Venice Review: Jafar Panahi’s ‘No Bears’

·4 min read

Every film Jafar Panahi makes is an act of resistance. Currently in jail, the Iranian director has spent the past 12 years in and out of house arrest, banned from traveling or making films outside Iran and faced with numerous obstacles making films at home. That hasn’t stopped him.

In No Bears, he goes to a village close to the porous border with Azerbaijan to tell a story involving a couple who are trying to get out to Paris with stolen passports, a film crew following them, a second young couple trying to escape a forced marriage and a village full of gossips and muckrakers. These villagers miss nothing, including the fact that Panahi, the visitor from Tehran, spends all day on his computer and only leaves his rented room after dark.

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Panahi is, of course, directing the aforementioned film crew via Zoom, at least when he can get a signal. He has to be careful. As the title tells us, there are no bears in the Azeri mountains; there is a rumor of them, but that is fostered by officialdom to discourage border crossings. There are, however, plenty of jackals in human form: smugglers of goods and people, profiteers and police looking to make a killing of one sort or another. As the village sheriff tells Panahi, there isn’t much money in farming anymore; folks have to find other ways to make ends meet. And that while they want him to feel welcome, given that they could use more visitors, the fact that his fancy car was seen on the dirt road they use for business makes everyone nervous.

Panahi has had a lifetime of scooting up back roads, figuratively speaking, to make the work that drives him. In 2010 he was sentenced to six years in jail for making films without a permit, a sentence that was shortened and then commuted under international pressure. The regime restricted him in other ways supposed to make it impossible for him to get a film made. This Is Not a Film (2011) was made while he was under house arrest, then smuggled out of the country. No Bears and his previous film 3 Faces (2018) were shot in remote villages, where police interest is presumably not what it would be in his home city of Teheran.

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His body of work is not merely a testimony to his persistence, however, but to his ingenuity and good spirits. He is expert in making the most of scant materials, having mastered shooting a small, unprepossessing flat from so many interesting angles that it seems to contain worlds. His circumstances mean that Panahi himself is a genial central presence in the films he makes, while the fact that he is making a film against the odds becomes a plot element.

In No Bears, he is an observer, filming and photographing the village and its inhabitants from his rented terrace, so that we see it through his eyes. Another camera is filming him, of course, of which we are intermittently reminded. These visible workings foreground questions about cinema itself that usually get swept to one side, gentle provocations about ethics, truth and lies that could be asked of any film.

Panahi’s camera is a provocation in itself as far as the villagers are concerned, a harbinger of some as-yet unspecified trouble. When he is suspected of having snapped a picture of a couple sitting under a nearby tree – a couple not supposed to be seen together, as the young woman was promised to somebody else at the moment her umbilical cord was cut – all sides are after that photograph, a new piece of evidence in a quarrel that has gone on for decades.

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“In the city, you have problems with authority,” says the town sheriff. “Here we have superstition.” When he arrived in town, Panahi was delighted by the quirky customs that endure in this far-flung community. It is a sentiment that soon sours, especially once he is summoned to a kangaroo court of old men – another tradition – to swear this photograph is not in his possession.

He isn’t moved to anger, however. When Panahi is moved, at least onscreen, it is to bemusement. It would be understandable enough, after having been so often harassed and periodically incarcerated by an oppressive regime for the great crime of making films, if he were making angry tracts that his sympathizers at festivals would then watch out of a sense of duty. But Jafar Panahi is a humanist, fascinated and forgiving of the world. He has, moreover, the instincts of an entertainer. The string of films he has made in the 12 years since he had his hands tied are sharply perceptive, but funny with it. Which doesn’t mean that we should not be angry on his behalf. He’s in jail. That really is a crime.

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