Jafar Panahi’s No Bears opens with a long, 270-degree pan around the T-intersection of two streets. We know the action takes place sometime in the post-pandemic present because in the background of the frame we briefly see a man wearing a mask. (Other than the bright, aggressive clarity of the digital image, which situates the film in the ugly whites and grays of contemporaneity, this man is our only temporal marker.) Later we learn that this town is in Turkey, somewhere near the Iranian border, but for now all we have is the anonymous streetscape: for the first few seconds the camera is stationary, our gaze on the rolling gates and colorful bollards and plastic signs advertising haircuts and beard trims. A simit peddler approaches up the block and the camera slowly pans left with him as he turns off into a side street. Just as the peddler exits the frame, a tea salesman enters from the same side street, wheeling his steaming pot on a little cart. The camera trails him until it has rotated 180 degrees to face the other end of the block. Here it picks up two slow-moving street musicians as they collect tips from people hanging around on the sidewalk. (As usual with Panahi, the only music in the film is diegetic.) The camera stays on the musicians as they perform for a man and a woman in a sidewalk café, but though we have now focused our attention on six different people—the simit peddler, the tea salesman, the musicians, and the couple at the restaurant—we intuit that none of them is our protagonist. The woman orders tea for herself and her boyfriend from a waitress in a loose, red-orange shirt, and now at last we land on our true target. The camera moves with the waitress as she brings a beer to another customer, picks up a call on her cell phone, looks down the hill to check for her caller, and runs inside to get her coat. She steps outside and walks a few steps down the intersecting street to meet Bakhtiar, her gangly, sharp-angled lover or husband. He has joyous news: he has procured a French passport for her. Zara is thrilled, but when she asks about his own passport, Bakhtiar becomes far less emphatic: she will have to go ahead to France, he mumbles, and he will arrive later. It’s evident that these are topics of immense importance to these characters, but our understanding of them is limited, our context for this scene extremely minimal. What we can see is that to Zara, one passport rather than two is a defeat. The camera pans with her as she walks back to the café, angry and disappointed, unpersuaded by his desperation. It tracks her as she goes inside before it returns to the second street and to Bakhtiar, who lights a cigarette and retreats down the hill.
It is worth dwelling on this scene and the camera’s movements in such insistent detail because—especially in the five films he has made since his initial arrest and twenty-year ban from filmmaking in 2010—Panahi has specialized in these kinds of slippery moments, favoring long takes that offer total spatial legibility but little in the way of easily assimilable information about character and plot.1 But it is also worth dwelling on the scene because of how beautifully Panahi underscores its falsity. Almost exactly four minutes after we first glimpse the street, we receive a triple shock: a voice offscreen calls “cut!”; the assistant director—Reza—steps into the frame and peers straight into the camera; and the camera starts to move again, this time slowly panning out to reveal that the scene has been playing out on a laptop at which sits Jafar Panahi, who has been watching the footage just as we have, at a geographic remove.
The pleasure of this reveal is comparable to that of Truffaut’s Day for Night, or Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be, or any number of on-set meta-movies. It is a thrill to have the rug pulled out from under you, to feel that you have become somehow implicated in the filmmaking process, or at least called out by it. But an even richer and more complicated form of subversion occurs a few seconds later, as Panahi reviews the scene with Reza and an offscreen member of the crew. We learn that Bakhtiar was supposed to follow Zara into the café but missed his cue. Panahi looks directly at Reza as he speaks, and Reza looks back at him, and at us. “If we stay on Zara, and then pan to Bakhtiar,” Panahi explains, “we have an idle frame in between, which breaks the rhythm.”
Much about No Bears feels new in the context of Panahi’s work—the narrative complexity, the international scope, and the accretion of ominous dread (though there is some precedent for the latter in Crimson Gold (2003), the closest thing Panahi has made to a genre film)—but the decision to shoot a mistake in order to subsequently call attention to it would be unusual in anyone’s oeuvre. When I rewatched the movie I found the moment Panahi was talking about—the idle frame—but I never would have clocked it as an error.
