BERLIN - Iranian dissident director Jafar Panahi’s latest picture defying an official ban, ‘Taxi’, premiered to enthusiastic applause Friday at the Berlin film festival, marking a new chapter of his career in the shadows.

The 54-year-old’s work is celebrated in the world’s arthouses but outlawed in Iran where the regime considers his gritty, socially critical productions to be subversive. He was detained for a documentary he tried to make on the unrest following Iran’s disputed 2009 presidential election and officially banned from making more films for 20 years for ‘acting against national security and propaganda against the regime’. ‘Taxi’ is the third picture he’s made flouting the sentence, and while he won’t be able to walk Berlin’s red carpet as he is barred from travelling abroad, he issued a wrenching statement about his drive to keep working despite the risks. ‘I’m a filmmaker. I can’t do anything else but make films. Cinema is my expression and the meaning of my life,’ he said.

He said ‘cinema as an art’ was the ‘main preoccupation’ of his life. ‘That is the reason why I have to continue making films under any circumstances to pay my respect and feel alive.’ In ‘Taxi’, Panahi himself offers his impressions of contemporary Tehran from behind the wheel of a yellow cab, ducking the authorities’ prying eyes by filming with a mounted dashboard camera. Each person he offers a lift has a story to tell. His first fares, two strangers going the same way, launch into a political debate about Sharia law and capital punishment.

The man argues that car parts thieves should be hanged, while the teacher in the back seat says the state ordering the death penalty has done little to foster the social order.  ‘After China, we have the most executions!’ she protests, as the discussion grows increasingly heated.

A third man gets in and when the feuding pair finally get out of the taxi, he says he recognises the director Panahi in the driver’s seat.

Thus begins a film within a film in which the man, a seller of pirated film DVDs, jokes with Panahi about the acting skills of the first two people in the cab.

Panahi continues to drive and is a genial master of ceremonies, treating his sometimes hysterical fares with unfailing politeness and good humour. The tone shifts again when he picks up from school his precocious young niece, a budding filmmaker who has been taught the strict rules governing movie distribution. As she pulls out a small camera and turns it on the director, she explains what she has learned from her teacher about movie-making: all women must wear the Islamic headscarf, there must be no physical contact between men and women, political and economic debate must be avoided and most of all: no ‘sordid realism’.

Panahi humours her but when he recognises a prominent human rights lawyer by the side of the road, he stops to pick her up. The woman charms Panahi’s niece and when the director confides that he just spoke to a man who he believes interrogated him while he was forced to wear a blindfold, she comforts him. ‘Such simplistic tactics,’ she said, noting that the regime occasionally used the technique to give dissidents the maddening sense that they could never escape surveillance, with some preferring actual imprisonment to paranoid ‘freedom’. The film builds to a chilling climax in which the extent and limits of the director’s liberties are revealed, drawing a strongly positive reaction at a press preview.

‘Taxi’ is one of 19 contenders for Berlin’s Golden Bear top prize, to be awarded on February 14. Panahi’s last movie, 2013’s elegiac ‘Closed Curtain’, was also shot in secret, in the confines of his villa on the Caspian Sea. It won a Silver Bear in Berlin for best screenplay, drawing protest from the Iranian government. The film festivals in Berlin, Venice and Cannes have invited him in recent years to sit on their juries, each leaving a symbolic empty chair for him since he was kept from leaving the country. ‘We will keep inviting him until he can attend,’ Berlin festival director Dieter Kosslick told reporters last week.