Taxi Tehran (2015)

An interesting and unique docu-fiction in which director Jafar Panahi drives a taxi in the city of Tehran and through the discussion between the various passengers create a picture of contemporary Iranian society and government

9/5/20236 min read

Jafar Panahi as Taxi Driver in 'Taxi Tehran'
Jafar Panahi as Taxi Driver in 'Taxi Tehran'

Iranian, 82 minutes, 2015

Director: Jafar Panahi

Cast: Jafar Panahi, Hana Saeidi, Nasrin Sotoudeh, other people

Awards: Winner, Golden Bear and FIPRESCI Prize, Berlin International Film Festival, 2015; Winner, Audience choice award, Mumbai Film Festival, 2015; Winner, Audience Award and Nominee Grand Prix, Luxembourg City Film Festival, 2015; Nominee, Sydney Film Prize (Best Film), Sydney Film festival, 2015; Nominee, Grand Prix, Fribourg International Film Festival, 2015

“First they mount a political case. You are an agent of Mossad, the CIA, MI5. They beef it up with morality charge. They make your life hell. When you finally get released, outside world becomes bigger cell. They make your best friends your worst enemies. Either you have to escape the country or start hoping to go back to jail. In my opinion, just let it go.” These words said by human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh (who comes in the film as herself) sums up the entire philosophy behind ‘Taxi Tehran’- The reason why ‘Taxi Tehran’ was made and why it was made the way it has been made. ‘Taxi Tehran’ should be viewed in a certain perspective. It is not a normal film made under normal circumstances and hence it is not made the way a normal film would be made. For instance, the camera never leaves taxi. Let us start from the beginning.

After several years of making films (1997 onwards) which did not confirm to strictures set by Iranian government regarding filmmaking, in year 2010, Jafar Panahi, the director of this film was arrested in March 2010 along with his wife, daughter and 15 other friends who were later charged with ‘propaganda against Iranian government’. In December 2010, he was sentenced to six years in prison and 20 year ban on directing movies, writing screenplays, giving interviews and travelling abroad except for medical treatment or Haj. ‘Taxi Tehran’ was made in 2015 on this background. Being a genius, Panahi created this unique venture- him as a taxi driver. People come, sit in his cab, talk and go to their respective destinations. A video camera, installed in his cab records everything and essentially forms the film.

His first passenger is a traditional man, and then a woman. The man holds the view that robbers should be hanged and the lady opposes him saying why is he ‘too quick to dispense with others’ lives’. ‘To create an example so that others wouldn’t dare’, he reasons. The argument continues and remains inconclusive till they alight his taxi. Then comes in a pirated video rental vendor, Omid, who had once rented movie ‘Once upon a time in Anatolia’ by Nuri Ceylan to Panahi. He recognises him and tries to be friendly. While he is riding, the cab is stopped by people on road who wants Panahi to carry an injured person to hospital. The man with blood-stained face and his wife are loaded into his cab and carried to hospital. The man records his will on Panahi’s mobile camera phone fearing what would happen to his wife if he dies. After they are dropped to hospital, the video rental guy takes Panahi to one of his film student’s house to deliver DVDs. Panahi advises him on some DVDs and they leave. After him two superstitious ladies hire his cab who wants to reach ‘Ali’s Spring’ before 12 noon to release goldfishes they are carrying. They hurry him up. Since he has to pick up his niece, he loads them in another car and proceeds to pick her up. He reaches late and his niece is waiting alone at school gate. When Panahi reaches there, she comes to the window and looks at Panahi with expressions saying “what a moron you are”. Honestly, she is the star of this film. Hana Saeidi, Panahi’s real life cousin, stars as his cousin and lights up the film. She talks to Panahi about her film-making project, a short film she has to finish soon. She starts filming him. Panahi intelligenty uses her camera as B-Camera which shoots him whenever he gets out of cab. She talks about what her teacher has taught in school about rules on creating films in Iran. They stop and meet Panahi’s old friend whom he had not met for seven years. They discuss a robbery where his friend was mugged and robbed by a couple whom he recognised, empathised with them and not reported because he knew they needed money.

