Jafar Panahi's Latest Film 'Taxi' Is Shot Where Iranians Can Talk Freely
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Hey, the top prize winner at this year's Berlin International Film Festival was a movie called "Taxi." We mention this because it's been acclaimed at multiple film festivals, and it's now set for release in the United States and because of the story of its director. Director and star Jafar Panahi is banned from making movies by the government of his home country, Iran. Here's Howie Movshovitz of our member station KUNC.
HOWIE MOVSHOVITZ, BYLINE: So how does Jafar Panahi manage to make movies? His friend Jamsheed Akrami, a professor of film at William Paterson University, says it's because he has to.
JAMSHEED AKRAMI: He told me once that he couldn't do anything else besides filmmaking. And if he's not able to make films, he wouldn't be able to live. So yes, they have put this heavy restriction on him not to make movies for 20 years, which is absurd because, you know, you take away 20 years from somebody in the prime of his filmmaking, prime of his career. What is left?
MOVSHOVITZ: In 2010, Jafar Panahi was arrested and sentenced to six years in prison for filming what was called antigovernment propaganda. He was also banned from making films until 2030. International outcry drove the government to let him out of prison. But the sentence still hangs over his head. Akrami says there's a kind of unspoken truce between Panahi and the government of Iran. For now at least, as long as Panahi doesn't make too much of a fuss, he can make his films within limits, as he told NPR in 2004 before the ban was even imposed.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
JAFAR PANAHI: (Through interpreter) I want to show the truth. So the regulations in Iran says if I go to a house and I want to shoot the people inside, even if they're husband and wife, the wife should wear a veil. So that means I can't shoot the truth because husbands and wives, they don't live like that at home. So that makes me to go out in the street and shoot the street.
MOVSHOVITZ: Panahi's latest film is shot entirely from inside a taxicab, with the director behind the wheel driving the streets of Tehran. Jamsheed Akrami says that because the government forbids non-official public gatherings, taxis have become safe places for people to talk freely.
AKRAMI: In the absence of the free media, taxis have turned into vehicles, so to speak, where people can vent their frustrations and complain about the inadequacies and injustices they encounter in their daily lives in Iran with the driver and the fellow passengers.
MOVSHOVITZ: "Taxi" opens with music often used to accompany ancient Persian epic poems.
PETER SELLARS: The poetic epic where our hero undertakes this impossible journey against impossible odds.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SELLARS: And then foot goes on the gas pedal. And the taxi moves forward, and you realize that every taxi ride is the beginning of an epic journey.
MOVSHOVITZ: Arts impresario Peter Sellars presented "Taxi" at the Telluride Film Festival last month.
SELLARS: And in the tradition of the Persian miniature, in this tiny form of a movie made with three mini-cams on a dashboard, you have an epic picture of the great Iranian journey of the hero.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MOVSHOVITZ: That heroism for Jafar Panahi means taking on social issues, banned or not. Film critic Godfrey Cheshire, who's lived in Iran and written about Panahi, points to a scene in which a man who's just been injured in an accident is lifted into the cab and asks for a cell phone to film his last will and testament.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TAXI")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Crying).
GODFREY CHESHIRE: He wants to leave all of his property and his goods and everything to his wife because he says under Islamic law, she won't get anything. And so he's saying to all his relatives, I want her to get my property and everything, and ignore the law. And that's something showing how, first of all, women don't have equal rights in Iran and second of all, how a lot of people do not want to obey sharia law.
MOVSHOVITZ: At the same time, the man banned from making films drives his passengers around town with a serene smile on his face. Again, Peter Sellars.
SELLARS: One of the most moving things is that at the moment when the entire world is convulsed over this back-and-forth diplomacy, you know, will Iran join the rest of the world? Are we going to normalize relations? Are things going forward or backward there? Are we dealing with an impossible tyrannical state or something else? Here is a man who is serving a sentence of not being allowed to make a movie for 20 years. And he's one of the world's great filmmakers. And he makes this low key, tender movie of total equanimity.
MOVSHOVITZ: Nevertheless, one of the charges against Panahi, says his friend Jamsheed Akrami, is that the director depicts so-called sordid realism.
AKRAMI: The Persian word for what they accused Panahi of doing is (speaking foreign language), which, literally translated, is showing black. So he's being accused of showing Iranian realities through a dark lens. But he's always said, in his own defense, that it's not my lens which is dark; it's the realities.
MOVSHOVITZ: For NPR News, I'm Howie Movshovitz.