Between 1995 and 2006, Iranian director Jafar Panahi was winning some of the most respected prizes on the European film calendar: the Golden Lion in Venice, the Silver Bear at Berlin and even the Caméra d’Or at Cannes. But due to his (supposedly) controversial narratives and ongoing defiance against his home country, he was arrested in 2010 and banned from filmmaking or leaving Iran. His films eventually had to be smuggled out of the country on USB keys hidden in cakes…
His latest offering is a rebellious documentary-style film set in broad daylight in Tehran with Pahani playing himself as he drives across the city in a taxi picking up and dropping off various characters. Firstly he has a chauvinist man and a liberal female teacher discuss capital punishment and making anexample of criminals; then a fan of Pahani who sells pirated American DVDs; then a dying man who wants the other passengers to record his video last will and testament; then Pahani’s niece who is making a short film for a school project… All of the stories revolve in some way around watching or documenting: the one thing that Pahani is banned from doing.
Whereas Western filmmakers use the artificial ‘realism’ of the mockumentary technique (or the dreaded “found-footage” cliche) in order to appear more authentic, Panahi has to film discreetly under governmental dictate. Most of his characters in his world (including him) are all interested in films and filmmaking as a basic human right (or at least fascination). At one point his niece lists a number of rules that her teacher has given her for her filmmaking project, which are worth listing in full:
- Respect the headscarf
- No contact between men and women
- Avoid sordid realism and violence
- Avoid the use of a tie for good guys
- Avoid use of Iranian names for good guys – instead use sacred name of the Islamic saints
- Avoid discussing political and economical issues
She then declares that the most important advice is that “If we notice anything problematic, we should censure it” – clearly anathema to Pahani’s filmmaking philosophy.
The very beginning of the film shows a POV shot out of the windscreen as the taxi drives around Tehran, before the camera is rotated to look inwards and the action begins. The end of the film has the opposite effect with Pahani’s final passenger offering a rose to the viewer before turning the camera back to the street, bookending the mini microcosm of action in the taxi and returning to the business of the city streets. This visual metaphor of literally turning the cameras in on themselves is exactly what all (good) filmmakers do: extract specific human dramas from a vast populous canvas, and still make a universal message.
I would hate this idea to be clumsily recreated in America.