No Bears: An act of resistance as desperate as it is magnificent [critique]

Winner of the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival, Jafar Panahi signs his most painful and pessimistic film.

Former assistant to Abbas Kiarostami (and No bears largely echoes the Cherry taste), Jafar Panahi has always refused the path of compromise. Only one of his feature films, the first, The White Ball, received his censorship visa. From 1997, all his films were deprived of access to theaters in his country. Shown in international festivals thanks to the help of other filmmakers, Panahi’s works therefore circulate secretly in Iran. The method he has chosen is that of quiet secrecy. Turning home (This is not a movie, Pardé) or in a car driving through the streets of Tehran (T-taxiehran), he found in these limits a way to be more creative.

And then came the summer of 2022. No bears was shown at the Mostra whereas a few weeks earlier, accused of propaganda against the Iranian government, Panahi had just been sentenced to six years in prison. Even before its screening, the film was therefore tinged with a very powerful charge. Seeing it is even more obvious. It all starts in a cafe. A waitress, Zara, finds her husband Bakhtiar. After years of waiting, he finally managed to get his hands on a stolen passport that will allow Zara to reach Europe and thus flee the Iranian regime… He, on the other hand, will have to wait a little longer. The couple begins to argue: she does not want to leave him, while he asks her to leave without waiting for her. And then suddenly: a “CUT” sounds. It is Panahi’s voice that rises: he remotely controls the film being made and via videoconference gives his instructions to his assistant who is directing the scene in Turkey. Panahi stays in an isolated village in Iran (he is forbidden to leave the territory) and makes his film as best he can. The connection is bad and the filmmaker is forced to hang up. He leaves his room and goes out into the hamlet where the preparations for a wedding occupy the inhabitants. The filmmaker wanders through the streets and takes a few random photos of his walk… Later, during a perfectly illegal nocturnal trip, a panicked young woman jumps on his car and stops him: she asks him to delete a photo that he would have taken from her and her lover when she is promised to another man. “If the photo circulates, it will be a bloodbath…”

This is how this incredible film begins where everything is blurred. Reality, film, fiction. Panahi’s confinement, both literal and metaphorical, feeds this very metatextual work, which is without doubt the author’s most political and desperate film. Basically, what the filmmaker is fighting are the barriers that totalitarian systems have made us integrate. At a given moment, lost on a mountain, in the Iranian night, Jafar looks at Turkey not far away. When he asks his friend where the border is, the latter shows him the precise point where he is standing, a kind of muddy mound. Panahi immediately steps back, briskly, as if this imaginary point were not a limit, but a whiplash. No bears speaks only of that: the demarcations. Between reality and fiction, between good and evil, between traditions and modernity and obviously between countries and therefore between freedom and oppression. What Panahi recounts in a painful sequence is that a border is not only legal, geographical or political. It’s also a psychological limit, constructed and naturally imposed on individuals and a society… And against that, the artist adds, all the films in the world can do nothing.

By Jafar Panahi. With Jafar Panahi, Mila Kavani, Bakhtiar Panjel… Duration: 1h47. Released November 23, 2022

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