- Jafar Panahi in No Bears courtesy of Sideshow and Janus Films
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An effective, personalized allegory for the role of cinema within the Iranian theocratic, authoritarian regime.
By Nora Lee Mandel
No Bears (Khers Nist)
Director/Writer/Producer: Jafar Panahi
Iran. 107 mins. Not Rated
In Farsi with English subtitles
With: Jafar Panahi, Naser Hashemi, Vahid Mobaseri, Bakhtiar Panjei, Mina Kavani, Narjes Dalaram, and Reza Heydari
Release by Sideshow/Janus Films in theaters on December 23, 2022
No Bears is an incisive, yet humanistic indictment of oppression – socially, culturally, economically, and politically, from the level of family domination, to village control, to the militant government. Under these censorial conditions himself, filmmaker Jafar Panahi completed his latest indictment of Iranian society just before he was imprisoned in July 2022.
Under government restrictions, Panahi again, as in Taxi (2015) and This Is Not A Film (In film nist) (2011), features himself as just a man with a camera, who happens to capture daily doings. But he’s renting rooms in a rural town near the border with Turkey to direct, via video link to another town, a story of would-be emigrants, based on the lives of the actors traumatized by their experiences. That is when his Wi Fi link works, despite the local sheriff’s assurances of a good internet connection. There’s an implication that when he moves into town he has to notify this official (the very intimidating Naser Hashemi).
When his connection goes down, the filmmaker instead photographs his kindly landlord “Ghanbar” (Vahid Mobaseri) and elderly mother (Narjes Delaram) preparing traditional dishes for him. From his terrace, he films, much like any tourist, scenes of life around his apartment building, including young boys playing soccer. He even shows his landlord how to use his camera to record the engagement ceremony the family is attending, a local tradition, the mother explains, that evolved to tame male violence against women. But “Ghanbar” is embarrassed to report that filming the ceremony set off gossip of spies, suspicions about the director’s expensive car, and fears that the camera could catch inappropriate language or sights.
At night, the on-screen Panahi is not a typical tourist. His collaborator “Reza” (Reza Heydari) sneaks him the day’s rushes on a hard drive. But they only feel secure watching the footage out-of-town. “Reza” brags about his local fixer film fan who is wise to checkpoints and the people vs. goods smuggling routes – and could get Panahi into Turkey. Like the couple in his film-within-a-film, he’s sorely tempted and wavers on the physical border. Out of the dark, a chador-enveloped woman “Gozal” (Darya Alei) runs into him in a panic: “They say you photographed us!” and warns of dire consequences.
Confused about the implications, the director is drawn into her controversy, fraught with tradition, religion, corruption, and the boiling frustrations of the younger generation. In an effective allegory for the role of cinema within the Iranian theocratic, authoritarian regime, the stakes are intimately personal to everyone involved. Step by step, each time this chain-smoking Panahi acquiesces on a point, more is immediately demanded of him. What seems like a quaint ethnographic display turns into a matter of political dominance (that explains the title), manipulated behind rigid rituals.
In his film-within-a-film, the aggrieved couple are urban sophisticates, but they are as trapped as the villagers whose destinies were tied by their umbilical cords. The truth shown on film is lost within a Shakespearean tragedy.
In his statement accompanying the film, Panahi proudly declares he is one of Iran’s independent filmmakers - “those in power see us as criminals”. It is heartbreaking, and infuriating, that the artist who creates such a compelling work sub rosa still languishes in prison.
Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
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My reviews have appeared on: FF2 Media; Film-Forward; Lilith, FilmFestivalTraveler; and, Alliance of Women Film Journalists and for Jewish film festivals. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.
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