Last weekend, Iranian director Jafar Panahi's new film, Taxi, premiered to a sold-out audience at the 65th Berlin International Film Festival. The Berlinale is one of the most celebrated fêtes in the industry and always a Berlinisch affair—casual, drunken, fun—especially compared with the buttoned-up doings at Cannes. Its conspicuously nonplussed audiences fly in from all over Europe and rarely show extremes of enthusiasm or disdain: Cool disinterest is the norm. (I deciphered a U-Bahn map for one heavy-lidded couple who claimed they weren't even planning on seeing any movies; they'd hopped on an EasyJet just for the after-parties.)
Taxi is different. Its director, who until recently lived under house arrest, works in a state of legal purgatory whereby he is forbidden from making films yet remains unpunished for doing so, possibly due to the international attention each new samizdat claims. Panahi's latest experimental feature, filmed in secret and smuggled out of his home country, is one of the Berlinale's most highly anticipated premieres. So as I walked out of a packed screening last Saturday morning—after the well-caffeinated audience finished its long and thunderous applause—I was surprised to find myself thinking not of the usual festival buzz but of Nâzım Hikmet, who died in 1963.
Hikmet was Turkey's first modern poet and, in the 1940s, its most famous political prisoner; his incarceration prompted calls for release from Jean-Paul Sartre and Pablo Picasso, among others. Hikmet began writing Human Landscapes from My Country, considered by many to be his nation's 20th-century literary masterpiece, while serving a 13-year prison sentence for writing poetry that officials feared might incite soldiers to revolt. (From "Some Advice for Those Who Will Serve Time in Prison": "To think of roses and gardens inside is bad, / to think of seas and mountains is good. / Read and write without rest, / and I also advise weaving / and making mirrors.") Once published, his "epic novel in verse" was banned in Turkey for 30 years. Among its more famous scenes is a 100-page sequence set on a wartime train journey, where a political prisoner—the authorial stand-in—watches the chatting and squabbling that takes place among an ensemble cast of traveling soldiers, widows, policemen, poets, and thieves.
The parallels to Jafar Panahi's life, and especially to his new film, are instructive. As Hikmet was Turkey's most well-known poet, Panahi is Iran's most famous filmmaker, having won major awards for his humanistic and increasingly political films, like The White Balloon, The Mirror, The Circle, and Offside. Like Hikmet, he has spent time in prison for his work, virtually all of which remains banned in the country of his birth. And while contemporary Iran is hardly 1940s Turkey, both countries have struggled with a legacy of imperialist meddling and competing drives toward the liberal, secular, and cosmopolitan on the one hand and the authoritarian and traditionalist on the other.
Panahi has been arrested twice, the second time for 86 days, and his release by the Iranian government—following a hunger strike and international pressure from an alliance of artists and filmmakers—was predicated on a 20-year ban on filmmaking, interviews, and international travel. Even while under house arrest, he immediately set himself to making more movies: 2011's playful This Is Not a Film , which stars the director and is set in his apartment in Tehran; 2013's Closed Curtain, which was shot at the director's villa on the Caspian Sea; and now Taxi, which finds Panahi venturing back onto the streets. These credit-less works must be smuggled out of Iran (in the case of This Is Not a Film, literally inside a cake) in order to premiere at festivals around the world. "I'm a filmmaker," Panahi says in his Berlinale director's statement about the prohibition he has defied three times. "I can't do anything else but make films."
As Panahi's life loosely follows Hikmet's, so Taxi loosely follows the panoramic project of Human Landscapes, although Hikmet's plurality of railway interaction is replaced in Taxi by the confessional meetings of passenger and a single, familiar driver: Panahi playing himself. The director's first fare is a professional mugger who argues in favor of the death penalty for stealing. Soon after, he picks up a pirated-DVD distributor and cinephile who recognizes the director and teasingly accuses him of making a film. ("Those were actors, right?" he says of two passengers who have just departed.) With each winking aside made by a new occupant, the audience in Friedrichstadt Palast's cavernous theater broke into surprised laughter, although their clear favorite was the director's so-called niece: a garrulous, enterprising nine-year-old filmmaker who utters many of the film's most thematically apposite lines, at one point complaining, "I don't understand what's real or what isn't!"
