The rigidity of borders—literal and figurative—is the primary interest of No Bears, Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi’s latest film. Completed two months before the director’s most recent arrest—culminating in a six-year prison sentence for “propaganda against the regime” in his native Iran—the film is a meta-commentary on the artistic suppression that Panahi has been increasingly subjected to throughout his career, also currently affecting a large swath of Iranian filmmakers, artists and activists.
No Bears incorporates two parallel plot lines. The first involves Panahi (who plays himself) covertly renting a room near the Iranian border, secretly overseeing the shoot for his next film, which is happening in a nearby Turkish city. Restricted from leaving Iran (much like the real-life Panahi), he monitors the production’s progress via Zoom and cell phone calls—that is, when the frequently-spotty reception allows for it. In his free time, he takes photographs of the small town he’s lodging in, with special emphasis on its provincial residents. However, he quickly becomes embroiled in a local scandal involving a photo he allegedly took of a young couple whose union is strictly forbidden by the town’s traditional customs, though he vehemently swears that no such photograph exists. The second storyline occurs within Panahi’s intra-film narrative, which similarly concerns a star-crossed couple. Bakhtiar (Bakhtiar Panjei) and Zara (Mina Khosravani) struggle to obtain an extra passport so that they can flee to Europe together, a plot that stems from the actors’ (at least as they appear in No Bears) own lived experiences. Soon, the prospect of illegally leaving the country becomes a pressing concern for all parties, both real and fictional, involved.
After receiving a 20-year ban on filmmaking by the state in 2010, Panahi has resorted to illegally crafting his films. He’s appeared as himself in each project he’s discreetly developed ever since, beginning with his 2011 documentary This Is Not a Film. No Bears is no different, though it does follow the scripted dramatic leanings of his most recent effort 3 Faces (2018) as opposed to the docu-fiction hybrid of Closed Curtain (2015) and Taxi (2017). While 3 Faces explores the social position of women in Iran through oft-whimsical encounters as Panahi drives across northwestern Iran with actress Behnaz Jafari (also playing herself), No Bears feels much more darkly prophetic, seemingly aware of the filmmaker’s encroaching imprisonment. The authorities are an omnipresent threat to Panahi’s character in the film, suspicious that he’s traveled from his home in metropolitan Tehran to a small village conveniently close to the border.
No Bears is also explicitly critical of the director’s recent penchant for blending the boundaries of reality and fiction in his work. Does rewriting the anticlimactic nature of reality into a compelling narrative actually serve to enrich an audience’s understanding of the social issues he tackles in his films? This question manifests in the film-within-the-film’s central couple, whose lived experiences are used as fodder for a fictional fantasy. Bakhtiar and Zara become increasingly dismayed that their circumstances will never emulate the tidy conclusion of the film they’re acting in, eventually leading to what ironically becomes a cinematically tragic conclusion for the film.
Of course, the man-made construct of geographic borders is another concern of No Bears, namely the parameters of their violent enforcement. As Panahi’s character contemplates illegally venturing into Turkey, the imagined status of the border is made clear when a colleague sets up an impromptu opportunity for them to cross without any danger. Yet Panahi’s character can’t make himself step past the non-existent physical threshold into Turkey, opting to obey protocol and dart back into Iranian territory at the very last moment. This directly contrasts the very real treachery that awaits average citizens who dare trespass this invisible man-made invention. If the armed guards weren’t enough of a deterrent, there is a local superstition that bears roam the vast terrain that separates Turkey from Iran, which is where the film gets its title. “Our fear empowers others. No Bears!” Shouts a villager to Panahi’s character of the myth. Yet even without the existence of ferocious beasts, No Bears emphasizes that the border does indeed have the capacity to kill in various ways: whether by armed guard or the bureaucratic restriction of “proper” documentation, lives are irreparably altered—and lost—due to this invisible outline.
Along with Panahi’s 20-year ban on filmmaking, the Iranian government placed a strict travel ban on the director, barring him from leaving the country unless for medical treatment or to make the Hajj pilgrimage. Before his most recent imprisonment, Panahi was also subject to an extensive period of house arrest. Despite these restrictive conditions, he continued making films as an act of resistance with the help of collaborators in Iran and the broader international film community. Yet amid the current wave of state-sanctioned brutality against activists and artists in Iran, Panahi is just one of several directors currently imprisoned for alleged “propaganda.” Hopefully No Bears is not the final piece of artfully crafted “propaganda” the director is able to make, nor any socially conscious filmmaker currently experiencing suppression in Iran.
Director: Jafar Panahi
Writer: Jafar Panahi
Stars: Jafar Panahi, Naser Hashemi, Vahid Mobsari, Bakhtiar Panjei, Mina Khosravani, Reza Heydari
Release Date: December 23, 2022 (Sideshow/Janus Films)
Natalia Keogan is Filmmaker Magazine’s web editor, and regularly contributes freelance film reviews here at Paste. Her writing has also appeared in Blood Knife Magazine, SlashFilm and Daily Grindhouse, among others. She lives in Queens with her large orange cat. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan