By Mike Collett-White
BERLIN (Reuters) - Iran's Jafar Panahi has defied a 20-year ban on filmmaking to secretly co-direct "Closed Curtain", a multi-layered portrayal of how restrictions on his work and movement have brought on depression and even thoughts of suicide.
The movie, in competition at the Berlin film festival, has its premiere on Tuesday, but Panahi was not expected on the red carpet despite festival organizers saying the German government had requested he be allowed to travel.
His co-director and compatriot Kamboziya Partovi did attend a press conference along with actress Maryam Moghadam, but would not be drawn on what the consequences of making the movie could be for Panahi or others involved.
"Nothing has happened up until now," he said, speaking through an interpreter. "We do not know what the future holds for us."
Moghadam acknowledged she was taking a risk by acting in a project involving Panahi, a darling of the Western film festival circuit and best known for his 2000 movie "The Circle" and "Offside" released six years later.
His socially engaged films about issues such as women's rights in Iran and support for the political opposition have made him a target of the Iranian authorities.
In 2010 he was banned from making films for 20 years and sentenced to six years in prison for "propaganda against the system", although he is now under house arrest.
Moghadam, who has dual Swedish and Iranian nationality, told Reuters she would try to continue travelling to Iran, where she had family. "I am not the only one (taking risks)," she said.
"Closed Curtain" is the second picture Panahi has made in defiance of the ban, and it remains to be seen whether the 52-year-old faces further punishment for a movie that has drawn major attention in Berlin.
"This is Not a Film", made in 2011, was reportedly smuggled out of the country on a USB stick hidden inside a cake.
EMPTY VILLA, FEAR, FRUSTRATION
"Closed Curtain" is set in an empty villa in Iran, presumably beside the Caspian Sea.
A man, played by Partovi, arrives with his dog, and proceeds to draw the curtains and black out the windows, sealing himself off from the world outside and preventing the authorities - real and imagined - from seeing what was happening.
When the dog accidentally switches on the television, we see footage of stray dogs being rounded up and killed, explaining why he had to be smuggled in inside a bag and kept indoors.
A young man and woman, on the run from the police, burst in and the woman stays, but her existence and that of the man becomes unclear as viewers must decide if they are fictional characters in Panahi's script or actual people.
The layers of reality multiply as Panahi himself arrives, and posters advertising some of his past movies are revealed beneath sheets before being covered up again.
In the allegory of Panahi's life under house arrest and inability to work freely, we see him walking into the sea at one point, a reference to taking his own life.
"He was not constantly thinking about suicide, no, because then he wouldn't have been able to make the film," Partovi said. "But if I imagine myself unable to work and just sitting at home, then I am sure I would start to think about suicide."
According to Partovi, "Closed Curtain" was made out of a desire to express oneself, even though it was unlikely to be seen by people inside Iran.
"It's difficult to work, but not being able to work is even more difficult, and especially when you are at the height of your career. You become depressed, and I believe this is shown in the film and it comes through."
The mood is one of frustration, fear and anger, as young people are rounded up for having parties and drinking alcohol.
"She is a young woman like many other women in my country," Moghadam said of her character Melika.
"She is a symbol of many other young women who struggle," added the actress, who was wearing a hat to cover her hair.
She said her character represented "the dark side of his (Panahi's) mind ... that part that doesn't hope any more and wants to give up."
(Reporting by Mike Collett-White)