With his cameras on automatic in a taxi, director Panahi drives around Tehran, and you have a feeling that all is not quite as it appears. Was the man hauled into the back with his face bleeding profusely, his black clad wife screaming and wailing, a set-up with actors? Your credulity is stretched beyond elastic as the injured man demands to be filmed on Panahi’s mobile phone while he bawls out his last Will and Testament, leaving the family house to his wife, before he passes out as they drive to the hospital. And when his wife later pesters Panahi by phone wanting a copy of the video even though her husband has not in fact died ‘Just in case, you never know… but don’t tell my husband,’ you don’t know whether to laugh or wail yourself.
Then take the two older ladies, balancing a wobbly gold fish bowl, themselves well covered and upholstered, who commandeer Panahi’s taxi to get to Ali Spring demanding he drives them fast, ‘God Willing.’ They have to get there by noon or they will not be able to throw their existing goldfish back into the waters and claim another two goldfish for the next year. Then the farcical inevitable happens; the taxi brakes suddenly and the bowl shatters. The ladies call Panahi a moron and exit grumbling even as he rescues the fish by pouring them into a plastic bag.
A whole series of huge characters enter the theatre of the taxi at a pace which is exhausting and I found myself pondering seemingly irrelevant practicalities like why seat belts are mandatory in the front of the taxi but not the back? Why Panahi can use his mobile while driving, what the meaning is of the voice he hears as he drives which he identifies as being that of his ex prison interrogator and how any of this can be real when he does not charge anyone at all for the journey...
Enter his niece Hana, a school girl - things get steadily weirder. She rabbits on relentlessly while trying to film Panahi on her Canon camera for a school project, mimicking her grandmother in nagging and moaning about how he does not answer his mobile phone and always cancels meetings with people. But Panahi does take her to meet a family friend who he has not seen for six or seven years, who escorts her to a café, dumps her there while he goes back to the car to show Panahi a video of him on an ipad (another film) being beaten up by a brigand, who turns out to be the waiter at the café where the girl is sipping a banana shake on her own.
So just what is going on? All these cameras, all this filming, while being in a film, watching other films? Maybe that is the just the point, to mock the absurdity of ‘sordid realism’, or that which cannot be filmed by law in this place. The film, neither documentary or drama, evokes more questions than answers, showing us examples of everyday and extraordinary lives whilst lifting corners of repression, surveillance and violence in modern Tehran.
Regardless, Panahi has made a film about Tehran in all its idiosyncrasies despite the formal state restrictions. There are no credits but in a closing caption, Panahi states he can’t name anyone because Iran’s ministry of culture and Islamic guidance only approves the credits of distributable films.
As sordid realism, Taxi Tehran breaks one of the many rules of film making in Iran and is not approved for distribution. Nevertheless, in Berlin it won the Golden Bear at this year’s film festival!
Taxi Tehran is now showing at FACT. Click here to book tickets.