By Michael Roddy
BERLIN (Reuters) - Banned Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who has defied the authorities before by smuggling a film out of Iran, did it again at the Berlin International Film Festival on Friday with his film "Taxi".
The superficially whimsical but ultimately profound look at life and filmmaking in Iran, shot from the interior of a taxi with the director at the wheel, was shown despite a 20-year state ban imposed on Panahi.
He is not under arrest but can be jailed by the judiciary at any time. Two years ago he smuggled a movie to the Berlin festival on a USB drive, eliciting a protest to the festival from the Islamic Republic.
At Friday's premiere, festival director Dieter Kosslick was not saying how Panahi's film made it to the German capital, but he applauded his decision to continue making movies.
"Jafar never accepted his 20-year ban and tried to make his work because he cannot live without making films, and by accident we got this film here, maybe with a taxi?" Kosslick said, tongue-in-cheek, to reporters on the red carpet.
In the film, Panahi chauffeurs an odd assortment of people around Tehran, including two women who think they will die if they do not get two goldfish to the Ali Springs before noon.
A male passenger who admits he is a "freelance mugger" argues in favor of the death penalty for criminals with a woman teacher in the backseat who thinks capital punishment is too severe for someone who steals to feed his family - and says only China executes more people than Iran.
A girl playing Panahi's niece tells her uncle after he picks her up from school that her teacher has told her the rules for making a "distributable film" in Iran. It cannot show anything sordid - which is what Panahi has been filming from his taxi - and the characters must be named after Islamic saints.
Kosslick said Panahi's wife and the actress playing the niece attended the premiere while an empty chair was left for the director as he had not been expected to be allowed to travel to Berlin for the occasion.
He said he did not think Panahi's relations with the Islamic authorities were as dire as they were two years ago when Tehran complained to the festival for giving Panahi an award for an allegorical movie made in defiance of the state ban.
"Jafar is in a much better mood as a person because he is the cab driver in the film and he is a funny cabdriver and he has a lot of humor and this is good because three years ago he was depressed," Kosslick said.
He said he had discussed the film with the Iranian Embassy and while officials there "did not accept" it, he added, "I have not got the feeling that they (will) put more pressure on him - 20 years is already enough."
Panahi's film is one of 19 vying for the Berlin festival's annual Golden Bear prize.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)