Directed by: Jafar Panahi
Distributed by: Celluloid Dreams
Written by Patrick Hao
For over a decade, Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi has been in various states of legal trouble with the Iranian government for his filmmaking, supposedly making propaganda films that negatively portray the Iranian government. Just this past June, Panahi was incarcerated for protesting the detainment of fellow filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof. It is a wonder with all these obstructions that since Panahi was first put on house arrest in 2010, he has had an output of films that have been so vital to the medium as experiments in film and political messaging. It is also understandable as his filmography has progressed from 2011’s “This is Not a Film,” that the films have been tinged with bitterness and anger, even more self-reflexive than the metatextual hallmarks of Iranian New Wave.
In “No Bears,” Panahi expects the audience to understand extratextual information that is underlying his narrative. The film takes two parallel tracks. One is the filming of Panahi’s new movie. The film tells the story of Bakhtiar (Bakhtiyar Panjeei) and his girlfriend Zara (Mina Kavani) trying to get forged documents to escape Turkey to go to Paris. This is a recreation of Bakhtiar and Zara’s real-life attempts to do the same. Panahi, playing himself, is filming from afar through Skype, in a little Iranian village that he found right across the border of Turkey.
In this village, Panahi spends most of his time in his rented room, as gossip begins to rise as to why this man from Tehran with a fancy car has arrived at a village so close to the border. It is here that Panahi is able to luxuriate in the whimsy of his slice-of-life provincial characters. His uber-polite landlord, Ghanbar (Vahid Mobaseri), feels honored to have such a guest in his home He is even more honored when after Panahi learns about a traditional ceremony happening in the village, that Panahi entrusts Ghanbar with taking a video of the event. Panahi interestingly does not always characterize himself in a good light in this fictionalized version of him. Panahi’s politeness is tinged with condescension, as his singular focus is getting his movie done despite the hurdle. Things in the village begin to go awry when Panahi, unable to contain himself, takes a couple of snapshots, one of which is of a man and a woman embracing, the woman already betrothed to another. When the villagers demand the picture, Panahi sets himself to be led through a traditionalist kangaroo court of sorts.
What defines both these parallel stories is the diaspora of all involved. The characters of the film within the film and Panahi are on the run, and there is an imminent danger that befalls all of them, if not from active pursuit, just from their inability to fully live to the fullest without care. It is no wonder that Panahi, the character, also serves as a voyeur, often listening and filming gossip through windows and doorways. He wants to be an observer, but oftentimes becomes entwined in the action.
It is through that entanglement, as a filmmaker, that we get Panahi as his most self-reflexive. A common theme through his past decade of filmmaking is the purpose of his filmmaking, with this film being the most cynical of the bunch. Panahi, the character, callously cares more about a shot than what emotional state he is putting his actors through. The same can be said about his very presence in this village and his meddling in their affairs. Panahi calls to question whether any of his actions are indeed as virtuous as the import that has been placed upon him. “Stories are made to scare us. Our fear empowers others,” says a villager Panahi encounters. Only in Iranian cinema will a film openly critique itself as it progresses.
In a Fall season, where filmmakers like Spielberg and Chazelle have openly questioned the line between production and the “magic of the movies” myth, Panahi takes an absolute shotgun blast to that question. Yet, it is undeniably powerful seeing Panahi’s melancholic depiction of himself and of the people whom he clearly has affection for. You cannot shake the feeling that he wouldn’t have to do this if only it was a better world. It is a virtue. It is a curse.
“No Bears” Trailer