Filming Memory on a Card in Tehran

Watching his latest, illegally made film, Taxi, one feels Jafar Panahi is a man with two brains, one tucked away inside his head and the other hidden inside the memory card of his camera.

Poster of the film 'Taxi' by Jafar Panahi. Credit: Netflix

Poster of the ’Taxi’ by Jafar Panahi. Credit: Netflix

Jafar Panahi has been showcasing the art of cinema-making under censorship since his arrest in 2010 (and subsequent house arrest from 2011, which was eventually lifted with orders not to leave Iran). Panahi is not merely a person with a restless camera in his head but is the restless camera himself. Censorship has only managed to provoke this restlessness to find new ways of overcoming legal and political restrictions imposed on him.

Watching his latest, illegally made film, Taxi (2015), which won him the Golden Bear and the International Federation of Film Critics Prize, one feels Panahi is a man with two brains, one tucked away inside his head and the other hidden inside the memory card of his camera. Throughout the film, Panahi has a mischievous, albeit satisfied, look on his face as he plays the role of a benevolent taxi driver, shooting his film with three hidden video cameras. His calm demeanour as he drives across the city with his various passengers appears to be a balanced act against the equipment’s shaky existence. One is usually accustomed to not seeing the person who directs a film in it. In this case, the cameras are strategically placed but unmaned, and Panahi is part of the cast. Although Panahi isn’t technically directing the film, he is driving the film along. Like all great filmmakers, Panahi introduces new methods into the craft, which gain particularly fascinating heights due to the political restrictions surrounding the filmmaker’s efforts.

In the conversation that begins between the first two passengers, one hears a debate on punitive and redemptive justice. The passenger arguing for the former wants people who steal car tyres to be hanged, while the lady challenging him would like society to consider the circumstances and desperation behind thievery. The man remains blissfully callous in his desire for people committing petty crimes to receive capital punishment. The lady hints at the lack of social empathy for people driven to petty crimes but the man will have none of it. The lady makes a further point, “If you are defending an idea, it’s out of belief… or a particular interest.” It is an intellectual curiosity, but also a cultural one based on class identity. The lady suddenly asks the man about his profession, but the man skips her question. When he learns the lady is a teacher, he finds it amusing and ridicules her profession. He does not reveal his own profession until he alights from the taxi, only then does he inform the lady (and us) that he is a pickpocket, but one who desists stealing from teachers or generous taxi drivers like Panahi, who excuses his fare. The man leaves, insisting that those who steal tyres have sunk lower than all human beings and deserve the harshest punishment.

This particular discussion reveals that it is not the State that divides them, but their social class. The unthinking moral sanction granted to the State by the pickpocket comes neither from belief nor interest as the lady opines. Instead, it comes from a pathological sense of social insecurity that he makes up with (moral) intransigence. There is a dialectical relationship between lack (of resources) and exaggeration (of persona) that makes the man harbour views that one suspects, he knows will alarm the class of people the lady teacher belongs to. It is the state alone that benefits from this class divide between the pickpocket and the teacher, which also allows the prolongation of excesses in the name of religious law. But the debate that ensued between the pickpocket and the teacher in Panahi’s taxi also showcases Tehran’s vibrant civil-society where such intense discussions happen.

In this linear narrative, seen as the film’s limitation by a critic, next enters Omid, a seller of illegal DVDs. Omid was in the backseat when the first scene unfolded. He recognises Panahi and his memory proves to be sharper than the filmmaker’s. Omid is no ordinary DVD seller. Not only does he remember the DVDs he gave Panahi’s son, a film buff, but also caught Panahi’s apparently clandestine act of filming Taxi in public. This he does by relating a line spoken by a pickpocket from the café scene in Panahi’s Crimson Gold. Omid does not sound like a man who simply sells DVDs for a living. It is obvious he has an insatiable passion for cinema. And like all good film buffs in the world, his cinematic memory is quick to catch a scene with the slightest reference from an earlier film. Omid is a man who takes real risks to keep the culture of alternative cinema afloat in Tehran. No wonder a critic likens him to “a genuine hero of samizdat distribution”.

Then follows a dramatic scene of a man injured in a road accident, steeped in blood, his head on his wife’s lap, recording his last will on a mobile. As he utters his name and other details about his identity with precision, you wonder if dying is any longer about the grief of leaving the world or being haunted by your legal ties. The scene evokes more humour than emotions, as the man seems to be more worried about if his brothers will support his wife than his death. It seems as if the woman he is leaving behind is a memory meant to be as pure as his grave. This radical expectation sounds at once ridiculous and touching as well. Such is the ill-designed moment of death, that it is an apparatus gone wrong, the time, the place, the siblings, the law, everything.

