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No Bears Review

No Bears Review

Sometimes a movie is inextricable from its context. Iranian director Jafar Panahi has spent his whole career battling his country’s authoritarian government; the situation stepped up a gear in 2010, after his arrest for ‘propaganda against the regime’. Although he was eventually released from prison, he was banned from both leaving Iran, and making films for twenty years. Since then, he’s illegally made five features, each of them a metatextual meditation on his predicament (This is Not a Film was a daily diary of his house arrest, and was smuggled out of the country in a birthday cake).

As in the rest of these films, in No Bears, Panahi plays himself. He’s come to a remote border village so he can be near the shoot of his latest movie in Turkey, which he’s directing via teleconference. A tale of two Iranians preparing to flee the country, starring two Iranians preparing to flee the country, the actors for Panahi’s film-within-a-film struggle to reconcile their real predicaments with the fiction they’re playing out, leading to a distressing turn of events.

Meanwhile, though his initial reception was hospitable, Panahi is beginning to get the impression he’s not exactly welcome in this border village. News spreads that he’s photographed a man and a woman who’ve been conducting a secret affair – she’s been promised to someone else since she was born. While Panahi swears (truthfully) that he didn’t take the photo, no-one in the village believes him, and they enact a pressure campaign in order to get him to hand it over.

No Bears is a rich, thematically dense exploration of a whole wealth of issues: the ethics of filmmaking, the dangerous lure of borders, the crushing hold of tradition, misogyny, groupthink, the value of telling stories based on real life. With so much going on under the surface, it seems remarkable that Panahi could draw a narrative through-line, and yet his film of ideas is situated viscerally in a world of consequences; his actors, the illicit couple, and Panahi himself, all spend at least part of No Bears in mortal peril. Though the movie opens with a little lightness, the trajectory of both main plots runs towards tragedy.

Back in the real world, in July of this year, Panahi was arrested by the Iranian regime once again (he’s still incarcerated today, in a jail notorious for ill-treating the inmates). Whilst No Bears was shot before his latest imprisonment, the knowledge of it looms large over the movie. As the director interrogates the methods and ethics he uses in his filmmaking, as he unknowingly stands exactly on the borderline he’s not allowed to cross, as he expresses a deep exasperation with the small-mindedness of the village inhabitants, you can feel the walls closing in around him. His exhaustion with his situation, his bone-deep frustration, has a haunting, palpable weight.

No Bears is a bleak film, but also a challenging, passionate, and thoughtful one. Let’s hope it isn’t too long before we see Panahi’s follow-up.


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