Just a few minutes into the movie, Panahi has already undermined the stability of his image twice: decisively, and then more subtly. Like his mentor and great influence Abbas Kiarostami, Panahi has long been interested in the self-reflexive possibilities of cinema: his second film, The Mirror (1997), memorably unmoors itself halfway through, becoming an alleged documentary of its own failures. But it is in the post-ban half of his filmography that self-reflexivity has emerged as an essential concern—and an inevitable one, because according to his government, Panahi shouldn’t be making movies at all. He has continued to do so anyway, starring in four of the post-ban films and playing a key role in the fifth. The challenges to his own filmmaking capacities, meanwhile, have become Panahi’s central metaphor.
Panahi is a filmmaker of exquisite efficiency, and the basic contours of No Bears are apparent from its first five minutes. Bakhtiar and Zara are in Turkey with the production, and Panahi himself—actually, let’s call him Jafar to avoid any suggestion of documentary; for all their ambiguous refractions of reality, Panahi’s films are carefully scripted—is directing a semi-documentary film based on their life remotely from a village in Iran, on the other side of the border.2 (Like Panahi, Jafar has been banned from leaving Iran, but he believes that relative proximity to his cast and crew is better than none at all.) As the film goes on, the particularities, intensities, and terrors of the village where Jafar is staying come into clear focus, while the film-within-a-film falls apart.
If Kiarostami’s gorgeous rural compositions occasionally led critics to confuse him for someone working in a lyrical or pastoral mode, before the ban Panahi had always been too single-minded in his focus on the city to be anything other than a quintessentially urban filmmaker. After the ban, there was little reason to think that he would end up in the countryside—it’s hard enough to make illegal movies in your apartment in Tehran, or in a taxi. But in Three Faces (2018), which precedes No Bears and with which it forms an anxious diptych, Panahi revealed that his extraordinary sensitivity to his surroundings also extended to village life. There were shades of warmth and hope in Three Faces, and plenty of good jokes with good punchlines, but above all that film marked a return to Panahi’s major subject during the pre-ban period: the mistreatment of women by the Iranian state. No number of small kindnesses and gentle ironies could counteract Panahi’s angry (if satisfyingly layered) story of a young aspiring actress driven to desperation by her society’s cruelty. Misogyny, Panahi showed, was as endemic in the country as it was in the city.
Panahi himself—Jafar—has been a tricky presence in his post-ban films, a gradually evolving character. Wandering through the mournful abstraction of Closed Curtain (2013) Jafar was inscrutable, in Taxi (2015) he was notably smiley (for a somewhat schlubby man in late middle age, Panahi has a megawatt smile), and in Three Faces he was at once conciliatory and evasive, reluctant to cast judgment or act decisively despite the strong possibility of misogynistic violence. So it is all the more striking when, late in Three Faces, after Jafar politely declines the invitation of three village elders to sleep indoors instead of in his car, he hears them badmouth him as they walk away, thinking they’re out of earshot. “City folks never listen,” one of them says, as the camera watches Jafar’s polite smile clench into studied neutrality. “A strong hailstorm would show him.”
No Bears also has its share of small-town kindnesses and ironies, but the suspicion of outsiders that only made itself felt in the final moments of Three Faces is now an operating premise. Soon after the film begins, Jafar’s wi-fi gives out, leaving Bakhtiar and Zara and the film crew to fend for themselves. For his part, Jafar has nothing to do but turn his attention to the village. We meet Ghanbar, from whom Jafar is renting a room. He is on his way to a local engagement ceremony, during which the feet of the bride and groom are washed in a creek. Ghanbar begs Jafar, his “dear Sir,” to attend as an honored guest, but Jafar turns the tables: could Ghanbar instead document the ceremony for him with Jafar’s camera? Ghanbar is worried about performing for his mysterious big-city tenant, and his earnest, quivering nervousness offers one of the film’s few moments of gentle comedy. The video he delivers is unsurprisingly amateurish, if not without beauty—in contrast to the austere digital cinematography throughout the rest of the movie, the small camera’s blotchy footage almost resembles the thick haze of Super 8 film. During playback, Jafar sits at his laptop as Ghanbar kneels deferentially at his side, at once embarrassed by and proud of his camerawork. “He might be a spy,” a villager says of Jafar as the camera and its operator stumble up a dirt road. “Don’t scare me, a spy?” we hear Ghanbar respond. “The police might pick me up!” The paranoid dialogue continues in this register. “He might plan to cross the border illegally,” someone tells Ghanbar. “Nonsense!” he responds. “He wouldn’t risk his own expensive car. . . . He’s on the computer all day long, talking to who knows whom.” We cut back to Jafar and Ghanbar, who is visibly horrified by his ungenerous indiscretion. As in the scene with the elders Three Faces, Jafar says nothing.
