The annual turn of the year has died out on social media, where “personal news horns” go off incessantly like air raid sirens in a flash. If such letters were still common, the 62-year-old Iranian director Jafar Panahi could write a livelier one for 2022 than most others. This year he has directed his tenth film, No bears; the jury of the Venice Film Festival, including Kazuo Ishiguro, awarded him a special prize. He’s seen his son Panah hailed for his directorial debut, get going. And as a staunch advocate of gender equality (The circle2000, deals with the persecution of women in Iran, while his scathing 2006 comedy Offside shows women posing as men to enter a football stadium), he must have encouraged himself during the protests after the murder of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini by the so-called morality police.
He will have viewed these events from the jail cell he has languished in since July, when he began a six-year sentence for “anti-regime propaganda” after questioning the jailing of his colleague Mohammad Rasoulof. Panahi’s prison sentence was imposed in 2010 as punishment for his support of the opposition party – at that time he served two months in prison before being placed under house arrest. He also received a 20-year film ban. His answer? To make more films.
His work was already impressive, but his films since the arrest are nothing short of riot in cinematic form. Half of his entire production has dealt with his current unbearable conditions and was produced under these: This is not a movie, closed curtain, taxi, three faces and now No bears. These images insert Panahi into fictional narratives; in taxi, he is shown as a black light taxi driver after his directing privileges were revoked. These films, which bridge the gap between life and art (an Iranian specialty), were shot with cellphones and tiny digital cameras in Panahi’s homes and cars before being smuggled out of Iran. It hardly matters whether This is not a movie actually came to Cannes in 2011 on a thumb drive hidden in a cake – it’s a perfect Panahi tale in its mix of hardship and absurdity.
Except for the mourners closed curtain, No bears is Panahi’s heaviest work after the arrest. His usual goblin spirit is channeled here into a structure that embraces fragmented perspectives. An objective camera captures everything we see, and there’s also a movie within a movie — about a couple fleeing Iran with fake passports — that Panahi directs via video call. Then he gets a stable signal in the border town where he lives. (It has been suggested that, like his characters, he is preparing to flee.) Comic moments portraying this technology-crippled titan of world cinema hark back to those of his late friend Abbas Kiarostami The wind will carry usand point out that bad reporting can be just as confusing as oppressive regimes.
Another perspective comes from the camera that Panahi lends to a local to photograph a nearby wedding. Watching the unedited footage, he points out that the would-be author mistakenly hit the start button when he was about to stop, and vice versa. The footage is useless. Or maybe not: the microphone picked up a conversation about crossing the border.
Incriminating cameras keep popping up No bears. Panahi is accused of photographing a woman kissing someone other than the man to whom she was promised at birth. The director swears that such a picture does not exist; The town elders, in turn, produce a child who claims he witnessed Panahi nab the illegal lovebirds. The escalating tension points to an Iranian explosionor maybe a western like Bad day at Black Rock, with townspeople intimidating an outsider. There’s even a sheriff, though he wears a pea green tank top rather than a Stetson.
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Panahi agrees to record video testimony and create a third movie within the film. A fourth emerges via a camera used to track down an actor who escaped from Panahi’s film. An occupational hazard that: the young star of his 1997 film The mirror decides even during the shooting that she doesn’t want to take part anymore.
You may or may not be wondering how bears get there. Rumors of their existence here symbolize fear in all its manifestations: “The stories made up to scare us,” as one puts it. But there are no bears. The intrepid Panahi proves it with every notable film he smuggles out into the world, pie or not.
“No Bears” will be in cinemas on November 11th
[See also: Triangle of Sadness is part satire of the super-rich, part disaster movie]