Thursday, December 22, 2022

Jafar Panahi’s No Bears

Jafar Panahi secretly finished his latest feature in May 2022. Two months later, he was arrested again, after speaking out against the imprisonment of his fellow filmmakers, Mohammad Rasoulof and Mustafa Al-Ahmad. Over the next few months, Joe Biden shamefully responded by trying to revive the so-called “Iranian Nuclear Deal,” potentially releasing billions of dollars in frozen Iranian assets. We can only wish our government understood the Iranian regime as well as filmmakers like Panahi and Rasoulof. Once again, Panahi serves up some trenchant criticism of contemporary Iranian society, but with usual compassionate humanism in No Bears, which opens tomorrow in New York.

This time around, Panahi is surprisingly meta, both with
No Bears in itself and the film he is making within the film. The pseudo-fictional Panahi is similarly banned from filmmaking in Iranian, but he is directing a new film shoot in Turkey over Skype. The meta film chronicles the frustrations of an Iranian dissident couple, attempting to arrange transit to continental Europe. However, unbeknownst to his lead actress Zara, her on- and off-screen partner Bakhtiyar’s dealings with Turkish underground passport brokers are actually genuine, recorded documentary-style by Panahi’s assistant director Reza.

To feel “close” to the action, Panahi has rented a cottage in a hardscrabble Iranian border town. Of course, the villagers do not recognize Panahi, but they can sense there is something secretive about him. Nevertheless, they show the deference they believe is due to a man of his apparent education and class. However, their hospitality turns frosty when Panahi unwittingly lands in the middle of a potential family feud.

Apparently, the family of Gozbal, a local young woman, is pressuring her to marry the man she was promised to at birth, even though she loves Soldooz, a former student who was expelled for participating in democratic protests. Everyone except Panahi is convinced he accidentally took a picture of Gozbal’s secret rendezvous with Soldooz, so he is constantly harassed by the aggrieved family and the village chief for the proof. The more Panahi denies, the less polite they get.

Even if Panahi had not already been arrested for expressing solidarity with his colleagues,
No Bears (the title refers to the bogus reports of wild animals intended to keep the villagers home at night) could have just as easily landed him behind bars again. There are at least three reasons it would enrage the mullahs, starting with the unflattering depiction of the traditionally Islamic, yet superstitious villagers. It also explores the painful experiences of asylum seekers, like Zara and Bakhtiyar. Seeing the former serving beers as a waitress in a Turkish border town tavern would not help either. However, the biggest issue would probably be Panahi’s continued resourcefulness defying their filmmaking ban.

It is also his best film since
Taxi—maybe even his best film since Offside. Sometimes meta-ness produces a hollow, over-intellectualized viewing experience, but in this case, it deepens the drama and the resonance. This might be a “fictional” film, but it is clearly very real in the mindsets and realities it depicts.

Indeed, it is absolutely masterful how events echo and dovetail. In addition, to writing, directing, and producing, Panahi shows some terrific acting chops, perhaps giving vent to some of his own frustrations. He has appeared in
Taxi, 3 Faces, This is not a Film, and his contribution to The Year of the Everlasting Storm, but despite its meta-ness, this is by far his most complex performance.

Disregard the Iranian regime’s dismissive statements on
No Bears. As you might expect, they are terrible film critics. The truth is this is one of the best films of the year. It is a devastating tale of tragedy and keenly incisive indictment of the intolerance and paranoia fostered by Iran’s mullahs. It is some of Panahi’s most memorable work on both sides of the camera. Very highly recommended, No Bears opens tomorrow (12/23) at Film Forum.