In No Bears, Director Jafar Panahi plays a version of himself: a director who cannot leave Iran and is forced to shoot his new film remotely from a small village bordering Turkey. The film follows two parallel stories.
One is the film that he is directing about an Iranian couple who have fled to Turkey and are attempting to forge passports to flee to Europe. The other story is about a couple in the village he is staying in; a woman betrothed to marry a man at birth but has now been seen with another man. The village suspects Panahi of having photographed this couple’s wrongdoing.
Panahi becomes entangled with the traditions of this small town. He watches the engagement ceremony of washing the couple’s feet. He is also asked to swear upon the Qur’an that he does not have an image of the couple. Walking the village, he is told to be careful of bears. Later he is told there are no bears as “these stories are just made up to scare us”. There aren’t any bears here, but traditions that invoke fear.
No Bears is an illegal film, Panahi has been banned from filmmaking by the Iranian government. He was arrested in 2010 for “propaganda against the system”, and sentenced to six years in jail of which he served two months and then was granted revocable freedom. He was barred from leaving Iran and making films.
This hasn’t stopped Panahi though, mainly through loopholes in the system or illegal means has he continued to create films. His 2011 documentary feature This is Not a Film was smuggled out of Iran on a USB drive hidden inside a cake to be shown at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. In July 2022 Panahi was arrested again, and sentenced to six years in jail after criticizing the Iranian government for arresting fellow filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof.
Filmmakers and institutions have spoken out on Panahi’s treatment. The Cannes film festival issued a statement saying it “strongly condemns these arrests as well as the wave of repression obviously in progress in Iran against its artists. The festival calls for the immediate release of Mohammad Rasoulof, Mostafa Aleahmad, and Jafar Panahi.”
No Bears is a piece of auto-fiction, that engages with the Iranian cinema trope of neo-realism. There is a blending of truth and fiction. The film which is being shot in Turkey follows characters attempting to flee to Europe, but these passports are not just props but real passports for the actors to leave Turkey.
Stories can get lost between the scripted and the real but this film is a brave film; more than that it is a powerful film.
Panahi uses his simple yet engrossing style to entrance the audience, weaving neorealism with parallel narratives. It is a film situated on borders: The geographical border of Iran and Turkey; the in-between of truth and fiction in film; in-between tradition and superstition.
Everyone in the film wants to flee. The director wants to be in Turkey to direct, the couple in the film wishes to flee to Europe, and the couple in the village wishes to flee to be together. Everyone wants to escape towards an imagined freedom.
At the end of the film, the couple in the village attempt to cross the border together. They are both killed. We join Panahi as he drives past the catastrophe he has inadvertently caused. The desire to capture the truth can have bloody consequences,
No Bears is in cinemas now.