The Country as Prison
This article appeared in the October 14, 2022 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here. Read more of our coverage of the 60th New York Film Festival here.
No Bears (Jafar Panahi, 2022)
In 2010, Jafar Panahi was imprisoned for three months on baseless charges of anti-government propagandizing and banned from making movies for 20 years. A few years later, Panahi ruefully told me in an interview that he felt he had been released into a larger prison: Iran under the rule of the Islamic Republic. The filmmaker’s latest feature, No Bears, offers a poignant illustration of what he was referring to in our conversation.
Panahi has been arrested and jailed several times over the years, including most recently in July, when he went to the Evin prison in Tehran to inquire about the detention of two fellow filmmakers, Mohammad Rasoulof and Mostafa Al-Ahmad. Instead of receiving an explanation, he was detained again to serve the remainder of the six-year term to which he was sentenced in 2010. But despite the threat of a jail sentence hovering over his head, Panahi has managed to constantly invent creative ways of bypassing the restrictions. With each of the five features Panahi has made since the ban, he has reclaimed an increasingly wide physical territory, from the small, closed space of his Tehran apartment in This Is Not a Film (2011) to the border areas of Iranian Azerbaijan in 2018’s 3 Faces.
Now, with No Bears, Panahi descends onto the borderlands of Iran and Turkey, coming so close to the frontier that, as his assistant who has guided him there tells him, he could cross it with just one step—but Panahi refuses to do so, underlining his commitment to staying in his own country and fighting for the birthrights an autocratic government has denied him and his compatriots. Interestingly, his son Panah Panahi, in his brilliant 2021 directorial debut, Hit the Road, portrayed a family sacrificing everything to help their son cross the same border. The difference in vision is indicative of a generational gap: the young people who blame their parents for the hijacked revolution of 1979 are restless and disillusioned, and desperate to escape.
As in his other post-ban films, Panahi also traverses the boundaries between reality and fiction in No Bears, which is evident from the opening scene of the film, a seven-minute long take of a covert conversation between a couple on a busy side street in a Turkish town that is abruptly interrupted by someone yelling “Cut!” The camera pulls back and we realize that what we’re watching is unfolding on a laptop being operated by Panahi; this scene is part of a film-within-the-film that Panahi is attempting to direct via video call while stationed in the small village of Jaban on the Iranian side of the border.
With this nod to the opening of François Truffaut’s Day for Night (albeit with remote directing!), Panahi introduces two narrative threads that extend in parallel lines throughout No Bears. One follows the production of the film-within-the-film, which tracks the attempts of a refugee couple stuck in the Turkish town for the last 10 years to escape to France. The other is a docufiction about Panahi’s stay in Jaban and the suspicions and dramas his covert filmmaking rustles up. Panahi shoots the former strand, comprising a total of six scenes, in continuous long takes to make it stylistically distinct from the latter. He limits his participation in those scenes to his disembodied voice, whereas in the docufiction, his prominent on-screen presence as an urban intellectual in a highly conservative village is portrayed as being unintentionally disruptive.
Panahi has sought shelter in Jaban as a secret location from which to work, free from the watchful eyes of the authorities (though there are menacing allusions to the presence of a Revolutionary Guard). Ironically, he becomes the subject of intense attention from the villagers themselves, due to his reputation and his nocturnal trips to the border, and he unwittingly becomes entangled in a messy situation when the villagers demand to see a photo they suspect he has taken of two young lovers. That couple is Gozal (Darya Alei) and Soldooz (Amir Davari), an expelled university student. (His transgression? Participating in a protest!) The two are planning to elope so that Gozal doesn’t have to marry the man she was promised to at birth.
This photo is the film’s MacGuffin, which might never have existed, or possibly was taken and deleted later. It creates a controversy that leads to a bizarre oath-taking ceremony where, in exchange for his participation, Panahi demands to be allowed to film the proceedings. This scene juxtaposes religious and secular approaches to searching for the truth. While the truth ultimately remains elusive, this scene is a testament to the power of film to challenge a culture of blind obedience, and also to Panahi’s efforts, as a dissident filmmaker, to build a cinema of defiance against the propagandist film apparatus of the state.
Jaban here becomes a microcosm of Iran: it’s under the thumb of a sly village chief, and the hierarchy of power is strictly based on seniority, as revealed by the seating arrangement of the oath-taking ritual. The inhabitants live in an environment of fear, suspicion, and oppressive superstitions that seal women’s destinies at birth. On the Turkish side, the refugee couple, Zara (Mina Kavani) and Bakhtiar (Bakhtiar Panjei), face the possibility of having to be separated in order to escape to France under false identities, while, in a stray conversation involving a border smuggler, a friend of theirs relates the plight of his son who has left Iran because he “feels trapped, with no future, no freedom, and no job.” These cross-border stories reflect the harsh conditions of many Iranians—both those inside the country and those who have left.
No Bears’s most potent moment of political commentary, and the origin of the film’s title, arrives when a resident of Jaban insists on accompanying Panahi through a dark alleyway because of the bears that supposedly roam the area—and then later, with no explanation, says that there are no bears; those are just fanciful stories arising from people’s paranoia. This metaphor could not be more timely, as the current uprising led by Iranian women—galvanized by the death of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, who was detained by the Guidance Patrol (the religious morality police) for wearing her hijab “improperly”—clearly demonstrates that the people have opened their eyes to the fact that the repressive Islamic Republic is a paper bear not worthy of their fear. As they take to the streets to regain their stolen freedom, a filmmaker confined in a prison cell must be hoping for a brighter future for his nation, and for himself.
Jamsheed Akrami is a film professor at William Paterson University and has made a trilogy of feature-length documentaries on Iranian cinema before and after the 1979 Revolution.