Paradoxically, Jafar Panahi’s “Taxi” is now the third film the Iranian director has made despite the twenty-year ban on making films imposed by his nation’s morality police. What keeps him out of prison, you might ask? It is likely a function of his enormous prestige. Since he is widely recognized as one of Iran’s leading directors along with Abbas Kiarostami, with whom he has written two films, and Asghar Farhadi, it would be unacceptable to put him in prison. As a sign of the delicate balance between acclaim and censure, the state-controlled Cinema Organisation, congratulated Panahi for winning the Berlin Film Festival while at the same time accusing it of undermining the Iranian state. Its top executive Hojjatollah Ayyubi stated, “I am delighted to announce that the director of Taxi continues to drive in the fast lane of his life, freely enjoying all of its blessings.”
“Taxi” takes place almost entirely in a cab with its director and star behind the wheel as he transports residents of Tehran here and there, all the while chatting with them about their various hopes and frustrations with life in the Islamic Republic. Unlike Manhattan cabbies, those in Tehran are accustomed to picking up multiple fares as is the case in New York’s outer boroughs. This leads to the dramatic tension that exists throughout the film. Early on Pahani picks up a gruff and burly young man who takes a front seat, and then is joined by an elderly woman who sits in the back. As apparently is the case frequently in Iran, the conversation soon turns to the problem of street crime. The man says that the answer is to take the next two people arrested for theft and hang them while the woman takes exception to this and argues for a more humane approach. She remonstrates with him that Iran has the second largest number of executions in the world after China. Is that the kind of image a Muslim country wants to project? As the man leaves the cab after a long and heated argument, he confesses that he makes his living as a mugger.
The last couple of years have inspired a number of films that take place almost entirely in a vehicle, all of which I found pedestrian except Panahi’s. During the entire “Mad Max: Fury Road”, which takes place mostly in and around a truck hauling fuel, there was less character development than there was in any five minutes of “Taxi”. Maybe it was just a coincidence, but “Locke”, a basically one character story about a corporate executive trying to sort out family and financial problems over a car phone as he drives around at night, stars Tom Hardy—the Mad Max of Fury Road. He deserves some recognition for cornering the market on asinine films taking place on wheels, I suppose. Then there is David Cronenberg’s “Cosmpolis” that stars vampire pretty boy Robert Pattinson as a Wall Street billionaire who is chauffeured around in a limousine tending to mundane tasks like getting a haircut and the more monumental, such as cornering a third world country’s currency market. Cronenberg has made many compelling films over a long career. This is not one of them.
For Panahi, necessity was obviously the mother of invention. Given the constraints he would face in making a film in Tehran, he created a safe space in the cab that could evade the prying gaze of the morality police. It is likely that he used a single digital camera mounted on the dashboard of the car with a directional mike. Anything else would have been beyond the technological limits and political delicacy of the production. What he was able to do, however, is convey the deeper truths about Iranian society with his customary empathy for his characters, even the mugger who is simply a product of a society riven by a sharp class divide no matter the egalitarian rhetoric that the Islamic Republic propagates and too many Western leftists are inclined to believe.
“Crimson Gold”, a 2004 film he co-wrote with Abbas Kiarostami that I regard as his masterpiece, cast a pizza delivery man suffering from schizophrenia in the lead role of a pizza delivery man named Hussein who ends up as a thief just like the mugger in “Taxi”.
Although Hussein never articulates his feelings, we can see Tehran through his sorrowful eyes. One night on his way to a pizza delivery, cops and soldiers accost him at the front door of an apartment building and order him to wait there until their operation is finished. They are after affluent people going to a party on the third floor where alcohol is being served and where unmarried couples are dancing, which is against the law in the Islamic republic. The cops have no regard for Hussein, who will not be paid and who will have to wait until the early hours of the morning to leave the scene. He strikes up a conversation with a fifteen-year-old soldier from the countryside who has lied about his age in order to find a job in the army. The entire scene is a paradigm of the brutal class realities of contemporary Iran and practically a cry for sweeping change.
On another delivery, he is welcomed into the opulent mansion of a young man who has just returned to Iran because of homesickness. Now that he has returned to live with his mother and father, he can only complain that “everybody is a lunatic” in Iran. As the young man paces around his mansion with a telephone trying to cajole a woman to come spend the night with him, Hussein wanders about the rooms in what we understand to be astonishment at the extravagant life-style.
Jafar Panahi was arrested in 2010 for supporting the Green Movement, something widely condemned by portions of the Western left as a CIA conspiracy designed to topple Ahmadinejad and install a neoliberal regime that would cater to the interests of its supposedly brie-eating and Chablis drinking social base. The repressive tactics of the Islamic Republic were seen as necessary to protect the poor in Iran, even if it might mean jailing and torturing bus drivers trying to organize a union in Tehran. It was one thing to fight for a trade union for workers in the USA but in Iran it could only lead to deepening capitalist exploitation. That was the argument, anyhow.
As someone who followed events in Iran closely after Khomeini’s rise to power thirty-five years ago, I had trouble accepting the arrest of leftists and their imprisonment in Evin, the prison where the Shah tortured political prisoners. This spoke much louder to me than the seizure of the American Embassy, which did little to change class relations in Iran. In fact, the entire trajectory of the clerics and their supporters in Iran is to justify repression and social inequality on the basis of ensuring the stability that is necessary to stave off Western intrigue. This, of course, is a well-worn rationale that was heard in Moscow in the late 30s and that was embraced by the New York Times’s Walter Duranty, as well as The Nation magazine at the time.
