Jafar Panahi’s film opened on just 18 screens in the UK. It got some excellent reviews and its modest screen average doesn’t seem to have deterred subsequent bookings (you can find the next couple of weeks’ screenings here). It will travel around the UK but I still feel that it is something of an insult to one of global cinema’s finest filmmakers that his Berlin prize-winning film is treated in this way. Most of the bookings are in London and often the film shows just once. The UK’s three chains of supposedly specialised cinemas – Pictutrehouse, Curzon and Everyman – are not showing this as a ‘circuit film’ even though it outstrips anything else they have to offer. Taxi Tehran is an unassuming masterpiece based on skill, intelligence, creativity and bravery – all attributes Panahi has consistently demonstrated in his ongoing satire on the absurdities of government control of artists in Iran. Don’t these clods ever realise what an alluring and joyful representation of Iranian culture filmmakers like Panahi are offering to the world? Perhaps this is the very reason why they try to silence him.
You may have read that Taxi Tehran consists entirely of footage taken by a dashboard camera in Panahi’s car as he drives through Tehran accepting passengers as if he was offering a taxi service. On a couple of occasions the footage is augmented by footage from his young niece’s digital still camera. If this sounds dull, believe me it isn’t. I won’t spoil the film by detailing all the ways in which the critique works. I’ll restrict myself to one example. When Panahi picks up his young niece outside her school, she comes on with a full diva stance – his car isn’t flashy enough for a famous director. She then tells him that she has to create a film for a school project and that the film must be ‘screenable’. It must conform to the criteria set down by her teacher. These ‘rules’ include all the proscriptions set out by Iran’s censors, including the ban on ‘sordid realism’ and any discussion of social, economic or political ‘problems’. Panahi’s film breaks all these rules in every mini-narrative which develops each time another passenger gets into his car. I admired Panahi’s earlier This Is Not a Film (2011) but it did involve some tedium and intellectual effort to ‘enjoy’. Taxi Tehran is pure cinema, start to finish as far as storytelling is concerned. If you can’t cope with the director as auteur you might find it irritating that several references to Panahi’s other films are important. Personally, I don’t care – Panahi the man comes across here as a lovely man I instantly want to take round to my local pub. He doesn’t have to drink alcohol if he doesn’t want to but I know he would the lives of ‘ordinary’ people interesting. At one point, somebody asks him how they should find a story for a film. I thought he might use the neo-realist mantra. He doesn’t, but in practice he follows it all the time – stories based on the everyday encounters of people on the streets. Magnifique!
Abbas Kiarostami shoots his subjects tangentially; that is, he doesn’t necessarily place the camera in the obvious position to tell the narrative. Behzad Dorani plays the ‘engineer’, which is what the villagers in a remote location of Iran think he is, and we come to know the place through his observations. On a couple of occasions Kiarostami’s favoured long take simply focuses, from the position of the mirror, on the engineer shaving. The narrative, at this point, is carried by his conversations with the rest of his film crew; they are in the village to secretly film an ancient sacrament. Similarly, the opening sequence watches them arrive (see above) in extreme long shot, with the telephoto lens flattening the landscape; it makes strange what we recognise. We here the men in car trying to navigate via agrarian directions such as ‘turn left at the big tree’. Dorani, by the way, according to imdb, has only appeared in one other feature, which is remarkable given how brilliant he is in carrying this film.
For much of the film we are not clear what the protagonist is after; he seems to be waiting for someone to die. He spends his time wandering the village and, increasingly hilariously, rushing up the mountain to get a mobile signal. Not a lot is happening in a village where not a lot ever happens; except it does. The film covers birth, life, marriage, death, friendship, education, childhood. All of life in an exotic location is there for the spectator and it is beautifully shot; the colours are quite stunning, both the village, and its surroundings, occasional look like an Impressionist painting.
Making films in Iran is difficult unless they are treading the party line. Kiarostami’s success, and this film won the Palme d’Or, is rooted in his ability to appeal to the western art house audience. There is a slightly uneasy opposition set up in the film between the ‘town’ (the ‘engineer’ is from Tehran) and the apparently simple ‘country’ of the village. Despite the fact the film-maker is indigenous I think we are still being offered an ‘orientalist’ portrayal of a society we know very little of. The place is portrayed extremely sympathetically but we are no more than tourists. To be fair to Kiarostami, he probably feels that way too. Hence the village is ‘strange’ to my western eyes and is shot in a strange (arty) way; but what we learn is that, essentially, the strange is very much the same.
It might not be the same, though, I cannot tell from the film.
Unlike Keith I didn’t find style triumphed over content in this film – see here. Like the Before Sunrise-Midnight films, Abbas Kiarostami relies heavily on long takes, long conversations and entirely convincing performances. Of course Juliette Binoche can be expected to be absolutely wonderful but William Shimell . . . ? Kiarostami had directed him in a performance of a Mozart opera so knew he’d be up to the task; it’s inspired casting. Shimell has since appeared in Amour (2012).
