The movies embattled Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi has managed to make in the past decade or so—beginning with the 2011 This Is Not a Film and winding toward his latest, No Bears—are models of ingenuity, a multi-project study in the fortitude of the creative spirit. But as playful and inventive as these movies have sometimes been, they’re not always easy to watch, and No Bears, in particular, shows an artist fighting despair in the face of governmental tyranny. From the time of his initial arrest in 2010 (the Iranian government’s charge was “propaganda against the system”) until this past summer, Panahi had been largely confined to his home, a condition of the six-year prison sentence he’d received. He’d also been barred from leaving Iran, and forbidden from making films in any official capacity. This past July, after inquiring about the arrests of fellow filmmakers Mohammad Rasoulof and Mostafa Aleahmad, Panahi too was detained, and subsequently sentenced to serve that six-year prison sentence behind literal bars. By the time No Bears premiered at the Venice Film Festival, in early September, Panahi had already been incarcerated in Tehran’s Evin Prison, where most of the nation’s political prisoners are held, for more than a month.
Though Panahi had obviously completed No Bears before his literal imprisonment, there’s no way to watch this film without feeling mournful, or fearing for the man who made it. The structure at first seems to be that of a movie within a movie. We see scenes of street life in a small city—a man balances a basket on his head; musicians roam the walkways, accepting coins as they make joyful music. The camera zeroes in on a café, and specifically on a young woman waiting tables there, Zara (Mina Kavani). She gets a phone call and dashes away from her job to meet a gaunt, lanky man, Bakhtiar (Bakhtiar Panjei), who appears to have good news: he’s managed to procure a passport for her, a means of escape that we can tell means the world.
It turns out that this scene is part of a film that Panahi is directing from afar. He has taken a small room in a nearby village—still observing the rules of his confinement, if just barely—and he’s supervising the direction of this movie via his laptop, with the help of an assistant, Reza (Reza Heydari). Yet the story unfolding in the film-within-a-film turns out to be a real story as well; as in all of Panahi’s recent films, fact and fiction are blurred. And although Panahi has been at first made to feel welcome in his village rental—by the house’s owner, Ghanbar (Vahid Mobaseri), and by Ghanbar’s mother (Narjes Delaram), who looks after their guest with mother-hen benevolence—it turns out that even here, he’s being judged guilty of crimes he hasn’t even come close to committing.
In the film, Panahi-as-Panahi, an imagemaker to his very bones, has been seen taking photographs around his rental, and the local men have accused him of taking pictures of two young lovers who happen to be embroiled in a local controversy. (They explain that in their village, when an infant girl’s umbilical cord is cut, it’s severed in the name of the man she’s eventually going to marry, a marvel of backwards thinking that Panahi immediately recognizes as crazy, even though, as a guest, he must pretend to respect the local traditions.) When questioned, Panahi insists that he has no such picture in his possession; he hands the men his camera’s memory card, to do with it as they will. Still, they don’t believe him, and demand, in a menacingly polite way, that he take further steps to prove his innocence. He complies, but the men’s hostility, and their message, is clear: they can, and will, control him with their rigid, almost incomprehensible rules.
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In No Bears, Panahi is both playing himself and being himself, allowing himself to express even more bewilderment and anger than he’s revealed in films like Closed Curtain (2013) or Taxi (2015), made in his earlier years in exile. The metaphorical weight of No Bears is heavy. In the movie, he’s being held hostage by peasants who mindlessly favor tradition and superstition over humanity, a version of what his government is doing in real life, but in an even more treacherous way. Because the Iranian state so greatly fears the autonomy of its own people, it sees Panahi and other artists like him as a danger: Taraneh Alidoosti, star of Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar-winning film The Salesman and one of the country’s most famous actresses, has also recently been arrested for her support of the nationwide protests that erupted in September, after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody.
Meanwhile, Panahi’s future as a filmmaker is uncertain. Evin Prison has a history of human-rights abuses; in October, a fire tore through the premises, killing 8 people and injuring more than 60, although those are the figures released by state media—in reality they could be much higher. In the fire’s aftermath, Panahi’s wife, Tahira Saeedi, relayed that Panahi had said he’d experienced “the worst hours of his life.” In No Bears, the 62-year-old Panahi shows nothing more than the normal effects of aging: his hair is grayer than before, the lines in his face perhaps slightly more pronounced. But this is hardly a broken man. He knows one thing for sure: defiance is the ultimate act of survival.