starring Naser Hashemi, Reza Heydari, Mina Kavani, Bülent Keser
written and directed by Jafar Panahi
by Walter Chaw Jafar Panahi's No Bears is about imprisonment--a topic near and dear to the Iranian filmmaker's heart, as he has been, and is currently, a prisoner at the discretion of Iran's fascist government. First sentenced to six years in prison in 2010 for making films critical of the regime (a conviction that included a 20-year ban on filmmaking of any kind), Panahi spent that time under house arrest but was finally physically imprisoned in July of 2022 for raising a fuss on behalf of director and fellow prisoner-of-conscience Mohammad Rasoulof. Through clever subterfuge, Panahi has continued to direct new movies during his ban, of course--good ones, perhaps none so good as his latest, in which he plays himself, looking for a little peace and a wifi signal in a remote border town. He's directing a film by proxy, watching from his laptop as his AD, Reza (Reza Heydari), listens to his instructions regarding blocking, camera, even performance, transmitted across a physical and emotional distance through Reza's earbuds. "It's not the same without you," Reza tells Panahi; the energy is off with Panahi working through a surrogate. He can't pinpoint how, exactly, and Panahi, as he portrays himself, isn't one to make an awkward situation more comfortable. He listens more than he speaks. He waits for people to finish, then gives them an extra couple of seconds to regret what they've said. I've seen Werner Herzog do this in his documentaries, too--letting the camera run long past the point at which decorum would dictate relief from scrutiny. Panahi now lives under constant surveillance, after all, so why should any of his subjects suffer less?
The film-within-a-film concerns Zara (Mina Kavani) wrestling with the morality of using a purloined passport to flee the country. Her life partner, Bakhtiyar (Bakhtiyar Panjeei), has stolen French documents for her, but Zara not only doesn't like the idea of inconveniencing an innocent who must now have her papers replaced, she also refuses to leave without Bakhtiyar because, once separated, she has good reason to believe they'll never see each other again. They're less lovers in a dangerous time than lovers forced to make impossible, unavoidably criminal decisions under conditions designed to oppress them, to sap them of their ambition. Despair is the point. At the end, Kavani breaks character and challenges Panahi for placing her--not her character--in the same compromised position as Zara, revealing in the process that what Panahi is shooting is a documentary's staged recreations of the actual struggles of Mina Kavani trying to escape Iran with Bakhtiyar Panjeei. The film-within-a-film is a "documentary," you see, and Panahi has attempted to manufacture a happy ending by tricking Zara/Kavani into thinking Bakhtiyar has discovered a second passport that will allow the two of them to reunite at some point, once they've both managed to escape. Is Panahi the villain for tricking her into taking her only opportunity to flee? Is freedom the only thing worth anything, a concept more valuable than honour or love or the word of an artist in the creation of his art? Is Panahi the villain for faking a scene in a documentary if the documentary is intended to reveal social injustice? I thought a lot of Margaret Mead, whose best-known work, Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), was terrible science but very good politics in how it single-handedly let the air out of the eugenics movement in the United States.
In the town of Jaban, where Panahi has exiled himself, he rents a house from an unctuous villager (Bülent Keser) who makes great shows of obsequiousness. When entrusted with one of Panahi's cameras to record a foot-washing ceremony, however, he accidentally records himself gossiping about Panahi with his suspicious, provincial neighbours. They watch the footage together in increasing discomfort. Panahi doesn't say anything. Trying to find a cell signal, he's warned against climbing to his roof because people will suspect him of spying on them; taking pictures of life in his temporary home, he's pulled into a terrible row when young bride-to-be Gozbal (Darya Alei) is accused of an illicit liaison with rugged Soldooz (Amid Davari), which Panahi is accused of having photographed. The village chief (Naser Hashemi) plays investigator (and judge and jury, too), citing the small town's proud people, long traditions, and superstitions. He won't accept Panahi's claim that he hasn't taken a picture of the couple in question. He also won't accept Panahi's proof: showing the Chief and the town itself the entire contents of his camera's memory card. He doesn't even want to accept the memory card, which Panahi removes from his camera and hands to him. It's not clear to me that Panahi didn't, in fact, take the picture in question--and surely he has more than one memory card? Later, when he's forced to swear to God he hasn't done what he's accused of doing at a ritual prayer hut, he produces another camera with another memory card to record himself performing the rite. It doesn't go over well. It's perceived to be--and it is--disrespectful to these people for Panahi to capture himself pontificating about the backwardness of his hosts. But wait: is all this stuff scripted, or is it the kind of documentary he's pretending to shoot? And if it's scripted docu-reality, what is it he's trying to say about his complicity in manufacturing fictions that are potentially self-aggrandizing at the expense of a complex culture and its sociological artifacts?
