Cinema Without Borders: No Bears - The filmmaker who wouldn’t flee
In this weekly column, the writer explores the non-Indian films that are making the right noises across the globe. This week, we talk about No Bears
Two days after he went on a hunger strike, auteur Jafar Panahi was released from captivity in Iran on February 3. He had been sentenced to six-year imprisonment in July 2022 on charges of propaganda against the regime after being detained at the prosecutor’s office where he had gone to inquire about the arrest of fellow filmmakers, Mohammad Rasoulof and Mostafa Al-e Ahmad.
Interestingly, Panahi’s most recent work No Bears was completed in May 2022, just before his arrest. It premiered at the Venice Film Festival where it was awarded the Special Jury Prize.
You can’t separate Panahi’s cinema from his politics. So, in the case of reel approximating the real, the film examines complex ideological, moral and ethical issues about freedom and responsibility in filmmaking. But Panahi does so in his characteristic open-ended, philosophical manner which makes it doubly powerful and profound. A film that sets the audience thinking, alongside its ruminating maker, without offering any easy answers to the many questions nor any instant solutions for the pressing problems.
Panahi plays a fictional version of himself in the film, living in the far-flung town of Joban so that he can be close to his crew that is shooting a film across the border in Turkey under his remote instructions. His assistant director delivers the hard disk of the rushes back to him to edit even while surreptitiously taking him location scouting. Ironically, the film being shot within the film is itself a kind of hybrid, docu-fiction about two real-life lovers trying to flee the oppressive country by securing fake passports to France.
Meanwhile, in the parallel narrative track, the photograph of a young couple that Panahi is alleged to have taken while filming at random in the village finds him in the eye of the storm. The village lovers want to elope from their superstitious, regressive world what with the girl being forced to marry the guy she was betrothed to as a newborn at the time of her umbilical cord-cutting ceremony. The conservative villagers want the incriminating evidence against them to pin them down. Unfortunately, both stories don’t quite meet the desired happy end.
The border then becomes an emblem for curbs of all kinds—institutional, political, societal, and artistic. It seems as easy as it is tough to cross it. There is as much a social commentary on the constraints imposed by the polity as against the authoritarianism rooted in the fractured Iranian society.
But Panahi doesn’t become caustic. There’s humour, humanity, curiosity and affection with which he looks at the innocent but conventional villagers. Quite like his recent work Closed Curtain, Taxi, and 3 Faces, No Bears was also made secretly in the face of the ongoing ban. In fact, his 2011 film This Is Not A Film wasn’t just made surreptitiously but was smuggled out of Iran to the Cannes Film Festival on a flash drive hidden inside a cake.
Bear becomes a metaphor for fear. The filmmaker is not frightened of any dire forces. But he is also not willing to flee the consequences of his attempts at truth-telling.
In 2010, he was sentenced to six years in prison and a 20-year ban was imposed on him against directing or writing any movies. He was later put under house arrest and, much like his fictional version in No Bears, banned from travelling out of Iran.
On getting released from the prison, Panahi is reported to have said: “I look behind me and there are so many students, teachers, workers, lawyers, activists still in there. How can I say I’m happy.” Just like his counterpart on screen, Panahi has no bears to be scared of. He will speak his truth whatever the repercussions.
No Bears will be brought to Indian screens by Impact Films.