Follow Mint Lounge

Latest Issue

Home > How To Lounge> Movies & TV > ‘No Bears’: Autofiction at the border

‘No Bears’: Autofiction at the border

Jafar Panahi’s 2022 film ‘No Bears’, now streaming in India, continues the director’s recent style, but in a bleak and introspective mood

Mina Kavani in 'No Bears'
Mina Kavani in 'No Bears'

Zara (Mina Kavani) is attending to customers at the Turkish café she works in when she gets a call. She runs to meet a gaunt, tense man, Bakhtiar (Bakhtiar Panjeei). They speak in Farsi. He shows her a fake passport he has arranged for her, so she can go to Europe. They have crossed borders illegally before—he tells her this time there will be “no risk, no danger, no death”. But Zara is upset that Bakhtiar is sending her off without arranging a passport for himself. She runs back into the café, leaving him to fret and smoke outside. The camera pans back to him—this has all been one shot—and then a new face pops up in front of the lens. “How was it?” he asks. The next shot reveals the person being addressed, Iranian director Jafar Panahi.

In three of the four feature films he made before No Bears (2022), Panahi presided as a mostly genial master of ceremonies. This Is Not A Film (2011) was made in reaction to the restrictions placed on him by the Iranian government in 2010: house arrest, no travel abroad, no directing or writing scripts. It showed Panahi in his apartment, talking about planned scenes, conferring with associates—all the while insisting he isn’t directing. The satire was extended in Taxi (2015) where, his restrictions relaxed somewhat, Panahi drives around Tehran talking to “passengers” ranging from his DVD supplier to activist Nasrin Sotoudeh. 3 Faces (2018) pushed the boundaries further—Panahi and actress Behnaz Jafari travelling to a village to try and help a young woman.

Also read: IFFK 2022 diary: Stories of collapse and renewal

No Bears continues the extraordinary “NotFilm” cycle but changes the direction of inquiry. From the assistant in the opening scene onwards, the film is full of people staring at the camera and asking Panahi increasingly pointed questions. Often, he deflects, or swats away the query. The Panahi of this film isn’t in a great place, literally and emotionally. He’s staying in a rented room in a village on the border with Turkey (“A film-maker banned from leaving the country, sitting on the edge of the border, you could have been recognized and arrested,” his assistant says). An innocent candid photograph he takes causes a scandal: of a young couple who plan to elope, though she has been promised at birth to another. Yet even before that, he’s moody and distracted.

The playfulness of the previous films in the cycle is largely absent. Panahi seems to be asking himself whether he has inadvertently caused others to suffer by making films about his troubles. Not only does the question of the photograph consume the village, Panahi’s film shoot, on the other side of the border, is barely holding itself together. The actors in the film-within-a-film are playing characters based on their own lives and are actually planning to flee with fake passports (Iranian cinema revels in this sort of meta-commentary). Even though his actors are plainly suffering, Panahi keeps filming. It’s not a flattering self-portrait.

Yet, it’s also important to remember that this is not documentary but autofiction. Flight from the country seems to have been a hot topic in the Panahi household around then—Jafar’s son, Panah, made his own directorial debut in 2021 with Hit The Road, about an Iranian family driving to the Turkish border to smuggle their older son across. In No Bears, Panahi’s midnight drive to the border is immediately set upon and discussed by the villagers and, we later learn, the authorities. As one of the locals speculates, “You don’t come to the border unless you’re up to something fishy.”

Though Panahi is as much interrogated as interrogator in the film, he hasn’t stopped needling the authorities for their obstruction to his art. In the film, he insists he hasn’t taken a photograph of the young couple but the locals aren’t satisfied. It’s not difficult to see a parallel to the Iranian state’s treatment of Panahi: vague, sinister charges drummed up for taking a few pictures. The corruption of the whole process comes to a head when Panahi is asked to take a ceremonial oath. An elder tells him conspiratorially, “Even lying is acceptable, as long as it’s for peace-making.”

The film returns Panahi to the tension and paranoia of Closed Curtain (2013), a stylistic and conceptual outlier in his post-This Is Not A Film work. The sense of profound unease running through No Bears had a grim coda in real life. About a month after production wrapped, he was arrested when he went to inquire about an imprisoned director, Mohammad Rasoulof. He spent the next six months in prison. It was only after he went on hunger strike that he was released. In the meantime, No Bears played at the Venice Film Festival.

Worried about taking a desolate road alone at night, Panahi asks his companion, “What about the bears?” There aren’t any, the man replies, just made-up tales. “Our fear empowers others. No bears!” Panahi’s films, with their logical, humane, witty gaze, are all about dispelling myths. He may not have chosen to make so many self-reflexive films, to turn the camera on himself repeatedly. His predicament is our gain. The cycle from This Is Not A Film to No Bears is something unique in the entirety of cinema.

No Bears is on Amazon Prime.

Also read: ‘The Dupes’: A classic of Arab cinema tackles the Palestine question

Next Story