Banned from filmmaking, this Iranian director ignored his government — and it's paying off

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Aaron Schachter: Filmmakers in Iran face a lot of restrictions too, the ones imposed on them by the Iranian government, it likes to control movies made in the country. But that hasn’t stopped some filmmakers from defying the controls and making movies that get international attention. Just this past weekend, an Iranian film called “Taxi” was honored in Berlin. The World’s Shirin Jafari introduces us to the director.


Shirin Jaafari: Back in 2010, Iranian officials told filmmaker Jafar Panahi to stay home, stop making movies, and don’t give any more interviews. Panahi stayed home--sort of--but that’s it. He gave interviews and made movies. Three of them, in fact. His latest is called “Taxi” and yes, it takes places inside a yellow cab snaking its way through the streets of Tehran. More on the film later. But first, let’s back up. Remember back in 2009, the Iranian government was facing huge political protests, and during those protests, Panahi was arrested, interrogated, and locked up for three months. Later in an interview, he revealed what he was accused of then.


Jafar Panahi: The crime they accused me of was that I was going to make a film in the future. I said to them “You can’t accuse me of making a film I haven’t made.”


Jaafari: That argument fell on deaf ears. Panahi was sentenced to six  years in prison, which was later reduced to a ban on filmmaking and travel outside of the country. But Panahi was defiant. Only a year later, he came out with a new documentary called “This Is Not A Film.” It’s set in Panahi’s home; you could hear the New Year’s celebrations outside, and it’s shot using a digital camera and an iPhone. The Cannes Film Festival planned to screen the movie on its opening night, but getting the movie out of the country was risky. So, as the story goes, it was saved onto a thumbdrive, hidden inside a cake, and smuggled out of the country. Panahi later denied this. Anyway, inside of a cake or not, the film was seen at the festival. That was in 2011. This year, Panahi managed to once again get one of his movies in front of the judges at a festival. Panahi and his new film, “Taxi,” won the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival.


Jamsheed Akrami: As a film, it’s actually along a taxi ride through Tehran’s streets.


Jaafari: Jamsheed Akrami teaches film at William Paterson University in New Jersey.


Akrami: And it includes a series of chats between Mr. Panahi as a not-so-anonymous taxi driver with some ordinary citizens--housewives, his own niece.. In the absence of free media in Iran, taxis have turned into where people can share their grievances with their driver and their fellow passengers.


Jaafari: And not just that--shared taxis are common in Iran, and Akrami says the filmmaker, Panahi, uses this to his advantage, their public spaces enclosed. Akrami, who’s a close friend of Panahi’s, says it would be easy, given the circumstances, for Panahi to give up.


Akrami: It’s a pretty good excuse when the government bans you from making films. Some people would just say “Okay, I can’t make films anymore.”


Jaafari: Not Panahi, he says. He’s not one to be intimidated. In fact, Akrami thinks he’s probably already plotting a way to make his next movie. For The World, I’m Shirin Jaafari.