After two crazy women, who aimed to ward off death by delivering a fish in the well at noon, are dropped off at Cheshmeh Ali, enters the film’s most arresting passenger and Panahi’s niece, Hana Saeidi, who is around eleven years old. As an aspiring filmmaker in the film, and probably in real life too, Hana’s fingers handle the camera with the dexterity of a professional. What is even more admirable is that there seems to be absolutely no anxiety or desire in Panahi to tutor the girl at any point on her handling the camera. Hana gently chides her uncle for being an hour late to pick her up from school, teases and taunts him on various things, including his lack of humour, with the air of an adult. She leaves no doubt about who rules their relationship. Hana’s film teacher has asked the class to shoot a short film. Hana first focuses her camera on a neighbourhood problem –  a girl’s Afghan suitor is thrown out of the house and intimidated by her brother. The mistreatment of Afghan refugees, who have migrated to Iran since the 1980s, is well known. Many Afghan prisoners have faced capital punishment for serious and minor offences.

Hana next reads out to her uncle a list of dos and don’ts given by the teacher for the film – Respect for the Islamic headscarf, no contact between men and women, avoid sordid realism, avoid violence, avoid the use of tie for good guys, avoid using Iranian/Persian names for good guys, instead use the sacred name of Islamic saints.

Panahi looks grim and distant when Hana reads out the list. When she asks him about it, he only shares his concern about the old neighbour who speaks Persian and wears a tie. Hana reasons with a mature gesture of disbelief that she is talking about being in a film. Her uncle reiterates that he is wondering what will happen to the neighbour if he appears as a protagonist in a film. “Then,” says Hana matter-of-factly, “everything needs to be altered.” The tie, perhaps a symbol of westernisation, is part of the ridiculous list of censorship. The list, meant to regulate school children, reflects how it is impossible for an Iranian filmmaker not to face what is political. When state power becomes ridiculous, it becomes necessary for art to ridicule it. In that sense, Panahi’s task is simple.

The last, vivacious passenger to enjoy a ride in Panahi’s taxi is famous human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh. She is travelling with a bouquet of red roses out of which she offers one to Hana. From here on the tone and focus of the film gets overtly political. Panahi mentions hearing the voice of a man while picking her up that he recollected from his time in prison. Sotoudeh replies that a lot of her clients (who were also imprisoned at some point) face this obsession with voices, as an “effect of being blindfolded”.

When speech is reduced to voice, human beings are reduced to a quasi-animal existence. These voices are however recorded in memory and the capacity of recollection perhaps reintroduces that voice into the human world, albeit, as a reminder of a dark experience when being human was suspended within the echo of walls. Panahi asks if the roses are for someone just released from prison or someone who has been arrested. Sotoudeh informs it is for Ghoncheh Ghavami. Ghavami is a British-Iranian law graduate who was arrested on June 20, 2014, when she tried attending a men-only volleyball match in an indoor stadium in Tehran. Access to sporting events for women in Iran is still banned, a problem sensitively portrayed in Panahi’s 2006 film Offside.

Sotoudeh narrates how Ghavami is on hunger-strike and her mother visited with food to persuade her daughter to break her fast. However, jail authorities tried to force the mother into confirming, in front of television cameras, that Ghavami never went on hunger-strike. The mother got furious and went away screaming. The authorities tried the same intimidation tactics with Ghavami, forcing her to write a statement denying the hunger-strike. Ghavami tore the papers and lost her guest privileges, informs Sotoudeh.

Such stories have an immediate resemblance with what is happening in Iran and other countries. Whenever people make political demands regarding issues of gender, caste and other fundamental forms of social discrimination, the State’s peculiar tendency is to demoralise it by using different tactics. When the victims put moral pressure on the authorities by resorting to techniques like hunger-strikes, the State gets jittery about its own immorality and seeks to silence or distort the political act of the victims. The victim’s moral force is a serious matter for the State as it rules in the name of sovereignty that deems itself the guarantor of public morality. Since the State cannot lose, the victim cannot win. It is a strategic immoral impasse that citizens who challenge all forms of injustice must encounter.

Before alighting at her destination, Sotoudeh puts a rose on the dashboard, “for the love of film” and “the people of cinema, on whom” she says, “you can always count”. This comes as a sublime gesture of love in the face of immense bleakness. She then explains how the State monitors their activities all the time, makes outlandish accusations about them being agents of the CIA, the Mossad or the MI5, adds sex scandal against their names. She says the State makes life a prison-house of concentric circles, where even friends are made to turn into enemies. The State everywhere, she says, still depends on banal accusations, perhaps because it cannot think beyond that. Or rather, banality is all the State is capable of in the name of thinking. When Panahi and Hana leave the taxi to look for the women in Cheshmeh Ali, two people on a bike, obviously shadowing the taxi, appear with surreptitious motives. One of them breaks into the car to look for the cameras, but cannot find the memory card. Panahi’s memory card escapes surveillance to survive as a film. The film is a recovery of the card’s memory that portrays contemporary life in Tehran, in both its ordinary and extraordinary tribulations.

What about the camera? Trapped in furtive creativity by Iran’s extraordinary laws, the camera is an evil object in the eyes of State power. It is the evil which not only sees but records the truth. The camera is a combination of vision and script, it tells what it shows, mediated by the inflections of a filmmaker’s mind. Taxi is a meta-film. A film on the constraints and delights of filmmaking. Panahi is as obsessive about cinema, as he is about the truth and so far the Iranian State has only managed to embarrass itself by trying to place him under all sorts of discomfort. But art, like time, will tell.

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