Did the news of No Bears deservingly bagging the Special Jury Prize at the 2022 Venice Film Festival slightly brighten the cell Jafar Panahi is locked up? I doubt it would mean a whole lot to one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, whose voice has been reaching us secretly ever since the Iranian government banned him from pursuing his art in 2010. A cake to hide “This Is Not A Movie” and the covert, lionhearted efforts that went into making and sharing No Bears with the world are simply not the kind of harrowing ordeals a director like Panahi should be going through. Yet, for someone whose self-reflectively bold and politically charged artistic endeavors are perceived as a critical threat by the government, Panahi’s proved himself to be a warrior of sorts by never allowing the regime to muffle his voice. What I’ve never felt dampens the experience of watching Panahi’s works is the sense that he knows best. And in No Bears, the maestro not only spots a gaping wound in the autocratic system that runs Iran but also takes an unbiased look inward, into the heart of filmmaking and the pragmatic limitations of its influence.
What Happens In The Film?
There’s a reason why you’d find authenticity in the way Zara’s face lights up when Bakhtiar shows up with a fake passport he’s managed to acquire. And even though you’d soon find out that they’re actors in a film being directed remotely by a fictionalized version of Panahi himself, you know Bakhtiar’s frustration is real as he fails to convince Zara to fly off to Europe without him. Much later in the film, you’re struck by the realization that the film Panahi is making is about real people and their depressingly, exasperatingly real struggle against a government that’s abused them for decades. The wi-fi isn’t that great in the crooked little room Panahi is renting from Ghanbar. But other than that, it’s nothing short of a royal treatment that he gets from Ghanbar, who’d rather hurl a few insults at his wife than turn down a request from Panahi, and his mom, who’d sit tirelessly with her sore legs and cook him hearty meals.
Panahi’s been barred from crossing the border. And perhaps it is his small, almost self-destructive way of revolting against the regime that’s made him leave the comfort of Tehran and move to the border-adjacent village of Jaban. Why else would he be here when his film’s being shot in Turkey? A place so dangerously close that he shudders at the thought of being a more fearless rebel and crossing the border illegally. Fear dribbles like sweat down the crevices of his face as he learns that his assistant director, Reza’s led him down the dirt road so he could stand on the very border he’s not allowed to cross. He doesn’t seem to care much about the villagers. Unless you can call clicking a few pictures here and there and handing a camera to Ghanbar so he can capture the feet-washing ceremony of a young couple caring. It’s one of the pictures that the director has casually clicked that proves to be the bane of his existence.
What Was The Conflict Surrounding The Photograph?
Not a lot happens in Jaban, as you can imagine. They’re simple people, so humble that they’d apologize if you’d wronged them. They hardly show the same courtesy to their own people, though. Run entirely by the laws of Islam and the local traditions and superstitions, they’d go out of their way to create trouble where there wasn’t any. But it’s evidently not as black-and-white as that. Now, Panahi’s privileged nonchalance about how the village runs is glaring in the way he’s so cavalier when Gozal warns him of the hell that’d break loose if a picture he’s clicked falls into the wrong hands. But he does his best to do right by Gozal and Solduz, the couple who’s planning to make a run for it by crossing the Turkish border. You’d probably be just as overwhelmed as Panahi is, trying to wrap your head around the fact that in Jaban, umbilical cords are cut in the name of a girl’s future husband. And because Gozal’s been betrothed to Jacob, his uncles are knocking on Panahi’s door to acquire the picture so that they can ask Solduz’s father to keep his son in check. But is it out of the benevolence of his heart that Panahi remains steady in his claims that no such picture was ever clicked by him? Or is he just trying to save his neck, knowing full well just how much trouble he can get into if the police get involved?
Does The Conflict Get Resolved?
In a world where you’d run out of fingers if you attempted to count the number of serious issues, sometimes it’s hard to see the bigger picture. Panahi believes that he has bigger things in mind. So much so that he’s practically unbothered by the growing tension amidst the villagers trying to figure a way out of the whole photograph debacle. If we’d seen Panahi concern himself with how real the horror is for Bakhtiar and Zara, we might’ve given him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he’s not selfish. Maybe he can only focus on one big issue at a time. But that’s not the case, though, is it? At least not according to the way his artistic vision finds flaws in the organic interaction between the couple, who’s been traumatized by the state and has been looking for a way out for 10 years. Even as he orders his crew to document the whole ruse that Bakhtiar has concocted with the smuggler, he doesn’t bother talking some sense into the man.
It comes to Panahi as the easiest way out of the frustrating mess one picture has created when the villagers urge him to swear in God’s name in the swearing room. But even then, even when a villager gives him sound advice that he can just lie and get it over with, does he do what would be best for Gozal, Solduz, and Jacob? The ever-growing conflict between the snobbish rationale and an open-hearted submission to one’s community’s way of life is what rumbles in the background as No Bears keeps oscillating between representing each side of the story. Panahi’s not exactly wrong in finding the villagers’ customs obnoxious. As one of them aptly points out to him while debunking the myth that there are bears roaming the streets, their fear is what fuels itself. But there’s only so much that Panahi understands of the village he’s come to reside in. Jacob, however unreasonable in the context of the sensible world he may be, is facing a life of solitude if he doesn’t get to marry Gozal. He’s done his part and paid his dues. He’s not wrong in expecting that his own people would now take his side when the one standing against him is an outsider. A gradually worsening issue that Panahi could’ve easily put to rest by lying under oath, he only aggravated further by refusing the Quran and documenting his testimony.
Does Panahi Leave Jaban?
Working parallelly yet holding on to a sort of rivalry about the position of the more severe, the two socio-religious and political parables get etched into your brains before you even know it. And pretty soon, you’d find yourself pondering over the real-life implications and the seemingly meta approach to self-criticism. That doesn’t mean the real director Jafar Panahi’s sort of morbid self-actualization has gone unnoticed. If death is the event of the utmost significance, whatever falls between life and death is but a less ultimate version of death itself. And if slow death is what it feels like to the likes of Zara and Bakhtiar, so excruciating that they’d opt to risk falling into a far darker pit, no question remains about the significance of their circumstance.
There has to be a certain essentially inhuman antipathy to an issue like that for someone to make a film out of subjects who are going through it themselves. It is, however, immensely worse to let things take their unbroken, natural course and not do something that could potentially save lives—solely for a selfish reason, masquerading as a humane work of art. So when the fake passport arrives for Bakhtiar to make the worst mistake of his life, the flow goes unchecked until Zara’s had enough of Panahi’s baffling indifference to how things actually turn out for these people. Panahi and his crew knew Bakhtiar was diabetic and visibly sick. He was practically signing his death warrant out of love when he was sending Zara away to a brighter tomorrow. The consequences of Bakhtiar and Zara going missing hit Panahi just about as softly as you’d expect them to. But, at the same time, we would be blind not to recognize the real perpetrator behind two ruined lives when Zara’s body washes up on the shore, vibrating with every pang of pain that Bakhtiar feels.
There’ve been talks about Zara having been imprisoned and tortured. And if the real Jafar Panahi’s imprisonment is any hint, you can imagine the unfathomable injustice that must’ve been done to someone as sweet as Zara. You can’t even say that Panahi’s untouched by this tragedy. And I hope it’s not just the cynic in me that’s wondering if it’s just the factor of his movie being cut short that’s on his mind. But how capable of seeing beyond his understanding of things is Panahi? From how I’ve perceived him so far, not very much. The compassion in his intentions is somehow tainted by the actions he’d need to take to follow them to a complete observation of their courses. And the same is true for the Gozal and Solduz conundrums as well. He must’ve had their best intentions at heart, but what he acted on was all for selfish reasons. He’s, at the same time, so hopelessly detached from their world that he is struggling to comprehend the pace and severity of the escalation of the matter. He’s been so guarded by his privileges as an important, big city guest of the humble village, approved by the village sheriff himself, that he barely knows what goes down beyond the politeness they never forget to treat him with. He’s saved from harsher repercussions when it’s Solduz who takes a massive, bloody beating from a furious Jacob, whose rage is half about his prospect of loneliness and the other half about his heart being shattered by the betrayal of his people.
Nonetheless, it’s not a state that can allow anybody, unless they wield far higher privileges, a break from its ceaseless watch. But even as he’s about to be evicted for the crime of going into the border area that the smugglers frequent, especially with a ban on his departure from Iran, it’s Ghanbar who bears the brunt. And even then, his inherent mode of going out of his way to respect the important city man makes Ghanbar meek and apologetic to his film director tenant of 9 days. For a woman who treats him as his own son, though, he can allow himself the space to make a discernible effort. But his departure is not where the consequences of his actions lie.
The horrifying, audacious scene that No Bears‘ ending has in store for us is both a cry for help and a finger pointed at just how extreme the price can be for the crime of having a heart in a state that feeds on it. Two lovers paid with their lives for an inconsequential custom, an innocent action, and a selfish step that proved to be their doom. And even then, it’s Panahi who is given safe passage out of the howling, grieving village. Does pulling the brakes mean he’d go back and take a look? Would he be going back so he doesn’t miss a shot of something this consequential? You’d find the answers to these in your view of the Panahi you’ve gotten to walk alongside in No Bears.