In 2010, an Iranian court banned Jafar Panahi from making films for 20 years. With his latest, No Bears, Panahi has now directed as many features since that ban as before. From his very first work under the ban, 2011’s This Is Not a Film, he has used it almost as a formal challenge, and has found brilliant ways to artistically explore the confines of his situation, which has encompassed house arrest and a travel ban. No Bears continues this trend, as Panahi explores the possibilities and limitations of cinema, and reaches utterly heartbreaking conclusions.
This past summer, Panahi was again arrested and, at the time of writing, he remains imprisoned. Prior to the film’s screenings at the New York Film Festival, actor Mina Kavani read a statement from him which said in part: “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.”
Through parallel plots, No Bears ruminates on ideas of exile, isolation, art, and survival. In one thread, Panahi (playing himself, or a version of himself, as he did in Closed Curtain, Taxi, and 3 Faces) again attempts to get around both his filmmaking and travel bans. Staying in an isolated village at the western edge of Iran, he directs a cast and crew remotely, as they shoot in a Turkish town just across the border. The film within a film concerns a couple (Kavani and Bakhtiyar Panjeei) trying to obtain passports and flee to Europe. Panahi is continually drawn away from his project by a conflict in the town. While taking pictures, he unwittingly captured a young couple in a secret rendezvous. She is promised to another, and her fiancé’s family wants the photo as proof of her transgression. Panahi finds himself navigating the odd, seemingly absurd strictures of the highly traditional community — a tangle of religious protocols and sworn oaths. Increasingly, the situation in the village and his film’s story uncannily mirror one another.
Panahi’s ability to compose striking tableaus with minimal materials continues to astonish. No Bears is set mainly against desert backdrops or in sparsely decorated rooms, and yet the director never ceases to creatively and meaningfully position the characters within them. In many lengthy shots, someone will exit but remain visible in the scene through a window or mirror. In line with the film’s investigation into how people use created images, whether as weapons in a feud or means of artistic escape from reality, screens frequently create multilayered pictures within pictures — sometimes just with the rearview camera on a car’s dashboard. The film opens with a single take in which the actors run through a scene of the film within the film; the take then continues into behind-the-scenes folderol before the camera pulls back to reveal that everything we’ve seen has been on Panahi’s laptop screen.
Despite his professed belief in the purpose of art, Panahi asks bleak questions about its potential. “The power of cinema” is often invoked in a sentimental way, but No Bears considers that concept in a more pessimistic mode. Simply by observing reality with his camera, he finds that he inadvertently makes things worse, while his attempt to make a film with a happy ending ultimately sours. The moving artistic image is but one component of a complex world ruled by authorities who are skilled at perverting everything to their own ends. When called upon to testify for village elders in a “truth room,” Panahi tries to assert some agency by giving his testimony to a camera rather than swearing on a Qur’an. But this fails to satisfy the angry family, and events continue to spiral. Cinema might be a great art worth fighting for, but it may not be able to save anyone. Given Panahi’s situation, that could be taken as a message of despair, but it reads more like a fiercely clear-eyed assessment of the world, one molded by his unique perspective.
No Bears is currently in theaters.