The plight of Irani-born writer/director/producer Jafar Panahi (Taxi, The Circle, Three Faces) has become known around the globe: he has been harassed and even imprisoned recently by the government of his home country for supporting artistic independence. The result of his fight for political freedom is his latest work, No Bears, in which Panahi plays a barely veiled version of himself, still a renowned filmmaker, but remotely shooting his latest movie just over the border in Turkey, telling the story of a loving couple who are being torn apart by an unhealthy combination of bureaucracy and local superstition. They are attempting to cross the border illegally (with false passports), and are constantly being told they cannot cross together for one reason or another.
During the course of No Bears, we see this film-within-a-film being shot piecemeal, sometimes in dangerous locations, with Panahi’s character sometimes being forced to direct without being seen (he’s not allowed to leave Iran), so that his actors can only hear his voice via earpieces. What makes the film all the more interesting is that Panahi’s character begins to experience some of the same obstacles and superstitions in his personal life, shortly after he sees a young couple together, even though the rules of their community forbid them doing so. What follows is an upheaval in the village where the filmmaker is staying, and eventually, he must swear in what is effectively a religious ceremony that he didn’t see this couple together, even though one witness has claimed he not only saw them but took a photo of them, which would seal their fate if he did.
Through this scandal, with Panahi unwillingly at the center, we are exposed to traditions and beliefs that simply don’t seem productive in a functioning society. But as one man tells him about this supposedly sacred ceremony, “Just lie; no one cares. Just get it over with.” But Panahi’s character is about smashing any oppressive power and getting to the truth of the situation. He shows them all of the photos on his camera and goes through the swearing ceremony, only to have some of the community leaders call him a liar, which only makes him more determined to finish his film and get out of Dodge as soon as he can. Even the person who is kindly letting him stay in his home is worried about his presence causing immense grief for him.
Like many of the great New Wave filmmakers from this region, Panahi simply allows the events to unfold without too much artificial drama to distract us. Lives and livelihoods are at stake, including his own, and that’s enough to propel No Bears into an elevated dramatic event. Not surprisingly, the film also has a lot to say about creative control; the temptation to cross the border into Turkey illegally, which many artists have done and continue to do; and the destructive power of unwavering tradition. And as the actors’ lives overlap with that of the director, the film snaps into sharp focus, and Panahi’s genius shines brightest. A remarkable achievement in modern cinema, No Bears puts forth a voice and message that is loud, clear and undeniable.
The film is now playing exclusively at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
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