Iranian dissident director Jafar Panahi’s latest picture defying an official ban, “Taxi”, will premiere on Friday at the 65th Berlin film festival, marking a new chapter of his career in the shadows.
The 54-year-old’s work is celebrated in the world’s arthouses but outlawed in Iran where the regime considers his gritty, socially critical productions to be subversive.
He was detained for a documentary he tried to make on the unrest following Iran’s disputed 2009 presidential election and officially banned from making more films for 20 years for “acting against national security and propaganda against the regime”.
“Taxi” is the third picture he’s made flouting the sentence, and while he won’t be able to walk Berlin’s red carpet as he is barred from travelling abroad, he issued a wrenching statement about his drive to keep working despite the risks.
“I’m a filmmaker. I can’t do anything else but make films. Cinema is my expression and the meaning of my life,” he said.
He said “cinema as an art” was the “main preoccupation” of his life.
“That is the reason why I have to continue making films under any circumstances to pay my respect and feel alive.”
In “Taxi”, Panahi himself offers his impressions of contemporary Tehran from behind the wheel of a yellow cab, ducking the authorities’ prying eyes by filming with a mounted dashboard camera.
Each person he offers a lift has a story to tell.
“Taxi” is one of 19 contenders for Berlin’s Golden Bear top prize, to be awarded on February 14.
– Filmmaking as crime? –
Panahi’s last movie, 2013’s elegiac “Closed Curtain”, was also shot in secret, in the confines of his villa on the Caspian Sea.
It won a Silver Bear in Berlin for best screenplay, drawing protest from the Iranian government.
Panahi, who grew up in the slums of Tehran, is a leading exponent of Iranian cinema’s renowned “new wave,” alongside Abbas Kiarostami, whom he served as an assistant early in his career.
The film festivals in Berlin, Venice and Cannes have invited him in recent years to sit on their juries, each leaving a symbolic empty chair for him since he was kept from leaving the country.
“We will keep inviting him until he can attend,” Berlin festival director Dieter Kosslick told reporters last week.
After studying cinema, Panahi produced television projects and went into movies focused on social injustice and women’s place in the Islamic republic, rousing immediate interest abroad.
His first feature film “The White Balloon” received the Camera d’Or in 1995 at Cannes, which also rewarded him in 2003 with a Jury Prize for “Blood and Gold”.
He also won the Golden Leopard in Locarno in 1997 for “The Mirror”, the Golden Lion at Venice in 2000 for “The Circle”, and the Silver Bear at Berlin in 2006 for “Offside”, about girls sneaking into a stadium to watch a soccer match.
But his films have upset the Iranian regime, especially as Panahi joined other filmmakers — many of whom have also been arrested and convicted since 2009 — in criticising censorship in Iran.
Panahi told a foreign news agency in August 2010 interview while under house arrest that he tries to tell stories “where violence is not necessary”.
“Why should it be a crime to make a movie?” he asked. “When a filmmaker does not make films, it is as if he is jailed.”
He also said he never wanted to leave Iran.
“I am in love with my country, and despite all its limitations I would never want to live elsewhere… I have to bear witness to everything that goes on in my country.”