Jafar Panahi is one of the world’s great filmmakers, and certainly one of the bravest. He emerged in the mid-’90s and early 2000s with dramas like The Circle and Crimson Gold, which took bold aim at class and gender divisions in contemporary Iranian society.
In 2010 the authorities charged Panahi with making anti-government propaganda, forbade him from leaving the country and sentenced him to a 20-year filmmaking ban. But Panahi proved resourceful enough to defy that ban: He’s since shot five features, many of them in secret.
Because of these restrictions, his movies have turned increasingly inward, becoming more personal, more ruminative. He often stars in them himself, playing a good-natured but embattled director, also named Jafar Panahi, and reflecting on his difficult circumstances.
Those circumstances have only gotten worse since last summer, when Panahi was arrested and began serving a six-year prison sentence. And so his latest movie, No Bears, completed not long before his arrest, is likely to be his last cinematic dispatch for a while.
It’s a brilliant movie — an intricate and layered drama that somehow manages to be funny, angry, playful and despairing by turns. Panahi is as incisive a social critic as ever, and here he targets the misogyny and religious fundamentalism that hold sway across Iran — issues that led to the violent unrest currently gripping the country.
But Panahi has also made a powerful and deeply pessimistic statement about the nature of cinema itself. The movies may be capable of magic, but here, he reminds us, they also have their limitations.
Most of No Bears unfolds in a remote Iranian village, where Panahi — or rather, a version of Panahi — has come to stay for several days. He’s directing a movie that’s being shot close by, just across the border in Turkey, but because he can’t leave Iran, he has to do everything remotely — not an easy feat, given the area’s spotty WiFi.
One day, he spends some time exploring the village and randomly snapping pictures, a seemingly innocuous activity that will come back to haunt him. Sometime later, a few villagers will approach him and ask to see his photos, which they suspect contain incriminating evidence of a love affair between a young woman and a young man who isn’t her fiancé.
Panahi denies having taken such a photo, and the story is ambiguous as to whether or not he really did. It doesn’t even matter, since the villagers are so convinced of the couple’s guilt that they try to badger Panahi into submission. A kind of tense, chilling comedy ensues as the villagers’ polite smiles and obsequious manners melt away and reveal their underlying hostility.
At the same time, the real Panahi doesn’t treat the fictional Panahi as some kind of innocent. Sympathetic though he may be, the character can be somewhat clueless and entitled in his dealings with others, and he tends to get stuck in problems of his own making. One example is the movie he’s directing, a kind of docu-fiction hybrid about a Turkish couple trying to flee local unrest using false passports. Telling that story becomes its own complicated ethical minefield, as the director, eager to depict a harrowing situation as realistically as possible, risks endangering and selling out his subjects.
And so Panahi, not for the first time during his post-ban phase, ponders the moral complications of his craft: Yes, photos and films can bring the truth to light, but don’t they also frequently distort it? Is it possible to tell someone’s story, without exploiting or falsifying it? Even Steven Spielberg, a filmmaker whose circumstances are radically different from Panahi’s, asked similar questions in his recent semi-autobiographical drama, The Fabelmans. But with No Bears, Panahi has made a much more idiosyncratic kind of self-portrait. He places himself in a hypothetical scenario and asks how he would respond.
He seems to conclude that whatever his response might be, it would be crushingly inadequate. The movie’s title refers to a local superstition, in which the threat of bears outside the village is used to keep people from straying too far away. There are no bears, someone reassures Panahi at one point. But that doesn’t mean that threats don’t exist, or that violence isn’t real.
Even as Panahi weighs his dilemma, No Bears moves inevitably toward tragedy, one that’s all the more devastating when you consider what might happen to this great filmmaker and the country that he clearly loves. Panahi may well wonder what movies are good for, but No Bears left me longing to see him make another.
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Daily Cartoon: Tuesday, May 30th