CultureJew: Banned Iranian Filmmaker Keeps Working

Artists continue to make a stand against oppressive regimes all over the world. Acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi was arrested in March 2010, along with his wife, daughter, and 15 friends and later charged with propaganda against the Iranian government. Panahi is one of Iran’s premier filmmakers, winning international recognition for his films The White Balloon, The Mirror, The Circle, and Offside. Despite support from filmmakers, film organizations, and human rights organizations, Panahi was sentenced to a six-year jail sentence and a 20-year ban on directing any movies, writing screenplays, giving interviews, or leaving the country except for medical treatment or going on Hajj pilgrimage.

Despite these restrictions, and while his conviction is being appealed, Panahi kept working. He made the video diary This Is Not a Film, Closed Curtain, and now his latest, Taxi. These are not films in the usual sense, but they manage to express a great deal — amusement, frustration, and outrage. Taking the form of a-day-in-the-life, the plotless Taxi follows a car as it travels around Tehran, picking up different passengers and dropping them off. The driver, who doesn’t seem to know his way around the city and tends to be careless about following traffic rules, is none other than Panahi himself. Jovial and patient, he is often seen manipulating the dashboard camera to face inside the cab or out to the street.

The first two passengers have a lively debate about capital punishment, with the woman in the back seat urging compassion while the man in the front is all for teaching “them” a lesson. The tone is light and humorous, despite the heavy subject matter, and we learn something about social divisions in the city. The next person Panahi picks up turns out to be his old DVD supplier, and they chat animatedly about movies in general as well as Panahi’s work in particular.

An injured cyclist crawls into the cab with his distraught wife. She keeps wailing as Panahi drives to the hospital, and her husband asks that someone videotape his will in case he dies. He wants to make sure that his family doesn’t cheat his wife out of her inheritance. He doesn’t look that bad off, but you couldn’t tell from the way his wife is carrying on. Which makes it all the funnier when she calls Panahi repeatedly later in the day to get the videotaped will. Her husband is fine, but you never know when she might need it.

The most charming passenger Panahi picks up is his middle-school-age niece. A sassy smart aleck, she complains that he kept her waiting and then that he won’t buy her ice cream to make up for his negligence. The girl serves another purpose as well; she has been assigned a filmmaking project, which gives Panahi the opportunity to make fun of Iran’s censorship rules. Besides avoiding politics and violence and contact between men and women, she must not show “sordid reality.” Their discussion about what this means is both funny and poignant.

Towards the end of the film, Panahi’s anger at the regime climbs into the front seat and the film’s tone becomes more strident. Picking up a human-rights lawyer friend, he talks with her about what the Iranian government has done to artists and dissenters alike. The end of Taxi underlines the oppression such people have to face every day.

“Letters to Sala” Tells Little Known Holocaust Story

Whenever I think we have heard every possible variation of the Holocaust experience, I’m surprised by yet another aspect of that monumental historic event. A new off-off-Broadway play, “Letters to Sala,” by Arlene Hutton focuses on the network of labor camps the Nazis established across Europe, and the experiences of the mostly young people who were forced to work there. There were more than thirty thousand of these camps and millions of people went through them.

Hutton’s play has a fascinating and complicated back story, which becomes part of the action, not always to the play’s benefit. Sala Garncarz was a teenager when she stepped in for her sickly older sister and reported to the Geppersdorf labor camp in Germany. Geppersdorf was one of dozens operated by Nazi leader Albrecht Schmelt that provided the German army with uniforms and other materiel. Schmelt got his labor force from the Judenrat, or Jewish community leadership, at Sosnowiec, Sala’s home town. Schmelt did not care if his workers stayed in contact with their families via mail or received packages from home as long as they produced the products he needed. He barely fed them and housed them in unheated barracks; if and when they fell ill, they were shipped out to death camps and replaced by a new group of workers. It was a profitable business.

Sala received over 300 letters, photos, and cards while she was held in seven labor camps over the five years of war and managed to save them all. She never spoke of these letters or of her ordeal to her daughter Ann Kirschner until she was facing open-heart surgery. Then she gave Ann the box containing the letters. Kirschner, dean of the Macaulay Honors College at City University, published the memoir Sala’s Gift in 2007, which tells her mother’s story. They are now part of the Dorot Jewish Division at the New York Public Library.

Co-produced by The Journey Company and F.A.B. Women@TBG at the TBG Theatre, 312 West 36th Street, “Letters to Sala” imaginatively interweaves Sala’s story with that of her daughter Ann and her two teenage granddaughters. Hutton introduces and ultimately skirts fascinating questions in relation to Holocaust memory: How great a responsibility do survivors have to tell their stories? How much right do we have to demand that they do? Do their experiences belong to themselves or to history? At what point does the desire to share those experiences become exploitative? What is the value of personal memorabilia that reflects on an important historic period?

Britian Seibert plays Sala as a young woman, and Anita Keal portrays her as her older self. There are many young female characters in the play, and the playwright’s note says that she developed Letters to Sala to give young women an opportunity to perform Sala’s story and so share it with another generation. This production, directed by Eric Nightingale, feels teen friendly, from the focus on Sala’s friendships to her dalliances with two young men in the camps. Sometimes, a choice such as the girls waltzing with camp guards seems odd, even tasteless. Is the implication that the young women were forced–or chose–to become sexually involved with the guards? That’s a legitimate issue to address dramatically, but here it is so vague as to seem weird.

Performances continue until October 18.

About the Author
Miriam Rinn is currently a freelance writer based in NJ, where she has lived for several decades. She worked as a children's book editor, a freelance writer and editor, and a communications manager for a nonprofit organization. She is the author of the children's novel "The Saturday Secret," which was recently selected by PJ Our Way. She has two married sons and four granddaughters.