de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) and Iranian giant Abbas Kiarostami’s Where is the Friend’s Home? (1987), to his own film, The Circle (2000) (and that his niece conveniently references for him) the effects of an unfair system is no more sympathetically demonstrated than through the eyes and voice of a child.
Bold and inquisitive, she asks her uncle about filmmaking, and realism. Her new school project is to make a film. But it can’t be too real, the teachers say, because they have to make something that could be ‘distributable’. It’s a tough gig, balancing realism with commercial and state approval, but who better to ask than Panahi, the guru of non-distributable social realist Iranian film?
Through careful dialogue – improvised or otherwise – we see Panahi at his most explicit. “I think all movies are worth watching,” he tells Omid, whose presence in the film serves to teach us that movie piracy isn’t only studio theft, but also the democratisation of access to content. And despite the fact that one of his passengers – a lawyer no less – candidly tells him, “You’ll be accused of sordid realism,” it doesn’t seem as though the censors have edited the content of the film. But perhaps that’s the point.
Panahi’s films are too internationally acclaimed for Iranian authorities to suppress entirely, even if they are undistributable. Maybe letting something like this slip through the system is an allowance of eccentric behaviour, in the manner of Bakhtin. Whatever the reasons, this explicit, entertaining commentary on Iranian authority found its way to the big screen at an international film festival – and it’s worth stating that Panahi is determined, certainly.
Taxi-cam isn’t only conversation and it offers more than political provocation, too. Like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976), Panahi’s taxi-cam is a sort of consciousness, unable to stop searching, capturing and presenting the truth.
Directed: Jafar Panahi
Produced Jafar Panahi
Starring: Jafar Panahi
Running time:82 minutes