The Most Persecuted Filmmaker in the World

Jafar Panahi’s No Bears

Jafar Panahi’s 2022 film No Bears confirms that the persecuted Iranian is one of the world’s greatest directors by demonstrating the price of that greatness.

Mullahs don't like him: Jafar Panahi.

The film begins with simple white text on a black screen, first stating its name and then “A Film by Jafar Panahi”.

Anybody familiar with the director’s career before seeing No Bears should know that it was made even though the Iranian regime has barred Panahi from making films, just like previous projects such as 2011’s This Is Not a Film and 2015’s Taxi.

Unlike those films, however, No Bears doesn’t lead with the pretence that it isn’t one.

After the titles fade, the first thing we see is the view down a narrow street. A grey-haired man and younger woman walk towards us, while a man balancing a stack of flatbreads on his head follows ten paces behind.

It’s a conventional establishing shot, the sort one is just as likely to encounter in a European art film or a Hollywood action picture.

Once we process the details of this street scene, however, we realise that it marks a radical break with the previous work Panahi has done since he was blacklisted.

The camera is steady instead of the jittery handheld look that the director has been using. The signs are in Roman, not Arabic script. And the young woman’s long brown hair is uncovered.

This means that the opening shot was not filmed in Iran.

How can that be?

As the scene continues, we search for clues to this mystery.

The camera shifts to the left as a bearded man pushing a cart with a large samovar enters the frame. It begins to track him, eventually panning to show the other end of the street.

Two musicians are walking downhill towards us. The signs on the buildings make it clear to anyone who knows Turkish where this scene is taking place.

The camera tracks left, following the musicians as they come to a stop alongside the outdoor tables of a café, where the man and woman we saw in the opening frames are sitting down.

A woman in a red sweatshirt walks out the front door of the café carrying a mug of beer. She stops to take their order, then brings the mug to a bearded man sitting alone.

The server pulls a mobile phone from her pocket and puts it to her ear. Looking back down the street in the direction the camera was pointing for the opening frames, she tells the person on the phone that she sees him.

After going back inside the café for a moment, she comes back into view, pulling on a light down jacket as she comes back into view. She walks out into the street, facing the same direction that the camera was in the opening frames. A man with should-length hair approaches her,  presumably the one she was talking with on the phone.

They embrace. He hands her a passport, which they begin to discuss. Their exchange makes it clear that it’s a forgery, fashioned out of one stolen from a tourist.

Knowing that Panahi’s legal problems have prevented him from leaving Iran, we might conjecture that he wanted to make a fiction film about people who share his plight.

When the woman asks about the passport’s original owner, the man replies that it will be easy for her to get a new one because she is French. Losing one’s passport is not the end of the world if you are from the EU. The precarity that this couple must contend with is the lot of people who come from less favoured nations, particularly a long-time pariah state like Iran.

Once it becomes apparent that the man does not have an equivalent passport for himself, the woman gets upset and hands the passport back to him. He grabs her arm and pleads with her. But she won’t hear it, telling him she has waited so long because she thought she would be going with him.

She walks back towards the café. The man follows her part of the way, then stops to light a cigarette before turning to head back down the street.

Suddenly, we hear “Cut!” A man in a saffron-coloured hoodie and overcoat enters the frame, looks directly into the camera, and asks, “How was it?”

As a male voice responds to this question, the camera pulls back, revealing a laptop screen that now contains the shot we have been watching. Then we see the wooden table where the laptop is resting and the irregular wall of a rustic room. Finally, the man looking at the laptop comes into view: Jafar Panahi himself.

At this point, the internet connection fails, leading him to go outside in search of a more reliable signal.

We have been deceived. This was no conventional establishing shot but a shot showing the impossibility of its director doing anything conventional.

The premise is familiar from This Is Not a Film and Taxi. Panahi has again found a way around his potentially career-ending predicament by turning the camera on himself.

In the case of No Bears, this means travelling to a village along Iran’s mountainous northwestern frontier, where he intends to direct his latest project remotely, using a crew stationed in a Turkish city on the other side of the border.

It’s a plan with many risks, given that he is a political subversive. What is more, taking those risks is hard to justify.

At one point, Panahi’s assistant makes a secret rendezvous with the director on the Iranian side of the border. He comes to check on him, in light of his concerning radio silence, and deliver a hard drive with the footage they have shot.

As they talk in the director’s SUV, we learn that plans have been made for Panahi to sneak into Turkey so that he can supervise the shoot himself.

Panahi indulges his assistant, leaving the vehicle and walking towards the border. But when the time comes for him to cross, he can’t bring himself to go any farther.

Despite the way the Iranian regime treats the director, he remains too deeply invested in his homeland to leave it.

That is the impression we get from this scene, anyway, which presents the director’s reluctance in a sympathetic light. However, the deeper we get into the story, the more apparent it becomes that something doesn’t add up.

If the film Panahi’s cast and crew were shooting in Turkey was the priority, he could have overseen the production remotely from Tehran, where wireless coverage is better.

