LOS ANGELES (Variety.com) - After winning the Berlin Film Festival's Golden Bear with his film "Taxi," Iranian director Jafar Panahi has broken silence, asking for his country to stop censoring him.
"I'm really happy for me and for Iranian cinema," but "no prize is worth as much as my compatriots being able to see my films," the banned director said in a rare interview with Iranian media, carried Sunday by the country's semi-official Ilna news agency.
"The people in power accuse us of making films for foreign festivals," Panahi also told Ilna. "They hide behind political walls and don't say that our films are never authorized for screening in Iranian cinemas," he added.
In Taxi Panahi plays a Tehran cabbie driving a diverse mix of passengers as they confide their woes, including a court case involving a young woman jailed for trying to get into a men's volleyball match.
It's Panahi's third film smuggled abroad since 2010, when he was arrested by Iranian authorities and banned from moviemaking for a documentary he tried to make on the unrest prompted by Iran's disputed 2009 presidential election.
Just as Taxi screened in Berlin, the head of Iran's government film entity, Hojjatollah Ayyubi, warned Berlin topper Dieter Kosslick against political manipulation of the pic.
"I regret that you wish to drive everybody in a taxi of new misunderstandings about the Iranian people by screening a film made by a director who has been banned by law from making films - but nevertheless, he has done exactly that. 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," said the head of Iran's Cinema Organisation in an open letter carried by Iranian media.
Since 2014, when the relatively more progressive Iranian President Hassan Rouhani took office, the country's filmmakers are feeling a somewhat less chilly climate. Though the ban on Panahi officially remains in place, a six-year jail sentence against him has not been enforced. And Panahi is no longer under house arrest, and de-facto making films, albeit amid a very difficult and risky situation. Also Panahi is not allowed to leave the country, and his films are not shown there.
Reactions in Iran to Panahi's Golden Bear victory have been mostly muted, with the exception of the interview published by Ilna, which is considered on the liberal end of Iran's media spectrum.
"The Iranian media are choosing to give this victory a low profile, with just a mention in passing in conservative outlets," noted expert Italo Spinelli, who heads Italy's Asiatica Film Mediale festival.
Spinelli did not rule out that "in the next few hours a press campaign could mount against Panahi," but he also noted that the Berlin prize victory puts the dissident director "in a better spot."
Pahani's two other post-ban pics are This Is Not a Film and Closed Curtain, which competed in 2013 in Berlin, where it won the screenplay prize, which prompted official protests from the Iranian government that year.
Foreign films are also subject to censorship in Iran. The BBC Persian service reported that a quick look at Tehran film listings for February shows that cinemas are currently showing several Hollywood films, including Boyhood, Gone Girl, Interstellar and even The Interview. But all of them are likely to have been edited for content.