For most filmmakers, picking up a camera is a form of expression. For Jafar Panahi, it’s an act of political resistance. Having been arrested several times (as recently as July of this year), prohibited from traveling and officially banned from filmmaking since 2010 by the Iranian government, the Tehran-based director has continued to find ways to shoot, edit and smuggle his movies out to the world. Before he became Cinematic Public Enemy No. 1 to the authorities, Panahi practiced the sort of poetic neo-realism that characterizes a lot of the nation’s arthouse imports — there will be children, and sports, and allegories galore. Since the ban, he’s become both the perpetrator and the protagonist of line-blurring excursions into self-reflexivity, running the gamut from witty to weary and doubling as examples of how to create under the most oppressive circumstances. Really, what else do you call a film you’ve made, when you’re not allowed to make films, other than This Is Not a Film?
Panahi’s output since angering the powers that be has been uneven, to say the least, though it’s unfair to harshly judge the work of someone operating under such stifling limitations; the mere existence of these movies are miracles. Yet his latest, No Bears, doesn’t feel like it came from an artist working within strict parameters or hobbled by the mother of invention — it’s a masterwork by virtually any standard. Once again, the director plays “Jafar Panahi,” internationally-renowned filmmaker and partially fictional character. Once again, life bleeds into art, as the screen version of the auteur is trying to make a movie without being able to leave the country. In this case, he’s calling the literal shots on a set in Turkey, via a laptop connection that keeps going out. Had Panahi stayed in Tehran, he’d be able to reap the benefits of decent WiFi. But he’s determined to be as near to what’s happening as possible, which is how the famous filmmaker ends up in a tiny, rural village near the border between the two countries.
Still, the change of the scenery is lovely, and Panahi can concentrate on his work when he’s not searching for a signal. The owner of the place he’s staying at, a man named Ghanbar (Vahid Mobasheri), is slightly starstruck — marquee-name moviemakers don’t usually come to town — and tends to his guest’s needs. A wedding is being planned, which has put everyone in a festive mood. While residents parade down to a riverbank for a footwashing ceremony for the soon-to-be-betrothed, Panahi takes a few snapshots on the building’s roof, mostly of kids and scenery. He momentarily forgets that a man with a camera can be viewed as dangerous.
Throughout the first half of No Bears, the filmmaker gives the impression that he’s idling in meta-playful mode, even when the film-within-the-film starts to mention real actors getting fake passports and staging scenes in which a foreigner suddenly finds himself in the middle of a mob. A clandestine meeting at the border late at night, right outside where smugglers (of humans and other things) ply their trade, slyly underlines a kinship — like them, Panahi is an outlaw, dealing in his own form of contraband. And his interactions with Ghanbar, as well as with an elderly woman who keeps giving him unsolicited folk remedies, play out like gentle comic banter. You keep waiting for them to go into a Farsi-language version of a “Who’s on first?” routine.
Then Panahi lets the tone shift, and suddenly, there’s an edge of hostility that creeps into this tale of a bucolic busman’s holiday. The locals think that the director took a picture of a couple while casually shutterbugging. Specifically, he may have captured the bride (Darya Alei) speaking to a man (Amir Davari) who’s pined for her for years. Accidentally, purposefully — Panahi’s intentions are unimportant to them. The village elders, not to mention the angry groom, want proof. They demand to see the picture. The filmmaker shows them the photos on his camera; he took no such shot. The locals still don’t believe him. They want him to take an oath before God, per a longstanding tradition. You don’t need to mean it, Ghanbar tells him. It doesn’t even matter whether you did take the shot or not. Just do what they ask, and they’ll leave you alone. Maybe.
It’s here that No Bears drops the hammer, revealing the purpose of its title — there are not any man-eating bears prowling the countryside, but it helps the elders to say there are, because “our fears empower others” — and reminding you that one tale of death-by-a-thousand-cuts persecution can fill in for another. Images, whether they come in a single shot or are part of 24 flipping by per second, can liberate, enlighten, communicate. They can also indict, be used to turn artists into political prisoners and be manipulated to inflict harm. Even the actors in his movie project turn confrontational: You’ll make a movie based on our lives, but you don’t consider how this affects us.
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Neither the real nor the fictional Panahi takes kindly to being strong-armed, which leads to actions being taken by the villagers themselves in regards to this situation. Irony and tragedy wait just around the corner. And as his real-life tribulations play out in miniature onscreen, you can feel a huge crack begin to spread throughout this elaborately constructed hall of mirrors. There’s an urgency and a currency to No Bears that is evident even if you didn’t know Panahi is currently serving a six-year sentence for “producing anti-government propaganda,” both of which add a sting to its final act. You leave feeling like you’ve just seen a truly extraordinary late work produced by one of the era’s greatest working auteurs, quickly followed by the sense of experiencing a sucker punch when you remember that the man driving away from the scene of the crime onscreen isn’t able to go anywhere once that screen fades to black.