by George Wolf
Even if you know nothing of acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, No Bears (Khers nist) should be an absorbing and compelling experience.
But when you consider that Panahi (This Is Not a Film, Taxi, Closed Curtain) not only shot the film in secret, but currently sits in a Tehran prison, and is barred from writing, directing, giving interviews or traveling outside Iran until 2030, his continued commitment to agitation through artistic expression grows immeasurably inspirational.
With No Bears, Panahi uses the parallel lives of two Iranian couples to comment on the struggles of that expression, and on the powerful forces that conspire to restrict free will.
Panahi plays himself, arriving at a small village near the Turkish border to set up a base where he can direct his latest film remotely, joining the set through internet connection. While two actors in his cast (Mina Kavani and Bakhtiyar Panjeei) are trying desperately to land fake passports and flee Iran, Panahi quickly becomes a person of interest in the village.
Word has spread that Panahi may have unwittingly snapped a photo of a young Iranian woman (Darya Alei) with a man (Amir Davari) other than the one who has “claimed” her. Villagers are demanding the photo as proof of a grave misdeed, while the woman in question fears the bloodshed that will come from the photo’s existence.
Despite numerous reassurances to Panahi about “honorable” intent, the pressure from the villagers only increases, much like the desperation of his actors looking to start a new life.
Panahi films in a style that is understandably guerilla, but stands in sharp contrast to the dense, and thrillingly complex storytelling at work. He is deftly calling out both the oppressors and the enablers, while he weighs the rippling effect of his own choices amid a deeply ingrained bureaucracy of fundamentalism and fear, superstition and gossip.
No Bears is a brave and bold blurring of fact and fiction, with Panahi embracing the gritty authenticity of the most urgent first person documentary and the layered storylines of a political page-turner. It may be his most daring project to date, accentuated by a defiant final shot that teeters on the line between ending and beginning.