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In some ways, Italian-born producer Gianfranco Norelli is the perfect bridge between the world of the immigrant taxi drivers he chronicles in TAXI DREAMS and the viewing public: As an immigrant himself, he has some experience of what it means to pick up ones roots and build a life in a different culture. And as a longtime New Yorker, he has seen the taxi world from the passenger's side of the glass.

Norelli's previous work has covered a wide spectrum of topics-- from euthanasia (in Calling Dr. Kevorkian, co-produced with TAXI DREAMS director Joanna Head for HBO's America Undercover), to the turmoil in the former Soviet Union, in a series of films for the BBC and PBS. TAXI DREAMS may seem less overtly political in content, but Norelli does want the film to raise some questions about what it means to be a multicultural society. "Through understanding the lives of these immigrants," he says, "We become more accepting of differences and more able to welcome the contribution they can make."

Tell me where this project started.
I've been in New York for 22 years and, like many New Yorkers, I take a lot of taxis. And I've always thought that the drivers had the most fascinating stories. The city is a crossroads of the world, and there's nowhere you can see that better than in taxis-- the sheer variety of experiences that people have before coming here. So I became curious as to how these people wound up in this job.

Most people around the country probably still think of the old wise guy stereotype when they hear the words, "New York cabbie." But this is really an immigrant story, isn't it?
Absolutely. You can almost trace various waves of immigration by who's driving the taxis at different periods. There was a time when there were a lot of Italians and Greeks and Eastern European Jews. Then Haitians came, and now there are South Asians. What this tells you, of course, is how eager each group is to get out of the profession and move on to something better.

On the whole, is it a good job or a bad job?
It is an extremely hard and low-paying profession. Most drivers, remember, have to rent their car and the medallion that comes with it. So, if they make $200 a day, about $120 will go toward the taxi and gas. That leaves about $80 for a 12-hour day. If you consider the conditions in which they work-- the stress, the uncertainty, the long hours crammed behind the wheel-- it's a really grueling job.

And yet they stick with it.
Well, when most of these people came here, they had huge dreams and expectations and when they arrived they often had to postpone those dreams and think more in terms of building a future for their kids. That's one of the things I admired most: The willingness to give up their own futures for their children's futures.

How specific is the film to taxi drivers? Could it have been, say, Dishwasher Dreams or Hot Dog Vendor dreams? I think that a taxi driver is necessarily placed into the speed and rhythm of New York-- dropped in to the middle much more than someone selling a hot dog on the street would be. The drivers share a physical space with New Yorkers, for however short a period and [consequently] they wind up knowing a lot about the city and about the lifestyles of New Yorkers in a way that a dishwasher or a hot dog vendor might not. And that gives them a unique perspective on the city and the people.

How did you go about selecting the cabbies you were going to follow?
The thing I was most interested in was how they negotiated the transition from their country to this country. So we chose some who were single men, some who had already brought their families to this country and some whose families were still in the old country. We wanted to see what kind of contacts they maintained with their culture.

Was it hard to find drivers willing to participate?
Many were reluctant to appear on film. For many, it had to do with the fact that they didn't consider the job to be of high status. Often, they had to take a step down from what they did in their home countries and many didn't even tell their families back home what they do here. These drivers had fascinating stories but wouldn't agree to be filmed.

Why did you decide to use Robert Scott, the poet, as a guide?
What was nice about using [Robert] was that through his poetry he could be as frank and direct as he wanted about the difficulties of the life. He could say things that the immigrant drivers may not have felt comfortable enough with the language or their situations to say. In a sense he was like the chorus in a Greek tragedy-- someone to provide a dramatic commentary.

After a year of immersion in the world of taxi drivers, what do you think would make their lives easier?
For a long time, drivers have been criticized for driving too fast, not following the rules, not speaking English and many other things. I think --I hope-- that an understanding of how difficult their job is would help to make people more sympathetic. We see a lot of stories in the media about the drivers, but not a lot of stories from the drivers. In a sense, that was what we were trying to do with this documentary: Give them a place to tell their stories.