No Bears is Jafar Panahi’s latest multi-layered film, boldly showing his plight and that of filmmaking itself in the context of Iran’s draconian restrictions.
If you go down...by Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Jafar Panahi, the director of this wonderful film, is serving six years in Evin prison in Tehran for enquiring about the arrest and imprisonment of two fellow directors, Mohammad Rasoulof and Mostafa al-Ahmad, for using their social media to criticise the government. Despite being banned from filmmaking or leaving the country for 20 years, Panahi the auteur has resourcefully continued to make films that skirt the definition of film, such as This Is Not A Film (2011), Closed Curtain (2013) or Three Faces (2018).
No Bears is an incredibly poignant and brave statement on both Panahi’s own situation and that of his country, Iran. No Bears has so many layers and says so much. It examines the imposed borders, fictional, real or artistic, that it is currently dangerous to cross in Iran and the corrosive effect this has on everyday life for Iranians. In the film, the village becomes a microcosm of Iran, where just possessing a camera can be a dangerous act.
Panahi as usual plays a version of himself – tolerant, patient, wryly self-deprecating. This Panahi has rented a spartan room in a village near the Turkish border (where farming has died and they survive by cross-border smuggling) from comically eager-to-please Ghanbar (Vahid Mobaseri), so that he can remotely direct his film being made in nearby Turkey. Ghanbar’s mother (Narjes Delaram) cooks his meals in a clay oven in a hole in the ground. Assistant director Reza (Reza Heydari), who passes back and forth across the notional border, tells Panahi he is standing on the border at one point and absurdly he jumps back, even though it is pitch-black night and they are alone.
It’s difficult. The real lives of the actors playing Zara (Mina Kavani) and Bakhtiar (Bakhtiar Panjei) are complicated and there is a running joke that the intermittent wi-fi signal stops Panahi seeing the Turkish filming on his laptop. Panahi is an urban fish-out-of-water and so the villagers suspect he is a trouble-maker or a spy, especially when he takes photographs of the villagers or films traditional ceremonies.
Panahi inadvertently causes a dispute with the village sheriff (Naser Hashemi) and elders: they believe he took a photograph of a young couple Gozal and Soldooz (Darya Alei and Amir Davari) who are not meant to be together because she was betrothed as a baby to belligerent Yaghoub (Javad Siyahi). They demand Panahi attends a traditional swearing ceremony to swear he does not have such a photograph: he says politely that he respects their traditions but will film his oath instead.
No Bears shifts in parallel between the film within a film Panahi is making outside Iran and the film of him in the remote and superstitious village. Actress Mina Kavani, out of her character as Zara, makes an impassioned speech to camera, accusing Panahi of trying to give them a happy ending that isn’t real. That film within a film is about her and her husband Bakhtiar’s 10-year attempts to get to Europe. Similarly, Panahi falls foul of village traditions with tragic consequences that he has to take responsibility for.
And the bears of the title? They are the self-imposed fictions, traditional or religious, made to keep people from straying from the village. A metaphor, in fact. Bears, real or imagined, should not be feared, Panahi says in No Bears.
In October, Mina Kavani spoke for Panahi, who is still in Evin prison, at the New York Film Festival.
The full statement from Panahi reads: “We are filmmakers. We are part of Iranian cinema. For us, to live is to create. We create works that are not commissioned. Therefore, those in power see us as criminals. Independent cinema reflects its own times. It draws inspiration from society. And cannot be indifferent to it. The history of Iranian cinema witnesses the constant and active presence of independent directors who have struggled to push back censorship and to ensure the survival of this art. While on this path, some were banned from making films, others were forced into exile or reduced to isolation. And yet, the hope of creating again is a reason for existence. No matter where, when, or under what circumstances, an independent filmmaker is either creating or thinking about creation. We are filmmakers, independent ones.”
No Bears premiered at the Venice Film Festival and is released on 11 November 2022 in the UK.