Or he could have crossed the border and supervised the production for a while in person before sneaking back into Iran.

But instead of these logical options, Panahi insists on staying where nobody seems comfortable with his presence and where the logistics of directing remotely prove insurmountably difficult. 

Even though we are strongly encouraged to identify with the director, later developments in the plot suggest that he has a problematic investment in liminality.

This Jafar Panahi wants to live life on the edge, both literally and figuratively, instead of making safe passage to the other side.

Despite Panahi’s self-reflexive approach to filmmaking, the director seems strangely clueless about his motivations. Even though he is an outsider in the village, he comes to dominate its daily affairs.

By the end of the story, we recognise that everything he does, no matter how innocent his intentions are, has serious consequences for its inhabitants. And that he has been driving the story from start to finish.

The same holds true for the cast and crew shooting Panahi’s film across the border.

Although he is not physically present at the shoot, his control from afar makes things worse for everybody involved.

In effect, Panahi is posing the question from a popular internet meme: “Am I the drama?”

In contrast to This Is Not a Film and Taxi, which portray the Iranian director in a largely positive light from start to finish, No Bears gradually reveals the dark side of Panahi’s drive to keep making films, no matter how difficult the process may be.

It’s crucial to remember that Panahi plays a character in this film. Yes, he is the director. But he isn’t the same director who made No Bears. No matter how much he may look and act like the director Jafar Panahi, the man we see is never quite himself.

The director we see in the film makes poor decisions that lead to a series of increasingly significant consequences.

Although the real-life Jafar Panahi has also made poor decisions, at least in terms of his personal welfare, his decisions are different from the ones made by the character he plays.

This isn’t the first time Panahi has asked us to perceive this distinction, which shapes the self-reflexivity characterising much of his work.

What distinguishes No Bears from previous films that pit Panahi, the director, against Panahi, the character, is how this conflict drives the narrative.

Whereas Panahi plays a version of himself in almost everything he has done since his 2010 conviction, in films like This Is Not a Film and Taxi — not to mention The Mirror from 1997 — his double feels like a byproduct of circumstances beyond his control.

In No Bears, by contrast, the character Panahi plays is so desperate to retain control over his project that he becomes a doppelgänger worthy of a horror film, bringing destruction both to the places he goes and ones where he is prevented from going.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of No Bears is that it is compelling on its own terms while inspiring a reexamination of Panahi’s previous work.

Throughout his career, Jafar Panahi has used on-location shooting to document aspects of Iranian life that cannot be communicated directly.

In films like The Mirror and Crimson Gold, shots of Tehran’s congested streets not only communicate the dangers faced by children, women, and the elderly in traversing the city but also the ones they confront on a metaphoric level as they navigate the society it metonymically represents.

We also register the changes that have come to Iran during the three decades Panahi has directed films.

In The Mirror, many of the vehicles we see date from the pre-Revolutionary era, reflecting the impact of the country’s political isolation and the brutal war with Iran.

Crimson Gold, made a few years later, underscores class divisions in Tehran, showing how those Iranians with access to the West lead a lifestyle that most residents can only dream of.

By the time we get to Taxi, Tehran is catching up with the developed world in superficial ways, which only makes the backwardness of the regime all the more frustrating to deal with.

And No Bears shows us a director who, despite being a convicted political dissident, still enjoys privileges – a nice SUV, a top-flight MacBook, the money to travel – that the villagers he ends up cursing can only fantasise about.

In the final scene from No Bears, Panahi comes across a gruesome spectacle on his way out of town.

A photograph he might or might not have taken at the beginning of the film, after his internet connection was broken, has led to the death of a young couple.

As we see Panahi’s profile in the last shot, his jaw set, gazing at the road ahead, it is hard to determine the director’s reaction to this tragedy.

Does he feel responsible? Does he feel remorse? And how much does the character who may or may not be feeling those things overlap with the real-life filmmaker who wanted us to see his doppelgänger in this way?

The more closely we examine No Bears, the harder it becomes to extricate ourselves from this hall of mirrors.

The opening scene is a perfect example.

When we watch the film for the first time, it comes across as a single shot, with the camera eventually rotating 360 degrees to show us the perspective from the opening frame.

The only cut we register is the one we hear rather than see, right before Panahi’s assistant enters the picture.

Upon closer inspection, however, it becomes apparent that the view down the street we saw in the opening frame is not the one we see after the camera has finished panning back around. It’s a different street entirely.

Once we see Panahi’s laptop, we know we have been duped. But by this point, less than five minutes into the film, the subterfuge involving the street has already destabilised our perception on an unconscious level, making us doubt everything that follows.

Ultimately, Jafar Panahi’s refusal to play the conventional role the Western media has written for him makes him one of the world’s greatest filmmakers.

Like the woman in that opening scene who refuses the passport that will bring her to safety, he embraces a life of danger.

If this makes him less of a hero, as No Bears suggests, it makes him more of an artist.

Photograph courtesy of Cines del Sur. Published under a Creative Commons license.