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You've never taken a cab ride like this before. Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi made "Taxi" on a shoestring budget. Despite censorship, it offers a humorous portrayal of life in Tehran - and a bold political statement.
Jafar Panahi only received a Golden Bear at this year's Berlinale film festival because of its political courage, claimed the German weekly "Der Spiegel" in its most recent edition.
His film "Taxi" was a nice movie that offered an ironic look at everyday life in Iran, continued the weekly, but wasn't of much artistic value. In this regard, "Der Spiegel" reflected what was said about the film in the Iranian press, which downplayed the significance of the Golden Bear in February.
The Berlinale was just a festival that honored political statements rather than cinematic art, claimed the media in Iran.
In the German media, however, "Der Spiegel" stands alone with its critique. Here, everyone is allowed to write what they like. In Jafar Panahi's home country, it's a different story.
Because of the film, the filmmaker was arrested in 2010 and spent three months in jail before he received his harsh sentence: 20 years of occupational ban and six years in prison. "Taxi," claimed the authorities, spread propaganda against the regime.
Panahi worked around ban
Through a complicated series of events, Panahi managed to get out of the prison sentence, and work around the occupational ban and house arrest. Tehran knows very well that persecuting the world-renowned director would lead to protests from the international community. Criticizing his film and banning it from Iranian cinemas was, then, the least they could do.
Starting this week, on Thursday, July 23, cinemas in Germany will begin showing the much discussed motion picture - which makes both a political and artistic statement.
Kaleidoscope of Iranian society
The style of the film can certainly be attributed to the political controversy surrounding it. "Taxi" was created with humble means, which lends it a minimalistic aesthetic. Nevertheless, the result is a work of art.
Viewers are taken on a 90-minute taxi ride through Tehran. In the driver's seat is the director himself, Jafar Panahi, who is constantly transporting one passenger after the next from A to B.
One camera is positioned at the front of the car and shows Panahi from different perspectives, as well as the various passengers: A man who sells counterfeit DVDs, two esoteric women who are going to an unusual burial, a woman who's bringing a severely wounded man to the hospital, and a few others.
The director doesn't tell us whether these passengers are real or whether they are actors - except in two cases. One of his back-seat guests in the well-known human rights activist Nasrin Sotoudeh, and another time he drives around his 10-year-old niece Hana.
While Panahi chauffeurs his customers to their destination, he chats with them about all kinds of things - everyday life, politics, capital punishment, censorship, human rights. The conversations seem incidental, without passing moral judgment on the hot-button issues.
Driving between fantasy and reality
This mix of fiction and non-fiction, which offers an insider's view of the fascinating metropolis, is what makes the film so unique. It works so well because he uses humor and irony and gives the viewer a chance to breathe in between. That makes the hefty issues someone less threatening - and also a bit truer.
In Iran, freedom of speech is restricted: Those who are vocal against the regime are bullied, and sometimes even threatened with the death penalty. "Taxi" speaks openly about how politically concerned artists, for example, hold protests and even conduct hunger strikes.
"Before you preach, you should sweep your own doorstep," said Panahi picturesquely as he found out his film would be receiving a Golden Bear.
At Panahi's doorstep, there is no real freedom of speech - even though he was able to make that statement to the Iranian news agency ILNA. Technically, he's not allowed to give interviews. But now and then, he'll make a public appearance and smuggle a work to an international film festival. That has to do with the contradictory power situation in his country.
'A love letter to cinema'
"Limitations often inspire filmmakers to storytellers to make better work," said American filmmaker and Berlinale jury president Darren Aronofsky in February at the awards ceremony.
Aronofsky also added that bans can sometimes "be so suffocating they destroy a project and often damage the soul of the artist. Instead of allowing his spirit to be crushed and giving up, instead of allowing himself to be filled with anger and frustration, Jafar Panahi created a love letter to cinema."