Befitting of Kiarostami’s art house status, Certified Copy is more obviously intellectual than Richard Linklater’s films; which is not to say it’s better or worse. I wasn’t particularly interested in the philosophy of authenticity in art, or in relationships, but was riveted by the conversations, and the Tuscan landscape, that ran throughout the film. There’s a brilliant twist, about half way through so stop reading now if you plan to see the film.
It has appeared so far that Binoche’s Elle (a ‘universal’ ‘she’?) has been flirting with the intellectual James (Shimell) but, when they are mistaken as a married couple, she plays along with the error and then he too plays along . . . But are they or are they not actually married? It is a brilliant sleight of narrative that raises issues of longevity in relationships, memory, as well as gender roles. Unsurprisingly Kiarostami doesn’t bother to tell us the ‘truth’ of the situation, leaving us to ponder if we wish. I’m sure we’ll ponder the actors’ brilliance and, maybe, Kiarostami’s too. I’m not suggesting that his film is derivative in any way, he often uses long takes in his films and may have patented the car dashboard camera.
One clue to the film’s playfulness is surely the casting of Jean-Claude Carrière in a minor role. Carrière scripted a number of Luis Bunuel’s late films and surrealism is expertly interlaced with the ostensible realism of this film’s visual style and the performances.
Chambers Dictionary defines ‘circumstance’ as the ‘logical surroundings of an action’. For me, this film is itself a circumstance more than it is a film. My first thought was that it was an ‘event’ – there is so much surrounding it that is non-diegetic – outside the world of the film’s narrative. Let me explain. This is a film ostensibly about a social issue in Iran, namely the social and cultural restraints that govern the public behaviour of young women in the Islamic Republic. But, as is the case with several other significant Iranian films, Circumstance was made outside Iran (in Beirut) by an exilic/diasporic cast and writer-director using French and American funding. I’m using exilic here to refer to Iranians who have left Iran because of real or anticipated persecution and diasporic to refer to less contentious economic migrants, some from much earlier periods.
The story focuses on a wealthy Tehran family. I never found out what the father did, but he went to university in California and he loves classical music. The mother is a medical practitioner. The main focus is their 16 year-old daughter Atafeh who has developed a passionate relationship with a girl at school, Shireen. Shireen is much less wealthy and she lives with her aunt and uncle – her parents having been executed by the regime as academics with the wrong politics. She spends as much time with Atafeh as possible, visiting her and going on her family trips. The classic inciting agent in the narrative is Atafeh’s older brother Mehran who returns from rehab – required because of his drug problem. Mehran’s behaviour is ‘strange’ according to his father. He appears to have become religious in what has up to now been a secular family.
At points in the first part of the film I wondered if this was the same world explored in Asghar Farhadi’s films or those of Jafar Panahi (especially given Panahi’s own spacious apartment as revealed in This Is Not a Film). But it’s soon quite clear that this is a very different fictional world. I don’t speak Farsi so I couldn’t judge how the cast handled the dialogue, but a quick glance at the IMDb comments from Iranians suggests that most of the leads, apart from the actress who plays the mother, had major problems speaking the language. What I could spot, however, were the many holes in the plot. Farhadi’s films are very carefully scripted with intricate plot developments, but in Circumstance I literally ‘lost the plot’ at certain points as I simply couldn’t understand why things were happening. Some of the actions lacked credibility for me. (The same comments come from Iranians.)
At the heart of the film is the affair between the two young women. This is presented partly through fantasy sequences in which the pair imagine a ‘free’ world in Dubai where one will become a nightclub singer managed by the other. There are also ‘real’ sequences provocatively presented with manicured hands and painted lips caressing flesh – but little overt sexual display. At other times the girls visit daytime and nighttime underground clubs. The ultimate daring activity is to take part in dubbing foreign language import/black market DVDs, specifically Milk and Sex and the City. This underground alternative popular culture for the young in Iran is represented (in an earlier time period) in Persepolis. Although I haven’t seen it, I take it also to be present in Bahman Ghobadi’s No One Knows About Persian Cats. But Ghobadi and Marjane Satrapi were writing films about what they experienced living in Iran. Maryam Keshavarz, the young Iranian-American writer-director of Circumstance, says that she based her script on her experiences on holiday in Iran and talking to her relatives. I felt at times as if the film was an American perspective on Iranian culture. The major issue is the behaviour of the brother, Mehran. I couldn’t work why he did what he did, how he did it and why nobody stood up to him. I don’t want to spoil the narrative outcome, but at the end of the film I remained puzzled.
On the positive side, I particularly enjoyed the performance of Nikohl Boosheri as Atafeh and the film certainly has a vitality about it. I thought that the story about the two young women was going somewhere before the narrative veered off course. I’m glad I watched it but I fear its status will be more of an ‘event’ at the centre of a controversy rather than as a film.
Circumstance is distributed in the UK by Peccadillo Pictures. The screening I attended was part of the POUT Film Festival touring LGBT films around the country. It goes on general release on 24 August.
An American trailer which gives a taste of the film’s style: