Film Review: No Bears

by Director Jafar PanahiSIDESHOW/JANUS FILMS
reviewed by Eric Hillis
No Bears poster

Despite being the subject of a filmmaking ban imposed by the Iranian government, Jafar Panahi has defied his country’s authorities by directing five features since the ban was imposed in 2010. Many have asked why Panahi doesn’t slip across the border. With his latest film, No Bears, Panahi goes some way to providing an answer.

As with his other recent films, No Bears sees Panahi play a slightly fictionalized version of himself. This Panahi has stationed himself in a small village on the border between Iran and Turkey. Over Zoom calls that are constantly interrupted by the village’s poor WiFi reception, Panahi directs a film crew working across the border. The movie he’s direct-ing appears at first to be a fictional tale of an Iranian couple attempting to flee to Europe, but we gradually realize the “actors” are indeed attempting such a feat themselves.

The films Panahi has made while subject to the ban have been defiantly upbeat. While angry at his nation’s authorities, Panahi has consistently displayed a deep affection for the people of his country. Even those whose political and philosophical views he’s clashed with have been portrayed in a kindly light.

With No Bears, however, we find a far more morose Panahi, one suffering a crisis of conscience. Panahi appears to hold himself responsible for the hardships others have endured through his defiance, acknowledging that as a revered artist his privileged position has allowed him to escape the sort of punishments usually inflicted on those who question the Iranian regime. In a discomfiting scene, one of Panahi’s actors addresses him directly over Zoom, accusing him of manipulating her plight for the sake of his art.

As it reaches its downbeat conclusion, No Bears begins to take on an almost funereal atmosphere. It has the feel of a condemned man making one last film before he turns him-self in, an idea cemented by the film’s closing image. At the time of writing, the director is currently serving a six-year prison sentence, having been arrested in July 2022.

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