NO BEARS (2022)

Directed by Jafar Panahi (Iran)

In 2010, Jafar Panahi was arrested in Iran on charges of disseminating antigovernment propaganda. Part  of the Iranian New Wave and already well-known in the West, Panahi was convicted, put under house arrest, and forbidden to make movies or to leave the country for twenty years. In the thirteen years since, he has made six, beginning in 2011 with the cheeky, “This Is Not a Movie.” His most recent contribution is “No Bears.” Panahi seems disinclined to turn the camera off.

The movies he has made since 2010 center on his own experience as a banned, sometimes imprisoned film director. “This Is Not a Movie” was shot in his own apartment, some of it on his cell phone. His most famous movie, the 2015 Taxi, is set in a cab driven by Panahi himself through the streets of Teheran, the city he loves.

“No Bears” has two settings. Banned from leaving the country, the central character, a film director named Jafar Panahi, played by Jafar Panahi, has sent a crew into Turkey to film a story about a couple trying to leave the country (Iran, not Turkey). The settings are modern and urban. Meanwhile, Panahi has taken up residence near the border in a remote, rundown village. Communication between the two depends on a spotty and often absent cell phone signal.

Thus, in characteristic Panahi terms, he sketches the parameters of his life. The village stands in for Iran; the Turkey-based crew for the way his films play in the West. Between the signal is intermittent and unreliable. Both settings are fraught with threats of violence.

In each of these settings, the camera is witness and the camera is provocation. Witness is itself a provocation. When his beleaguered landlord, Ghanbar, invites Panahi to attend a foot-washing ceremony at a nearby stream, part of local marriage customs, he declines but gives Ghanbar a camera and a few instructions about how to use it. Ghanbar marches out toward the stream where the ceremony will be held with the camera protruding at chest level, his neighbors hooting and hollaring and declaring him a movie director. In the end, Ghanbar botches the job, turning the camera on when it should be off and off when it should on. It’s mostly blurry shots of the ground, but even so it hints at danger.

There is much that should not be seen. Later, as Panahi walks around the village, taking pictures of the locals, he steps unwittingly into a love triangle. An older man has been promised a young bride, but she has fallen in love with a former university student her own age. The woman and the student have been seen walking together in the village, but the witness is a boy, too young to testify. The boy claims that Panahi took a picture of the couple—a picture that would prove the existence of the illicit relationship and likely would lead to violence against the young lovers. Panahi denies he has a picture of the couple. We are never sure whether he is telling the truth or not.

The movie that Panahi’s crew is shooting in Turkey centers on another couple who hope to use stolen and altered passports to escape the country. We meet Zara, the wife, first as a frazzled waitress at a coffee shop. Someone tells her that her husband is waiting to see her outside. She rushes out, and he shows her a passport stolen from a tourist and modified with her picture. At first, she is elated, but then she realizes that there is only one passport. Her husband will have to stay behind. She stomps off, refusing the passport.

By now we are caught up in the story, when suddenly, in a characteristic Panahi move, we hear the director say, “Cut,” and we drop down a cinematic level, suddenly at one remove (or two?) from what we have just seen. The director on the set, the actors, and Panahi via his cell phone discuss the shoot and decide that it will have to be reshot. We have been reminded not to trust what the camera sees. Panahi never lets us be sure when the story is real and when it is scripted and whether there is any difference.

In each of the stories in “No Bears,” a central theme is whether to go or to stay. Early in the movie, the set director, Reza, pays Panahi a stealth visit. They drive in the direction of the border. Reza tells Panahi that even in the middle of the night the hills through which they drive are alive with eyes. Since a drought, the villagers can no longer make a living by farming. They have turned instead to smuggling, driving small pickups at high rates of speed to and from the border. Reza and Panahi come at last to a high point, and there below them are the sparkling lights of the city across the border. See how easy it would be to cross, Reza tells Panahi, evoking the story of the temptations of Jesus. Panahi asks him where the border is. Reza says, “You are standing on it.” Panahi begins to back up and turns to run. Temptation.

But staying also has consequences. Cameras have consequences. Wherever the camera goes in this film, violence follows. There is a weariness in the film, a weariness at living the life Panahi has been living with its consequences not only for himself (he is presently in prison) but for those around him. In this sense the film is confessional, a frank confession by Panahi that the films he has made are costly in the coin of human suffering.

As Panahi prepares to leave the village, having been told that he is no longer welcome, he loads his equipment in his car, says goodbye to his landlord and family, and drives off. He comes to the stream where earlier Ghanbar had filmed a bride and groom having their feet washed. To his horror he sees the villagers gathered around the body of the young man who had been dating the young woman intended for another man. Ghanbar runs up to Panahi’s car, tells him that the couple had been caught trying to cross the border, and urges him to go.

Panahi goes, but not far before he stops. He wrenches the handbrake back hard, and the screen goes blank, as if to say, enough is enough. The film is over. But does Panahi intend “No Bears” to mark an ending, a shift in Panahi’s work? Or will the camera continue to roll? In witness? In the pursuit of truth? Because Panahi does not know how to shut it off? Time will tell.

Earlier in the film, Panahi is on his way to the “Oath Tent,” where he has agreed to meet the village elders and swear that he does not have the photograph they are looking for. On his way, a villager stops him and invites him in for tea, saying that after tea they will go together. It’s not safe, the villager says, there are bears. When they have finished the tea, the villager tells Panahi to go ahead alone. But what of the bears? Panahi asks. Oh, says the villager, there are no bears. They just tell us that to scare us.

But are there no bears? It would seem from the film that there are bears everywhere: the crafty villagers, prone to violence; the violence of the city where Panahi’s crew are working; the authorities; the border smugglers; the Revolutionary Guards; and the violence of the camera itself.

Bears there are. But perhaps the title must be read differently: not that there are no bears but no to the bears. If Panahi is to continue to produce his films, he must live as if there are no bears.

This is a courageous and powerful film.

Clay Libolt

April 14, 2023

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