It should surprise no one that the latest from Iranian auteur Jafar Panahi—currently serving a six-year prison sentence for the 2010 charge of “gathering and collusion” and “propaganda against the establishment”—builds its foundation upon a multi-layered meta-narrative. Neither, then, should it come as a shock that No Bears owes a considerable debt to the late Abbas Kiarostami, a one-time mentor of Panahi’s whose work dismantled often arbitrary distinctions between “narrative” and “documentary” by grappling with the slippery nature of reality and fiction when filtered through the lens of a camera.
Since at least 2011’s excellent This Is Not a Film, whose production was spurred by Panahi’s house arrest order and a 20-year ban on filmmaking, the filmmaker has shown an obvious, some would even say necessary, interest in defining the boundaries that have been imposed on him by the Iranian government. What followed were a handful of films made under certain restrictive conditions constituting an effort to gradually reclaim artistic autonomy and resist oppression. That cycle seemed to culminate with 2018’s Three Faces, which found Panahi now able to traverse through a network of rural Iranian villages and construct a surprisingly dynamic narrative in the process, albeit one still camouflaging itself and the intentionality of Panahi’s filmic process by gesturing to the impossibility of the conditions of its own creation.
For No Bears, Panahi seems to have again managed some measure of mobility, as the film finds him having relocated from Tehran to a rented-out room in a village near the Turkish border, and during one lengthy, nighttime driving sequence, he even contemplates an attempted border-crossing. Most of the time, though, Panahi stays holed up in his room trying to remotely direct a new film, a drama (shot in a Turkish town just across the Iranian border) about an Iranian dissident couple, Zara (Mina Kavani) and Bakhtiar (Bakhtiar Penjei), who are waiting on the delivery of their foreign passports. As we later learn, the two actors from this film-within-a-film are actually playing lightly fictionalized versions of their real selves (obviously “real” here just meaning “their characters in No Bears”), and differences between the fraught circumstances that they’re facing and how Panahi portrays them cause mounting tension.
Meanwhile, another drama erupts back in the village where Panahi is staying, as various parties demand the surrender of a photograph of a young couple, Gozbal (Darya Alei) and Soldooz (Amir Davari), under a walnut tree that Panahi has been accused of taking, and that’s seen as the sole means of resolving a dispute over an arranged marriage. In both the narrative centered around the angry villagers and the meta-drama about the passport-seekers, a camera/film camera is the arbiter—the means of distinguishing a truth from a fiction. Of course, making even these diegetic distinctions is complicated further by the fictional gestalt of No Bears itself.
Another title for Panahi’s film could have been There Is No Photograph—which is to say, No Bears again finds the filmmaker mounting a formally playful but, naturally, politically charged interrogation of how we measure truth and veracity through what images show and don’t show. And, unsurprisingly, there are a few clever moments that find inventive ways of transforming the context through which we think about what we’re watching. The film’s opening captures an emotional exchange between Zara and Bakhtiar, with carefully choreographed camera movement, but is punctuated by an off-screen voice yelling out “cut,” thus informing us that the scene was a take for the film-within-a-film. Next, the camera pulls back to reveal that the entirety of the scene, in fact, is being viewed by Panahi on his laptop screen.
Still, for all the implications signified at by the substance of this typically dense and loaded metafiction, what’s notable is that, more often than not, No Bears features some of Panahi’s most subdued filmmaking. Where Three Faces staged a number of striking set pieces and found Panahi seemingly excited about the possibility of filmmaking outside the bounds of his villa’s interior, or the inside of a taxicab, No Bears generally spends less time finding aesthetic articulations of its themes than it does building out an increasingly convoluted plot to support them. In part, this can be attributed to the mood here, which, befitting of a filmmaker who would soon be incarcerated, is very dark; it essentially inverts Three Faces, which started with a terrifying filmed suicide note, by using violence instead to punctuate its ending.
There’s another problem with No Bears, though, and that’s the extent of Panahi’s insistence on very liberally cribbing ideas and plot points from Kiarostami’s work. This, in retrospect, is a charge that can be easily lobbed at Three Faces as well, except that there the nature of the borrowing (multiple visual quotes, including the very last scene) made it feel like an earnest and intentional tribute, and also something of a capstone for the cinematic dialogue between the two artists. In No Bears, there’s an extended early scene of Panahi wandering about, trying desperately to get cellphone reception, that’s ripped straight out of 1999’s The Wind Will Carry Us. There’s also the effect that Panahi’s presence has on the relationships between the two different couples with whom he interacts in No Bears, which strongly resembles a composite translation of Kiarostami’s treatment of his two young leads in 1994’s Through the Olive Trees.
Panahi has proven quite capable of building out themes present in Kiarostami’s works which that filmmaker maybe never got to fully develop in his lifetime, and, of course, of coming up with his own original ideas. Here, in particular, the correlation being drawn between the reflexive boundaries of reality and fiction filmmaking and the “borders” of geography and culture that dictate social life in Iran results in some emotional moments. There’s no denying that Panahi is still a critically important figure in international cinema, and especially with Kiarostami gone, he’s thinking about the cross-section of film as art and as political and social refuge in a way few other living filmmakers can match. Here’s hoping he escapes this latest sentence and is afforded the chance to again develop that vision.
Cast: Jafar Panahi, Naser Hashemi, Vahid Mobaseri, Bakhtiar Panjei, Mina Kavani, Narjes Delaram, Reza Heydari, Javad Siyahi, Yousef Soleymani, Amir Davari, Darya Alei, Rahim Abbasi, Sinan Yusufoglu, Ehsan Ahmad Khanpour, Iman Bazyar Director: Jafar Panahi Screenwriter: Jafar Panahi Running Time: 106 min Rating: NR Year: 2022