Venice 2022 review: No Bears (Jafar Panahi)

“A political film no matter what you take away from it, No Bears suffers from lulls in the narrative but has urgency on its side.”

Any discourse on the past decade’s works of Iranian director Jafar Panahi inevitably circles around to Panahi’s legal issues with the Iranian government. First arrested and later placed under house arrest, on July 11th of this year the 62-year-old director was arrested again after checking with the authorities about the case against his friend Mohammad Rasoulof, a fellow director in similar legal troubles as Panahi. He has been imprisoned for the past two months, but that didn’t prevent his latest film, No Bears, from having its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival. Technically Panahi has been banned from filmmaking for 20 years, but that hasn’t stopped him from now having made five films since that verdict came down. He circumvents the filmmaking ban by putting himself at the heart of his films and approaching the work with a mixture of neorealism and documentary filmmaking. No Bears is no different, but the situation Panahi places himself in hits closer to home than his previous works, or perhaps further from home, actually. While his This Is Not a Film famously was smuggled out of the country inside a cake, in No Bears Panahi almost smuggles himself out. As soon as the film was announced to be in competition, the discourse of it winning the Golden Lion or not based on Panahi’s personal current plight took off. It does the film no service, because No Bears can stand on its own regardless of whether it wins festival awards or not.

Panahi has taken up temporary residence in a small mountain village in Iranian Kurdistan on the Turkish border to make a film. Given that he is not allowed to leave Iran, he directs the film remotely through Skype sessions with his assistant director Reza and his cast and crew, who are filming in a city just across the border (though our own Turkish colleague Eren Odabaşı assures us it’s actually Istanbul). The film-within-a-film is about an Iranian couple, Bakhtiar and Zara, trying to flee the country on stolen passports, which also happens to be the intention of the two actors playing the couple, partners in real life. One night, Reza hops across the border back into Iran to meet up with Panahi, who he tries to convince to cross back to Turkey with him. Reza even takes Panahi as far as the border in an unguarded no man’s land used by human traffickers, but he steps back. “If it is so easy, why is it so difficult to cross the border?” he muses.

So Panahi returns to his village, where his tendency to take pictures puts him at the centre of a precarious situation. The villagers are convinced that Panahi took a photo of a young couple, Soldooz and Gozal, but she had according to tradition already been promised to another, Yaghoob. Tensions reach a boiling point because Panahi keeps claiming that he didn’t take the photo, going as far as showing the local sheriff and the other villagers the contents of his memory card. In the meantime, across the border things also come to a head when Bakhtiar’s new passport turns out to be fake, causing a rift between the two lovers. Will a similar thing happen to the couple on Panahi’s side of the arbitrary line in the sand?

Obviously No Bears contains a lot of meta subtext that blends narrative with reality. At some point the actress playing Zara asks Panahi when he is going to stop filming fiction and just shoot reality. This question is levelled straight at the camera, ostensibly because she is looking into the camera of a laptop to ask Panahi the question directly, but the message is not lost on the audience. The film’s heart is Panahi’s inability to leave the country, even if he has the opportunity. Why doesn’t he? And is Bakhtiar, with his own reluctance to flee, a mirror image of Panahi? It’s not the film’s only mirror act: Zara and Bakhtiar’s story reflects on that of Soldooz and Gozal, and both stories culminate in dramatic endings.

A second theme Panahi tackles is the strong sense of tradition in these remote villages, which ties No Bears to 2018’s Three Faces, a film that saw Panahi face these sorts of, in his eyes, outdated beliefs in the same region. Life in the village is essentially dictated by tradition over rationality. Panahi is requested to take an oath (“It’s tradition“) despite providing visual evidence of not having taken the disputed photo. Gozal was tied to Yaghoob at birth during a traditional cutting of the umbilical cord. And so on, and so forth. Even the villagers themselves treat them as hogwash when it suits them. “You don’t have to tell the truth, just taking the oath is enough,” one of them explains to Panahi. The intent is to define structure in the close-knit community, but the strictness of this structure clashes with the needs of star-crossed lovers such as Soldooz and Gozal. It’s a veiled critique of Iran as a whole, but it also resonates with Panahi’s earlier decision to stay on the Iranian side of the border.

Panahi’s films always live within the restrictions put upon his person by the Iranian government. Panahi’s mise-en-scene is pragmatic and almost documentarist, though he is very sly about it. In the film’s opening scene he berates Reza for a panning move because it creates a ‘dead frame’, then ensures that no such frame exists for the rest of the film. No Bears is very much a film of reading between the lines, although Panahi has a tendency to write in capitals there (he pulls the handbrake of his car right before the final cut-to-black; subtle, he is not). A political film no matter what you take away from it, the film suffers from lulls in the narrative but has urgency on its side.