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What if you got in a taxi one day with a gabby and opinionated driver who wasn’t an unreconstructed bigot with tabloid-honed politcal views? What if — as in Jafar Panahi’s Taxi Tehran — your driver was an enlightened international filmmaker, second-jobbing and using his taxi as a talking shop? As a cab to un-crib and un-confine thoughts on life and politics proscribed by his government?
The Iranian director condemned to silence has spoken again. Arrested and banned from filmmaking in 2010, Panahi previously defied authority with This Is Not a Film (2011) and Closed Curtain (2013). This year he won the Berlin Golden Bear with Taxi Tehran, just recognition for a movie — clandestinely made like its two precursors — of corrosive intelligence and gleaming courage.
Panahi as Panahi, flat-capped in early scenes as if in an ironic gesture at disguise, is recognised by almost every fare he boards, from the itinerant DVD seller to the self-confessed street mugger to the two lady shrine pilgrims. “Oh it’s you, Mr Panahi!” Also popping into the taxi, passim, are the director’s little niece, ripe for ideological rescue as she parlays her teacher’s party-line thoughts on what are and aren’t acceptable topics in Iranian cinema, and the persecuted human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, in effect playing herself. It’s that kind of film. An antic countercultural pageant, in which fact and fiction play musical passenger seats.
When Taxi Tehran won the Berlin top prize, pro-government Iranian commentators accused the film of being merely political. But there is nothing “mere” about politics in a country where the silences enforced by tyranny make utterance itself a political act. Panahi referees with a mischievous feint of docility the conversation topics: art, freedom, censorship, religion, thought, hope, despair . . . As a director he shapes a subtext, simultaneous and symbiotic, about the nature and ubiquity of cinema today. It’s everywhere around us, from surveillance cameras to cellphones, from marquee movies to bootleg discs.
This film about the freedom to talk, listen and observe — the freedoms that enable art itself — ends with that liberty being snatched away once again. It’s a simple, shocking denouement. With hindsight’s wisdom, we recognise we should have seen it coming. But in the innocence of foresight we’re too charmed, too moved, too urged towards optimism by this film’s brave idealism and fragile yet unflagging articulations of hope.