But Jafar doesn’t merely provoke suspicion because he is an outsider with an SUV and a laptop. Throughout No Bears, we learn about Jaban’s various local traditions—the foot-washing ceremony; a building called the Swear Room, in which truths must be confessed and conflicts resolved; and a third, which plays out offscreen: when a girl is born in the village, her umbilical cord is cut in the name of her future husband. We get the sense that these names are often attributed to their respective umbilical cords due to prosaic family conflicts rather than deep-seated historical obligation, but never mind: tradition is tradition. A young woman named Gozal was promised at birth to Yaghoob, but she is in love with Soldooz, another young man from Jaban (notably an ex-student who studied in Tehran and was called back to the village, like the young actress in Three Faces). While Ghanbar is off at the foot-washing ceremony, Jafar grabs one of his other cameras and goes up to the roof to snap a few pictures of the local kids. The following day it is alleged that in the course of this photo shoot, Jafar took a picture of Gozal and Soldooz together. Now, as rumor quickly spreads, everyone is after the evidence: its ostensible subjects want it destroyed, while the angry Yaghoob and his family members need it to prove Soldooz’s depravity—and, by implication, to violate Gozal’s autonomy and force her into a marriage she would give anything to avoid. In a series of escalations that is richly comic until it becomes terrifying, various groups of villagers intrude on Jafar and demand that he give them the photo. (A beautifully choreographed scene of men taking off their shoes to enter Jafar’s room calls to mind the scene in A Night at the Opera when an impossible number of visitors stuffs itself into Groucho’s cruise ship cabin.) The villagers are polite, ingratiating, unctuous, and apologetic about their insistence, but insistent nonetheless. The elusive Jafar of Three Faces here gives way to a new, blunt Jafar who denies that he took the photo and offers his camera and memory card up for inspection. But the logic of the villagers’ insistence can only move in one direction, and by the end, no matter the photo Jafar did or didn’t take, Jaban has created its own reality. (“This picture has a become a big concern,” says the village sheriff. “It’s paralyzing all of us. This is an important piece of evidence.”) The film’s intensifying aggressions make its brutal ending unsurprising, but still as shocking as anything that has ever appeared in a Panahi movie.
As Jafar becomes ensnared in village controversy and technical difficulties, on the other side of the border his film is unraveling: Zara dies by suicide; Bakhtiar ends up alone, condemned to a death of despair; and Jafar’s film crew finds itself shaken and confused, having put its trust in a director who has led them terribly astray. The irony of Jafar’s doomed production is considerable: like Jafar, Panahi is working with professional actors abroad, but very much unlike Jafar, he has in No Bears unlocked a new reserve of space and creative freedom. In a 2018 interview with Ehsan Khoshbakht and Drew Todd, the editors of the University Press of Mississippi’s excellent Jafar Panahi: Interviews, Panahi discussed the primal conundrum of his position:
I am not a part of society. That obviously affects me and is something that I reflect on. My personal experiences now play a much greater role in my work than society does. In other words, my inspiration comes from my present circumstances and is then transferred into society, rather than being the other way around. It is almost as if an entire society exists within me.
