‘No Bears’: A meta-film about dissent in Iran
Angela Mathew | Wednesday, February 8, 2023
Iranian auteur Jafar Panahi’s latest film “No Bears” is an exploration of life under Iran’s authoritarian government. Like a lot of Panahi’s recent work, it has been shaped by his experiences with the government that has censored his art and placed him under house arrest. Since July 2022, he has been in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison for standing in solidarity with two other Iranian filmmakers who spoke out against the government for their violent crackdown on protestors. Panahi was released on bail just three days ago after he went on a hunger strike.
The thread of the film that I found most interesting was the story of Zara and Bakhtiar, a couple who had been spending time in Turkey after facing arrest and torture in Iran. Zara gets a chance to escape to France using a smuggled passport. However, she would have to go alone, as Bakhtiar did not get the documents that would allow him to leave the country. At first, Panahi has the audience thinking that these are two characters in a fictional narrative, but then he breaks the fourth wall. Panahi himself has fled to the Iran-Turkey border to get away from government scrutiny. He is directing Zara and Bakhtiar for a film project over Zoom since it’s unsafe to work with them in person considering the government’s disapproval of the films he makes. While Zara and Bakhtiar are being filmed for Panahi’s project, the story isn’t fictional — Panahi is filming them in real-time as they make the difficult decision to flee Turkey, even if that means they will be separated.
The other thread of the film is dedicated to showing the audience life in rural Iran, where Panahi tries to lay low a border town. As Panahi bides his time, he takes photos of people and gets his landlord to film unique customs in the village. These photos become the talk of the town, as Panahi photographs a girl and a boy together where the girl in question was arranged to marry another man. Panahi gets dragged into arguments though he barely remembers taking the photos. The scenes raise important questions about how the camera tells the truth and how it can threaten established customs. The ideas surrounding the repression of women and superstitions in the village, along with the villagers’ fear of the camera and of tangible proof, seemed symbolic of how the Iranian government is afraid of its realities being exposed to the world through things like Panahi’s dissenting films.
I had been anticipating this film for a while after hearing and learning more about Panahi’s arrest. However, even with some context on Panahi’s career, I found the film meandering to fully understand and appreciate. It must be my steady diet of more commercial films, but I kept waiting for something to happen. Even at the end when the drama came to its head, with the villagers finding out that the unfavorable couple had eloped and Zara and Bakhtiar finally making a decision on whether to flee, the film felt strangely anticlimactic. I appreciated Panahi’s other meta-films like “Taxi” (2015) more, where Panahi pretends to be a taxi driver in Tehran and films conversations he has with citizens to tell a story about the political landscape of Iran.
Title: “No Bears”
Starring: Mina Kavani, Jafar Panahi, Nasser Hashemi
Director: Jafar Panahi
If you like: “Taxi,” “This Is Not a Film,” “Hit the Road”