They drive on further and meet the human rights activist Nasrin Sotoudeh who candidly talks about her work and tells that she is going to prison to talk to Ghoncheh Ghavami (a real life law graduate of University of London who was kept in confinement over her protest about equal rights to men and woman for viewing sporting events in Iran). There she says the lines which are written at the beginning of this piece. Hana meanwhile spots a lady’s purse in taxi. Panahi recollects about the two women who had boarded his taxi for Ali’s Spring. They proceed to Ali’s Spring and Nasrin gets down mid- way. Panahi and his niece Hana reach there and get out of car to return the purse to the ladies when we see his car is being ransacked and camera stolen-which gets disconnected.

Interestingly, Hana Saeidi went to Berlin to collect prize, the Golden Bear, awarded to the film at Berlin International Film Festival, 2015 since Panahi was not allowed to travel outside country. The film was premiered in the competition and won the top prize and rave reviews. Apart from real life niece and Nasrin Sotoudeh, the real life human rights activist, all actors/people are non-actors who till date remain anonymous. The film has interesting set of characters- a person with conservative mindset, a lady with liberal mindset, a video rental guy who understands need for world cinema and caters to individuals outside the limits of law, a young student who wants to understand filmmaking and ‘Iranian rules’ associated with it and ultimately a human rights activist. All together, Jafar Panahi paints a beautiful picture of contemporary Iranian society highlighting (by discussing the case of Ghoncheh Ghavami)and the repressive attitude of Iranian government.

About the director, Jafar Panahi

Born in July 1960, in Mianeh, Iran, Jafar Panahi comes from an Iranian-Azerbaijani family. His father worked as a house painter and they spoke Azerbaijani at home. His fascination with films started in childhood. He started using 8mm camera as a child and when he was 12 year old, he started working after school to collect money for buying tickets for seeing films. When he turned 20, he joined Iranian Army to serve in Iran-Iraq war working as Army’s cinematographer between 1980 and 1982. He was captured by Kurdish rebels and kept in captivity for 76 days in 1981. He made a documentary from his war experiences which were shown on TV. After completing his military service he joined College of Cinema & TV , Tehran for studying filmmaking.

After graduating in 1988, he started making short films and documentaries. His first documentary was ‘The Wounded Heads’ which was about illegal mourning tradition of slashing head in Northern Iranian region. The film was shot secretly and was banned for several years. He made another behind-the-scenes-documentary, ‘The Second Look’ which was basically making of Kambuzia Partovi’s film ‘Golnar’. This one too got released five years later in 1993. In 1990, he assisted Partovi on his film, ‘The Fish’.

His first full length feature film, ‘The White Balloon’ was made in 1995. It was initially titled ‘Happy New Year’ and was supposed to be a short film but Abbas Kiarostami, the legendary director, encouraged to make it into full length feature film and agreed to write script for his film. The film got made and received great reviews. It was shown in Cannes Film Festival, 1995 where it won ‘Camera d’ Or’. It went on to win numerous awards world over. His second feature was ‘The Mirror’ which focuses on a child who is seen lonely. It won ‘Golden Leopard’ at Locarno Film Festival, 1997. His other films are ‘The Circle’ made in 2000 and ‘Crimson Gold’ made in 2003. His present film ‘Taxi Tehran’ was made in 2015 when he was banned for filmmaking for 20 years. I have written above in detail about it.

After 14 years, Jafar Panahi’s travel ban was lifted suddenly in April, 2023 and he was allowed to travel outside the country. Earlier he was arrested and put into jail because he protested against arrest and inhuman treatment meted out to his fellow Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulov. He was temporarily released from Evin prison in Tehran in February, 2023.