It’s not surprising that Panahi would interpret his process this way, given the devastating effects of the filmmaking and travel bans on his life and work, but after the claustrophobia of This Is Not a Film (2011) and Closed Curtain, his films have ventured further and further into the outside world—and into society. Even Taxi—in which Jafar picks up a series of passengers including a bootleg DVD salesman, Jafar’s aspiring filmmaker niece, and the feminist human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh while the camera never leaves the car—is suffused with the busyness and mess of civic life. In No Bears, via the film-within-a-film, Panahi has found a way to step further out of himself than at any point since the ban was instated. Nowhere is this clearer than in the fraught dynamic between Bakhtiar and Zara: theirs is a relationship in crisis, and we confront its collapse up close through short glimpses that nonetheless provide great observational depth. Though Jafar is the maestro (Reza’s not-so-ironic word choice), when Bakhtiar and Zara are in the frame our attention is totally fixed on their world. But of course, society exists here, too: Bakhtiar and Zara have been broken by forced exile, and they experience firsthand the way the desperation of a refugee can be leveraged by private actors. As in the other post-ban films, Jafar remains the subject, but in Bakhtiar and Zara’s story he has articulated a different and broader account of the border regime and state repression.
The film’s self-reflexivity, too, extends Panahi’s interest far beyond his present circumstances. I have been thinking recently that the contemporary American meta mode, embodied most visibly last year by Nathan Fielder’s The Rehearsal, doesn’t typically go far enough. Surely there is more to be done with metafiction than simply to note the interplay of truth and fiction. Work like The Rehearsal and Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York and his Adaptation screenplay—still the most notable American meta movies of the past two decades, for better or worse—contains brilliant structural gimmicks whose novelty narrows into self-regard.3 What is the point of all this self-reflexivity? Filmmakers like Fielder and Kaufman and their ilk are well-positioned to ask catalyzing questions about art and life, to take seriously their work’s political and economic conditions. But what exactly is being critiqued?
By contrast, in No Bears, Panahi looks outward. The timeless questions about documentation, representation, and filmic truth that every ambitious filmmaker must ask themselves—and must pose to their audiences—surface here in thrilling and consequential ways. “You stopped when you shouldn’t have and started when you shouldn’t have,” Jafar tells Ghanbar as he reviews his video of the foot-washing ceremony. But Ghanbar’s excuse—that he turned off the camera because his female cousin might have been caught swearing on film—cannot be easily dismissed. Bakhtiar and Zara’s characters pose even more complex questions about performance: they are actors playing actors playing other people in order to cross a border, relying on forged documents and—in Zara’s case—a wig. When Zara breaks the fourth wall and asks Jafar if he understands that his film, which he has sought to base on his actors’ lives and stories, is in fact a total fabrication, because the two cannot travel to Paris together, contrary to what Bakhtiar and the scene up to that point have told us, Jafar feels—and we feel—dangerously and productively unmoored. Here is something new. If The Mirror’s abrupt turn from conventional narrative to faux-documentary turned self-subversion into plot, No Bears leaps beyond its own constraints entirely.
And still it is Jafar’s movie. Though This Is Not a Film and Close Curtain found Panahi limited to filming—respectively—inside his apartment and his beach house, of the post-ban films No Bears seems by far the most concerned with capturing a sense of Jafar’s (and Panahi’s) confinement and intimidation. When Jafar ends up in the Swear Room and must plead his innocence, it is hard not to feel that Panahi is drawing on his own experiences at the hands of government interrogators. The walls feel like they’re closing in; the haughty and circumlocutive town elders are an obvious but effective metaphor for the repressive Iranian state apparatus. That Panahi was arrested shortly after completing the film—and that he is now serving out the six-year prison sentence originally handed down in 2010 in Tehran’s infamous Ervin Prison—is an irony that would have been out of place in all of his work until the stark horror of No Bears.
The deeper irony, though, is that what dominates the film’s plot and its concerns is the question of implication—specifically Jafar’s own. In Iran, Jafar’s stray photo—the photo everyone thinks he took, whether he took it or not—roils a village and helps bring about unspeakable tragedy. In Turkey, his cinematographic methods lead to Zara’s suicide. Why make films at all if so much can go wrong, if one’s own project can do so much damage?