Despite the familiar dangers of meta-fiction, Taxi is charming, funny, and acrobatically stage-managed throughout. As Panahi drives across sun-dazzled Tehran, actors leap out from among the city's everyday citizens, enter the cab, and, in most cases, recognize Panahi as no ordinary driver. "I know what you're up to," another passenger grins, shaking her finger at the dashboard camera and eliciting more audience guffaws.
Constraint seems to be a blessing for Panahi: The fact that the film takes place in "real-time" and entirely inside a car provides a practical, no-frills architecture on which to build characters both nuanced and whimsical, such as the man who, on the way to a hospital after a traffic accident, delivers his last will and testament into Panahi's cell phone so that his wife will inherit the man's house—contrary to Iranian custom. (After the husband's recovery, the wife calls the director to make sure the will is secure, "because you never know.") Facts from Panahi's life play an important role, too: At one point, while driving past a crowd, the director believes he hears the voice of a man from the blindfolded interrogation sessions he underwent after his arrest.
Some early reviews have remarked on the ambiguity of these interactions. Are they staged or real? But I never doubted everything was scripted. If the film has any serious flaws, it's that the constraints turn into limitations precisely because Panahi struggles to pull off the illusion. As with a film shot in a single take or a novel written without the letter e, the fact of Taxi's completion threatens to overwhelm its narrative content, and even its political concerns, which include government censorship, women's rights, poverty, and capital punishment. These leitmotifs are typically announced with the sort of sententious expression (thieves "look just like you or me," says one character) or contrived anecdote that would be cause for eye-rolling in a more traditional film. Yet we're distracted by the filmmaking process itself: the shot framed inexpertly for the sake of authenticity, or the attempt to blend actors in with "real" Tehranis.
The impulse to foreground a film's reality with formal devices—found footage, news report, documentary narration—speaks to a certain perceived jadedness among modern audiences, and such trickery has become SOP in at least one film genre: horror. The thrills of horror are now thought to depend not upon suspension of disbelief but upon actual felt belief, even if that belief is precipitated, as is often the case with modern examples like [Rec] or The Blair Witch Project, by nothing more than shaky camera work and a fabricated news logo in the corner of the screen.
Political realities, too—like horror movies, but also like advertising campaigns and celebrity personalities—are carefully orchestrated, overdubbed, censored, forged, faked, and then embedded into YouTube videos, selfies, and other "naturalized" media that ostensibly show us a reality unfiltered by institutional agenda. ("These aren't paid actors," the commercial blurts.) What once signaled to viewers the presence of artifice—a screen—now purports to prove its absence.
Just as Nâzım Hikmet chose a plain, documentary style rather than the formality of traditional Turkish poetry in order to achieve a heightened sense of realism, Panahi's Taxi, with its artfully staged "reality," is a coy response to the new technological naïveté. Toward the end of the film, the director concludes of the Iranian government that "there are realities they don't want shown"—with special emphasis on the plural.
It's not surprising that the "sordid reality" of poverty and thievery, and the question of its punishment, appear in several of the film's sequences, including its opening and closing moments. The artist who is transformed into a criminal by his country can't help but interest himself in the category of the criminal. Several thieves count among Hikmet's fellow travelers in Human Landscapes of My Country, as well—thieves being not categorically different from poets in the imprisoned author's eyes.
For Panahi, though, the act of stealing stands in opposition to the act of filmmaking: To steal something is to affirm its reality, whereas to film a thing is to interrogate the same. Despite the court ruling that could land Panahi back in prison at any time, he seems intent on pursuing the interrogation for as long as he can. And no doubt the world's film festivals, and especially Berlin, where three of Panahi's films have premiered, will continue to screen the contraband work of one of Iran's most important oppositional voices—even if, for the time being, he won't be able to attend the after party.
Ben Mauk is a Fulbright scholar living in Berlin and a regular online contributor to the New Yorker.