Jafar Panahi has spent much time in and out of prison or under house arrest in Iran since 2010 on inflated charges including collusion, propaganda and threatening national security, slapped with a 20-year ban on filmmaking and all non-medical or religious international travel. Over those last 12 years, the elder-statesman auteur has never renounced his right to artistic expression, continuing to make docu-fiction hybrid films with crafty resourcefulness and oblique political and social commentary.
In July, Panahi was again arrested, this time slated to serve an earlier six-year prison sentence that was never enforced, as part of a broader crackdown on independent Iranian cinema. This has sparked outraged condemnation from across the global film community. That incendiary situation inevitably gives his latest work, No Bears (Khers Nist), heightened impact.
The Bottom Line
A stealth powerhouse.
But this artful telling of parallel narratives that intersect with Panahi facing the cost to himself and others of making films under an oppressive regime — completed before the director’s latest legal troubles — would be a forceful statement even without the limits imposed on his freedom.
Deceptively simple at first, and then accumulating increasingly complex layers by almost imperceptible degrees, No Bears deals with borders both physical and spiritual, with the divide between tradition and modernity, and the world of difference between Tehran and Iran’s rural backwaters. A character says at one point that it’s OK to lie if it’s in the service of peacekeeping; In the same way, the fear of wild animals in the title is revealed to be an unfounded superstition, designed to keep people in their place. But the film asks what do those restrictions really achieve and why do we give them such power.
The opening scene takes place in the commercial district of a Turkish town, where a couple, Zara (Mina Kavani) and Bakhtiar (Bakhtiar Penjei), have been attempting to secure false passports to flee to France. They argue when Bakhtiar insists that Zara go on ahead without him while he waits for documents, just as the assistant director, Reza (Reza Heydari), calls “Cut.”
Across the border in a remote Iranian village, Panahi watches the footage on his laptop, scrambling around in a comical attempt to find a stable internet connection. His eager-to-please host, Ghanbar (Vahid Mobaseri), makes bumbling efforts to help, but then when he tells Panahi that he’s off to the engagement ceremony of a young couple, the filmmaker hands him a camera and asks him to shoot as much footage as he can.
That joyous ceremony is a traditional “feet washing,” in which the villagers gather at the river, where the bride-to-be’s feet are bathed by the women and the groom’s by the men. It’s intended to give a symbolically pure start to their life together. But gradually, word emerges that a dispute has arisen. The woman had been promised in marriage to a different man, who does not take kindly to rejection.
While Panahi tries to keep a low profile to avoid being identified and reported to the authorities, he’s drawn into village politics as the elders descend to request a photograph he supposedly took of the young couple under a walnut tree. The director is then summoned to the office of the sheriff (Naser Hashemi). He claims the picture doesn’t exist, but even local kids say they saw him take it.
As that situation escalates, building friction around him where once there was a welcoming curiosity, Reza shows Panahi at night how easy it is to zip back and forth across the border along a smuggler’s route. That black-market traffic is the only commerce available to the village since the drought killed off farming.
Panahi jumps back as if on a rumbling fault line when he learns that the patch of dirt on which he’s standing is the invisible frontier separating the two countries.
Thoughts sparked by that realization are echoed in the story being played out before cameras in Turkey, with hesitancy prompted by questions about how much money is needed to survive in Europe, among other concerns. Late in the action, Zara explodes in a stunning direct-to-camera rant about the frustration of spending ten years trying to get out of the country but being stuck there, forced to betray herself and others.
That blurring of lines between scripted project and documentary is not new to Panahi, but it builds here with expert modulation to a shocking conclusion. On the other side of the border, everything started without a care as Panahi handed his host a camera and the latter goofed around saying, “I’m a professional filmmaker!” There are also lovely exchanges between Panahi and Ghanbar’s elderly mother (Narjes Delarem), who cooks for him and plies him with traditional herbal remedies. But the implications for everyone involved become more freighted as the clash between the two would-be grooms intensifies.
Panahi’s stoical presence at the center of all this is rattled, forcing him to contemplate the repercussions of his work both to himself and to even his most guiltless collaborators. The sobering final image resonates with the unspoken cry of an artist exiled in his own homeland, saying, “Enough.”
Whether that means escaping the forces that would control him or seizing his creative freedom in more insurgent ways is the question that lingers. The one remaining certainty is that Panahi is among the world’s great filmmakers refusing to be silenced by authoritarian rule.
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