I don’t know why Panahi feels so implicated. Perhaps there is an incident in his recent history he cannot let go of: a crew member who was put at risk because of their collaboration, or an actor whose parts dried up as a result of their appearance in a Panahi film. Or perhaps he is simply thinking about a person in a position very much unlike his own. In a recent interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Panahi’s son Panah was asked whether his father’s positions regarding the Iranian regime had changed as a result of his incarceration. “His position has not only not changed,” Panah responded, “he has gotten stronger and more determined, and his voice has spread more widely—with the exception of those inside the [Iranian] entertainment industry, who have not supported him out of fears of reprisals from the regime.”4 Could these insiders be Panahi’s true target? Or is it the case that, despite his years of iconoclasm, he has conjured a counter-Panahi who wants to think through complicity from the inside? It is a tribute to Panahi’s empathy and moral courage that he can so systematically examine his own implication while being perhaps the world’s most oppressed major filmmaker.
A hyper-naturalistic story about an urban filmmaker uneasily situated in a rugged village, curious about its local traditions, and struggling with pervasive connectivity issues: this description applies equally to No Bears and Kiarostami’s wondrous The Wind Will Carry Us, made in 1999 and released in the US in 2000. The Wind Will Carry Us is structured around its protagonist’s frequent drives up to a cemetery at the top of a nearby hill—the only place he can get cell phone reception to talk to his producer in Tehran. No Bears, meanwhile, places Jafar’s wi-fi troubles at the very center of the narrative: if he were “on set” more often, the problems in the village and in Turkey all might have been avoided.
The wi-fi storyline marks an attitudinal shift in Panahi’s work. Until No Bears, the post-ban films were all fundamentally optimistic about technology—about cameras and phones and DVDs. Even in the tormented This Is Not a Film, which Panahi made in his apartment shortly after the imposition of the ban—and which was famously smuggled out of Iran on a flash drive nestled in a birthday cake—he evinced a powerful belief in the possibilities of recording. Whether the medium was a digital camera or an iPhone, and whether Panahi or his co-director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb was doing the filming, the recording devices on display in This Is Not a Film were delivery systems for a kind of truth. In one of that film’s most poignant moments, Panahi plays DVDs of The Mirror and Crimson Gold to remind Mirtahmasb—and himself, and us—of the spontaneous and magical effects his actors have produced on the fly. “Don’t think I don’t see what you’re up to,” Sotoudeh tells Jafar toward the end of Taxi, looking directly into one of the two dashboard-mounted cameras, but her comment isn’t a warning—she is cheerful and amused as she speaks. She leaves a rose on the dashboard for “the people of cinema, because the people of cinema can be relied on.”
In No Bears we see flash drives, hard disks, memory cards, iPhones, laptops, numerous digital film and photo cameras, wireless extenders, teleconferencing software, Bluetooth headphones, and car rearview cameras. In a film shot digitally, made by a director who relies on digital technology for his films’ distribution, all this hardware is a useful reminder of the footage’s ultimate materiality: though it is saved in the cloud, we’re keenly aware of how the film is produced. Yet with the exception of the rearview camera—which anchors an astonishing set piece in which Jafar encounters a couple of villagers who he thinks are after him, the tension dissipating only after their receding motorcycle shows up in the camera—the technology in the film is worse than useless, less an instrument of art than of the surveillance state. The film itself is often beautiful—especially in a sequence early in the film when Jafar and Reza drive to the border at night, the dark blue sky and gray mountains and gray figures ghostly in their near-total opacity. But from the laptop that elicits the neighbors’ suspicion, to the photo camera that activates it, to the digital camera that captures Bakhtiar at his lowest and possibly jeopardizes his and Zara’s escape, technology delivers no great truths—only ruin.
At one point late in the film, Reza and a local fixer named Sinan track down Bakhtiar at Zara’s restaurant after she has disappeared, but before her body has been found. The camera pushes in on Bakhtiar, his head slumped onto the bar in defeat. For Reza, this footage captures an essential truth, and documentation of this sort can only be inherently useful. We intuit that he has acquired this instinct from Jafar—and from Panahi—but it seems clear that he is wrong: he should not be filming this abject scene, and the film-within-a-film cannot benefit from its inclusion.
The critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, Kiarostami and Panahi’s great American champion and interpreter, described The Wind Will Carry Us as “a global newspaper and millennial statement.” In contrast to that film’s turn-of-the-millennium optimism about community and interconnectedness, the tech-cynicism of No Bears feels absolutely contemporary. Ours is a time when privacy has been ceded to megacorporations; when righteous protest is no match for repressive regimes working in tandem with nonstate actors and greedy sponsors and advertisers, as in last month’s World Cup; when the plight of migrants is extraordinarily visible, but a source of only perfunctory concern for most governments; when an illegal war condemned by much of the international community continues without end (though that one isn’t new); when right-wing oligarchs can buy up and destroy communications platforms that have, among other things, helped catalyze freedom movements in Iran. Bakhtiar and Zara are Iranians in Turkey desperate to go to France; Jafar is an Iranian filming a movie in Turkey, to which he cannot travel; Gozal and Soldooz, the village’s young lovers, try to escape Jaban and come to a horrible end. Their circumstances are unique to contemporary Iranians, but alienation, dispersal, fragmentation, and confinement are everywhere.
The “entire society [that] exists within” Jafar Panahi is a global one. Without having left Iran, Panahi has made a defiantly international film. And while this is a miraculous accomplishment, given Panahi’s situation, it is entirely consistent with his history. Nothing in Jafar Panahi: Interviews impressed me quite as much as the open letter Panahi wrote to the National Board of Review, which awarded him its Freedom of Expression Award for The Circle (2000). In April 2001, on his way from the Hong Kong Film Festival to the Montevideo and Buenos Aires Film Festivals, Panahi had a layover at JFK, during which he was apprehended by police officers who
chained my feet and locked my chain to the others, all of us locked to a very dirty bench. For ten hours, we were not permitted to ask questions and were given no answers, forced to sit on that bench, pressed to each other. I could not move and I was suffering from an old ailment, but nobody would take notice. Again, I requested that they let me call someone in New York, but they refused. They not only ignored my request but also that of a boy from Sri Lanka who wanted to call his mom. Everybody was moved by the crying of the boy—people from Mexico, Peru, Eastern Europe, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh—and I was thinking that any country has its own laws, but I just could not understand this barbaric treatment. . . . They chained me again and took me to a plane, a plane that was going back to Hong Kong. In the plane and from my window, I could see New York. I knew my film The Circle had been released there for two days and had been very well received, too. However, the audiences would understand the film better if they could know that its director was at that moment chained in their own country. They would appreciate my belief that the circles that limit human freedoms do exist in all parts of this world but with different ratios.
I hadn’t really thought of Michael Haneke’s work in connection to Panahi before seeing No Bears, but the directors obviously have a shared interest in urban inscrutability and foreboding. The opening of No Bears calls to mind the long Paris sidewalk tracking shot at the beginning of Code Unknown, and scenes in Panahi’s Closed Curtain, Taxi, and Three Faces all resemble, in not necessarily intuitive ways, the iconic final shot of Cache. ↩
Fanatical examinations on Google Street View revealed that the opening shot (and, presumably, the rest of the Turkey scenes) were actually shot in Istanbul—a fact that only matters as reiteration of this fictional film’s necessary distance from fact. For that matter, Jaban, the village named in the film and thanked in the credits, isn’t close to the Turkish border. ↩
I should confess that I haven’t yet seen Oliver Assayas’s Irma Vep self-adaptation, so I’m limiting my critique to comedically inclined Americans. ↩
Panah’s own Hit the Road is, as far as I know, the only other 2022 film by a member of the Panahi family about driving around in a Mitsubishi SUV and contemplating crossing the Iranian border. It shares a moody intensity with No Bears and also features terrific performances, especially from the 8-year-old Rayan Sarlak, but it is a more straightforward, less inquisitive film. ↩