Review of Jafar Panahi’s ‘No Bears’ from Venice
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Since Jafar Panahi’s problems with the Iranian justice began in 2009, the work of the director of ‘The Mirror’ has acquired a dimension that has transcended the usual coordinates of social cinema. His reluctance to comply with the ban on directing films, exposing himself to reprisals by the Islamist regime in his country, has made Panahi an emblem of the fight for freedom of expression.. A dissident position that, last July, was answered by the government of the fundamentalist leader Ebrahim Raisi with a new arrest, after the more than 80 days that the director of ‘The White Globe’ spent in prison between 2009 and 2010 ( now he must face a six-year sentence). This dramatic background turns the screening at the Venice Film Festival of ‘No Bears’, Panahi’s new film, into a kind of manifesto against oppression. An eminently political gesture that finds its perfect resonance in a film that meditates, with urgency and indignation, on the burden of secrecy and on the way in which authoritarianism infiltrates every nook and cranny of Iranian society.
As usual in Panahi’s latest films (from ‘This is not a movie’ to ‘Three faces’), the filmmaker himself stands in front of the camera to orchestrate his film from within. In the case of ‘No Bears’, the performance takes on a divided and dialectical form. On the one hand, there is the shooting, in Tehran, of a film that follows the supposedly “real” odyssey of a couple who try to escape the country using false passports. This film within the film is directed by Panahi himself, who works as a filmmaker through video calls that he makes from a small town located near the border between Iran and Turkey. From his small apartment, in a peaceful-looking town, Panahi finds a space of peace and tranquility. Nevertheless, Things get complicated when several inhabitants of the town demand that the director hand over a photograph in which, according to several testimonies, a couple appears who are having an illicit courtship.. The girl in the photograph (a snapshot that never gets to be seen on the screen) carries the yoke of an arranged marriage since her birth.
Through the development of these two parallel plots – the semi-documentary filming of an attempted escape from Iran and the dispute surrounding a love triangle – Panahi delves into several of the central themes of his cinema. On the one hand, he reflects on the differences and similarities between life in cosmopolitan and rural Iran. The inhabitants of the town express a certain feeling of inferiority in the presence of a visitor from the big city, but, when the tension caused by the photograph of the young lovers -considered evidence of the crime- is unleashed, Panahi outlines an analogy between the political persecution of which he is a victim in Tehran and the public “trial” to which he is subjected in the town. The story clearly draws the parallel between the fundamentalism of the government and the set of atavistic traditions and laws that govern the Turkish-Iranian border. However, lest there be any doubt, Panahi has a villager make explicit the link between governmental “authority” and “superstition” rooted deep in Iranian history and culture.
‘No Bears’ reaches its peak as Panahi uses metafilmic discourse to reflect on the potential and limits of cinematic art. In a memorable scene, in which Panahi agrees to give “sworn testimony” before a committee of village men, the director asks to make his statement in front of a camera. Thus, the filming device is presented as an unwavering witness, as an uncomfortable testimony. Panahi points out that what is said in front of a camera may not be true, but the exercise of filming always generates a jolt, a disturbance in the consciences of those involved in the process. On the other hand, in the film within the film (which is shot in Tehran), the viewer witnesses the rebellion of one of the actresses, who refuses to participate in a performance that, according to her, does not conform to reality . A) Yes, ‘No Bears’ proposes an incisive meditation on cinema as a weapon of agitation that, even when it responds to the best intentions, can shipwreck in its attempt to change things. That’s how powerless Panahi appears in one of his most downcast films, a work that punctually falls into the dramatic underline, but that appears as the raw life report of a daring and upright filmmaker.