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Foreign Film Friday: Taxi Tehran review - an understated piece of activism through realism

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Taxi Tehran is a Life in a Day-style rolling-camera film from Iranian director Jafar Panahi. The premise is that Panahi has somehow procured a taxi (in the Iranian capital Tehran), with almost the entirety of the film's footage coming from an 'anti-theft' camera he installed on the dashboard, recording the conversations and interactions he has with the various friends, family, and customers he picks up over the course of a few hours.

The action feels so real it's risky saying it merely 'feels' real and wasn't in fact just candid-camera recording, though one of the first passengers plants the suggestion that at least some of the action is scripted and staged by asking (in Persian) 'I'm in a film aren't I?'

The film-making is really quite delightful in its candid realism, mostly because Panahi himself, who is in almost every 'scene' as himself driving a taxi, is endlessly delightful. Truly humble and kindly observant, he has just the right amount of input to be shaping the film whilst also making it a joint experience with the audience - you really feel as though you're a part of it with him.

Much in the spirit of Life in a Day, in the interest of maintaining the illusion of reality there are occasional stretches of dash cam footage where Panahi just leaves the camera running on a street scene while he leaves the car to do something else. This, along with the long prelude to the film of just dash cam footage of waiting at a busy intersection, creates the impression that this film was really created for a foreign audience to raise foreign audiences' awareness of issues in modern Iran: I doubt I'd be particularly interested in a film with 5-minute free cam sections of street scenes in downtown Southampton, so Panahi takes the pains to invite whatever far-flung audience may find his film to settle down fully in his world as he leads us around.

The scenes cleverly lend themselves towards discussion to the issues pertaining to the film's historical and geographical setting. Under Panahi's earnest and humble stewardship the conversation (it would be cynical to call it dialogue) flows naturally and is largely pleasant and often very funny. The scenarios involving Panahi's young niece may have been exploited somewhat to produce the maximum amount of cuteness, but they are very funny and enjoyable, and film-making is after all an art - this film goes to far fewer liberties from reality than most films do, so what liberties Taxi Tehran does take can definitely be excused.

The film in its entirety emerges in the mind as being very subversive, but in a subtle, polite way which doesn't demand much of the audience other than that they listen to the genuine complaints of genuine people. As a work exposing the languid monster that is film censorship, Taxi Tehran does a great job without having to make massive leaps, by setting up scenarios and explaining the situation to a young girl, the point is made in way which comes to consciousness in the viewers mind gradually at first, snowballing, and then exploding right at the very end with the revelation that this relatively polite film was itself censored as 'unscreenable' by the Iranian authorities.

This film manages to stay civil in the face of an apparently very unjust regime, as well as light-hearted, humorous and full of love for life, for which this film deserves a lot of praise.

This review was originally posted on Under a Blue Pen.

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