There are more questions than answers in Panahi's films. Not because they're open-ended (indeed, I would argue the opposite), but because they're engaging with complicated realities impossible to parse in the span of a single motion picture, even over the course of several motion pictures. I first got hip to Panahi through his exceptional character piece Crimson Gold--a Taxi Driver-esque film that followed the plight of a war veteran through his troubled attempts to re-assimilate into a culture he now sees through and into the heart of. I wonder if Panahi isn't that veteran of certain cultural wars now: the more wizened and wise he becomes, the more he finds himself alienated by knowledge of his world's notions of good and evil. The last scenes of No Bears, as Panahi attempts to flee Jaban ahead of a now-angry mob of villagers and the government authorities haunting the margins without ever manifesting physically, are scored only by the sound of his car's seatbelt warning and the barking of dogs. An anxious score for an anxious sequence--more than that, a clear statement about how Panahi is playing without a safety net and the dogs are on his trail. The pivotal moment, though, comes earlier. As Panahi is on his way to the prayer hut to declare his innocence before a jury of his inferiors, an old man in the village invites him for a spot of tea, saying once they've had a drink, he'll escort Panahi to his appointment because the path there is filthy with bears. When the time comes, he sends Panahi off by himself. "What about the bears?" Panahi asks. There are no bears. The threat of bears is a thing to keep people well-behaved, as all myths intend--fairytales and their woods filthy with wolves or Bibles and their bans. Yet the film's closing scene suggests that sometimes there are bears, after all, and a usefulness to fairytales that we ignore at our peril.
No Bears is about imprisonment: the physical kind and the philosophical kind--and the ideological kind when Panahi stands on the exact border between Iran and escape and, in horror, retreats from it. It questions the nature of jails and jailers and in so doing the nature of freedom and what it truly means to be free. Like Orson Welles's later work, it uses cinema as the catalyst for a wide-ranging conversation about fakery, disguise, and the slipperiness of truth. There is a suicide in the film-within-a-film's meta-story, plus a double-murder in the framing conceit of the filmmaker-in-exile's saga. And because the picture is engaged in triple and quadruple feints, we are never unaware that it's all a sophist's exercise in rhetoric. The tangle of it is its pleasure, the worrying of its unsolvable knots the same as the pleasant tickle of a life that is obsessively examined. No Bears is about big questions: What is real? What is true? In a world that tends towards authoritarianism, what chance do any of us really have to live authentically? No chance at all, Panahi says; and though he begins as the hero of the piece, he ends it as the villain. He could leave if he abandoned his principles, but until he does, he's imprisoned by his intelligence and morality. (There's death, of course. There's always that.) Panahi is Sartre in positing that the only meaning is through the actions we choose to take. He's de Beauvoir in his belief that actions only have meaning if they're not influenced by institutions. He's Camus in his belief that seeking meaning in a meaningless universe is absurd. He is all of these things without being didactic or prosaic. Panahi is hypercritical of himself and his hypocrisies and doesn't feel sorry for himself. He is as important an artist in our time as Solzhenitsyn was in his, and we're blessed to have him.