Film Review – No Bears
Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi has never been the type to bend to authority. His work – which takes a humanistic approach to life in Iran – has been labeled as propaganda by the government. This has led to numerous legal battles. This Is Not a Film (2011) was made while Panahi was under house arrest. The film had to be smuggled out of the country on a USB drive hidden in a cake. In July 2022, he was arrested and sentenced to a six-year prison term. As of this writing, Panahi has entered a hunger strike, demanding to be released due to the corrupt means of his detainment. He is – quite literally – putting his life on the line against those in power.
No Bears (2022) was shot and completed soon before Panahi’s arrest, and like previous instances, had to be smuggled out of Iran. Knowing this, there is a sense of urgency that underlines the film, as though Panahi – and the audience – are on borrowed time. Mixing fiction with non-fiction, Panahi inserts himself into his narrative. He becomes the central figure in an increasingly complex tale of tradition, religious fundamentalism, and the invisible lines in which people exist. The title “No Bears,” references the supposed danger of bear attacks for those who venture out into the desert. On a deeper level, it examines the fear and anxiety of those who would question established rules and belief systems. To challenge the order of things would risk punishment. Fear is used as a method of control. As we are aware, Panahi does not allow this to stop him from telling his story.
The idea of “borders” plays as a major theme. We first see Panahi in the midst of directing his latest film. However, his trouble with the Iranian government prevents him from traveling to Turkey, where the production is shooting. He settles in a small Iranian village on the border, where he directs remotely. The movie within the movie follows two lovers (played by Bakhtiyar Panjeei and Mina Kavani) trying to secure passports that will get them safely to Paris. On several occasions, fantasy meets reality as the actors break character in the middle of a scene to address the camera and speak to Panahi via an earpiece. At certain points, we are unsure whether what we are seeing is happening within the production, or if it is a genuine moment in real time. Panahi’s frustrations mount as the spotty Wi-Fi connection prevents him from effectively communicating with the crew – yet another barrier to overcome.
Simultaneously, the village in which Panahi is residing has its own walls to deal with. His presence has some questioning whether he intends on escaping Iran into Turkey. A ceremony takes place, with Panahi taking photographs of village members. It’s those pictures that will set off a firestorm amongst the community, putting Panahi in a position where he must face the long-held customs, traditions, and practices of the town. Some of the residents, including the village chief Sherif (Naser Hashemi) and Ghanbar (Vahid Mobasheri), who rented out Panahi’s room, are friendly and accommodating. But soon enough, we see how much their belief systems define their actions. Panahi continually prods, questions, and contests these social and religious structures – not out of spite but for earnest understanding. Some of his interviewees can’t give definitive answers, and it is that back and forth that increases the tension.
No Bears is not a thriller, but it has the same beats and rhythms of one. The village’s suspicions regarding Panahi’s intentions, his reluctance to blindly follow their customs, and the struggle for him to complete his film are all heightened. It’s as though we are walking on eggshells, constantly uneasy as to whether Panahi may say or do something that could get him in trouble. As nice and welcoming as the villagers are, certain bits of dialogue hint at a double meaning. When Ghanbar asks Panahi if he has traveled to the border recently, or lets him know that he washed the desert sand off his car, we understand the implications behind those statements. When the village elders visit Panahi in his room and ask to see some of the pictures he took of the area, we feel that something is amiss. This all builds to a shocking climax, which might be the one instance where Panahi breaks from his grounded, natural approach. I understand the intention. In this world – the slightest misstep can mean life or death.
The cinematography (Amin Jafari) amplifies the themes with subtle but effective compositions. Adding to the motif of closed spaces, the camera often shoots characters within doorways, in small rooms, or positioned within window frames. A late-night walk between Panahi and a villager takes place in a dimly lit alleyway, flanked by tall and imposing brick walls. A key scene happens in a coffeehouse where a character is sitting at the bar. The extended shot begins out on the street and travels into the doorway of the shop, peering in to find the character on the other end of the room. As tensions build between Panahi and the village, the number of onlookers expands. What starts out as a few turns into a dozen or more. The tension is built up so hotly that Panahi finds himself surrounded by villagers, all demanding that he cooperate with their demands. Even the room he stays in has a closed off, isolated quality. These stylistic flourishes seem minor on their own, but when combined add texture and nuance to the narrative.
No Bears is a film of understated power, where its effect doesn’t manifest overtly but creeps up on us from the margins. The more I think about it, the richer the layers become. Jafar Panahi is an artist whose voice will not be stifled by rules, regulations, or imprisonment. He is one of the finest and most important filmmakers in the world – a call against censorship in the face of tremendous adversity. Whether his hunger strike will lead to his release is yet to be seen. His decision to do so is an example of his strength and fortitude not only as a storyteller, but as a human being.