Jafar Panahi’s Taxi provides a window into contemporary life in Iran through this terrific made-to-look-like non-fiction narrative film set entirely inside Panahi’s cab over the course of a single day.
Jafar Panahi’s Taxi (AKA Tehran Taxi) opens with an utterly absorbing nine-minute uncut take. The first image is a view through the dashboard window of a yellow car wandering the streets of Tehran. A man and then a woman hail the car, which stops for them to get in, signaling that this is a taxi. Once the man and woman are inside, we hear a hand turning the dashboard camera around to film the car’s passengers.
Their conversation turns to criminal punishment and whether the death penalty is a righteous option. The man is ignorant, rude, and loud, refusing to accept anything the woman says as reasonable. The woman is polite and patient, even as she gets increasingly exasperated. Only then do we cut, almost imperceptibly, to a shot of the driver: Panahi, a non-actor playing himself (we’ll call his character Jafar).
It’s a striking first shot, allowing the story to unfold in real-time, which gives the illusion of non-fiction filmmaking: the camera doesn’t move unless we see it moved by someone. It’s as if Jafar merely set up a camera on his dashboard before taking off to spend the day driving around town as a cab driver. It’s so immersive that it allows the film to “cheat” later on by including shots that wouldn’t be possible without stopping the scene. Panahi often cuts between closeups of the driver and the passenger, which appear to be shot from a camera in the same position, only rotated, without allowing time for such a camera to move. But we barely notice the rules being broken. We’re already under the film’s naturalistic spell.
Similarly, the camera angles are too perfect and fortuitous, not to mention pregnant with meaning, to be merely the result of a quick turn of the camera while driving. Most of the first scene plays out in a closeup of the male passenger sitting in front. The female passenger in the backseat is just peeking out of the right side of the frame, yet both faces are completely visible throughout the scene.
Every frame in Taxi is carefully composed. In that first shot, for instance, the man completely dominates the frame — he’s physically closer to the camera and he takes up more physical space. The woman is but a small blip, and her body language is confined. Their positions in the frame mirror the power dynamics between them: the man benefits from such unthinking privilege that he can dismiss the clearly more educated woman, even though she’s the voice of reason. Yet her image remains in focus, giving her some semblance of power, however small. The camera may not move much in this minimalist film, but this is carefully finessed filmmaking.
The entire film takes place over the course of a single day inside this cab — the camera never leaves its confines. The collection of characters we meet provides a window into contemporary life in Iran, where iPads and iPhones are ubiquitous but you have to buy DVDs of foreign films on the black market. Without famous landmarks to identify it, we find ourselves in a nondescript Middle Eastern city. Though we ultimately realise this is Tehran, it could stand in for a more familiar city, albeit one where taxis tend to serve as a carpool service to get you slightly closer to your destination. We encounter poverty here and there, though it’s always outside the walls of the car. And we learn that petty crimes have recently been punished with death.
Although the film is set in a misogynistic culture, Panahi fills the film with strong and smart female characters — much like Sissako’s Timbuktu. When Jafar goes to pick up his niece from school, he has to prematurely dump his passengers, insisting that his niece will be stranded without him, unable to get home. As he pulls up to the school, a small girl in a headscarf is pacing outside. We hardly expect that the first words out of her mouth will be a forceful castigation for her uncle’s lateness, spoken so quickly he fares as badly as Cary Grant in Bringing up Baby.
As Jafar picks up passengers, meets friends, and runs into others, key political and economic issues get discussed. The film feels realistic, much like the conversations and performances in Before Sunset and Conversations with Other Women have the ring of real interactions. But even as the film touches on imprisonment from unsubstantiated charges, interrogation and torture, rampant crime, and government censorship of films, it does so with a light touch. Because the characters treat these things as commonplace, as casual conversation topics, we understand just how deep the problems run. And Jafar remains an affable presence even as some of his passengers’ actions would try anyone’s patience.
At one point in the film, Jafar’s niece tells him she’s been assigned to make a “distributable” short film for her class. She begins to list all the requirements for the film, which range from respecting the Islamic headscarf, to no contact between men and women, to not having the “good guys” wearing a tie, to avoiding “sordid realism”. Though Panahi’s film seems a harmless enough portrayal of life as it’s lived in contemporary Iran, we realize that every part of it is an act of rebellion, however absurd that may be. That the film subtly lets us figure this out is perhaps the greatest indictment of all. Panahi’s Taxi is essential viewing.
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