The standard leftist narrative on Iran puts the CIA on trial–as well it should given Allen Dulles’s open bragging about his agency’s role in the overthrow of Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953. It is common knowledge that the CIA paid for lumpen elements to intimidate and physically overwhelm supporters of a president who was committed to using oil revenue to benefit the poor, just as has been the case in Chavista Venezuela. Certainly the clerics who now are regarded by some as having the same populist agenda would be sympathetic to Mossadegh. Or would they?
While the Shah is inextricably linked to the CIA, Ayatollah Seyyed Kashani, the predecessor to Khomeini, aided his machinations. The clerics hated the Shah but they hated Mossadegh and his Communist allies even more since their secularism would undermine their authority and even their wealth. Originally committed to a Kemalist-like republicanism, the Shah realized that the hostility of the clergy would thwart his goals so he switched gears and ruled as a monarch deferential to the mullahs instead.
Although Kashani started out as an ally of Mossadegh, he switched allegiances to the British and the Americans when he realized that the imperialists were likely victors in a showdown over oil. In his chapter on Mossadegh in “Devil’s Game”, Robert Dreyfuss refers to a State Department memo that quotes a Kashani ally as saying that “it might be necessary…to punish the communists.” (I believe that Islamophobia plagues Dreyfuss’s scholarship but he is at least reliable when it comes to providing the key historical data.) Dreyfuss writes:
Of all of the religious leaders, the most important was Kashani, says [John] Waller, who as the CIA station chief, developed a warm relationship with the fiery ayatollah during the seven years that he was stationed in Iran. “I did a portrait of Mullah Kashani, in pastels,” Waller recalls, with a smile. “Or, I should say, Ayatollah Kashani. He sat for me for a bit, and I finished it from photographs.” Waller insists that Kashani never became a full-fledged CIA “agent”—”you don’t make an ayatollah your agent,” he says—but adds that the United States and the British had several important agents in the anti-Mossadegh coalition, “some of whom were extremely adroit at handling both the bazaar and the mullahs.” And Waller says:
“It was obvious that the clergy were important…. Kashani told me why he was dropping out of the Mossadegh coalition. Because the Tudeh Party was being tolerated by Mossadegh. They were synonymous with the Russians, and religious men don’t like communism. Kashani was the head man of his god, which gave him political power. It’s like the Christian right here. He was the ayatollah, the Khomeini of the day. He had power over the church. He had power over the poor people, which was most of the people in the southern part of the city. And, from time immemorial, the mullahs were close to the bazaars.”
Did the CIA fund Kashani directly? “Yes,” according to Waller. “It was money both to Kashani and to his chosen instruments, money to finance his communication channels, pamphleteering, and so on to the people in south Teheran.” Waller adds, with a wry grin, that even ayatollahs are, well, corruptible. Choosing his words carefully, he says, “I think he was truly religious, but forgive me for being a cynic. Being religious doesn’t distract you from political or commercial reality, or from sex.”
As shocking as all this seems, one should never forget that the Iranian clerics have been quite flexible when it comes to making deals with the Great Satan. When I was pouring every ounce of energy into building a movement in solidarity with the Sandinista movement in Nicaragua in the 1980s, I felt a keen sense of betrayal when Oliver North’s arms deal with the Islamic Republic was revealed. On top of the torturing of leftists in Evin Prison and the idea that the contra war’s chief architect was taking cakes and bibles to Tehran as a gift to the clerics in exchange for arms, I developed a deep resistance to the idea that Khomeini had anything in common with Che Guevara. I don’t know about the sex lives of Khomeini and company but Waller got it right when he referred to political and commercial reality.
Eight years ago I reviewed a book titled “Iran on the Brink” that was co-authored by Andreas Malm and Shora Esmailian that I strongly recommend as a counter-narrative to the one that represents the Iranian clerics as a leading force for social justice and anti-imperialism. It is a thoroughly researched work that punctures the “revolutionary” mystique of the ruling circles in Iran and tells the truth:
One particular millionaire mullah stands above the others: Hashemi Rafsanjani, generally believed to be the richest man in Iran. His family’s list of connections would delight a bazaari-ulama family of the 1970s. Rafsanjani’s cousin is managing director of the company that dominates the lucrative pistachio export market, a brother is governor of Qom, a nephew is a member of the Majles energy commission overseeing oil and gas policies. Rafsanjani’s oldest son manages the company building Tehran’s subway – one of the country’s major ongoing infrastructure projects – while his youngest son has devoted his life to a stud farm in one of the must luxurious areas of northern Tehran. A nephew has a key position in the Ministry of Oil, a brother-in-law is a governor of Kerman province, home of the clan, where Rafsanjani himself has stakes in a factory assembling cars in a joint venture with Daewoo. Another son resigned from his post as a director of National Iranian Gas Company to run a unit linking the natural gas suppliers with the auto industry. And so the list goes on – according to Iranian street gossip, all the way to bank accounts in Switzerland, resorts in Goa and smuggling rings. Rafsanjani is a true millionaire mullah: one who epitomises the fusion of bazaari and ulama, of Iranian capital and Shia Islam, that has taken place over the last 25 years.
In the final analysis, class matters. In its headlong race to reduce world politics as one involving “good” states versus “bad”, a significant portion of the left has forgotten that the primary struggle is the class struggle. While the entire left has to defend the right of Iran to develop nuclear power and help bring an end to economic sanctions, it must also recognize that Iran is a class society that uses repression to maintain the privileges of its ruling class. There are socialists in Iran who are trying to overthrow that class and create a better society. If we cannot see them as sisters and brothers involved in a struggle like our own, what good are we?
“Taxi” opens at the IFC Center in New York on October 2nd. Look for it in your better movie theaters elsewhere.