Every Jafar Panahi film is an act of resistance. Now in prison, the Iranian director has spent the past 12 years under and out of house arrest, has been banned from traveling or making films outside of Iran, and has faced numerous obstacles in making films at home. It didn’t stop him.
AT no bears, he travels to a village near the porous border with Azerbaijan to tell a story about a couple trying to make it to Paris with stolen passports, a film crew following them, a second young couple trying to avoid a forced marriage, and a village full of gossips and gossips . These villagers don’t miss anything, including the fact that Panahi, a guest from Tehran, spends all day at his computer and only leaves his rented room at nightfall.
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Panahi is, of course, directing the aforementioned film crew via Zoom, at least when he can get a signal. He must be careful. As the name suggests, there are no bears in the mountains of Azerbaijan; there are rumors about them, but they are encouraged by the official authorities to prevent crossing the border. However, there are many jackals in human form: smugglers of goods and people, profiteers and police officers who seek to commit this or that murder. As the village sheriff said to Panahi, there is no more money in agriculture; people have to find other ways to make ends meet. And while they want him to feel welcome given that they could use more visitors, the fact that his fancy car has been spotted on the dirt road they use for business makes everyone nervous.
Figuratively speaking, Panahi spent his whole life racing along country roads to do the work that drives him. In 2010, he was sentenced to six years in prison for making films without permission, the sentence was reduced and then commuted under international pressure. The regime restricted him in other ways, which were supposed to deprive him of the opportunity to make a film. This is not a movie (2011) was committed while he was under house arrest and then smuggled out of the country. no bears and his previous film 3 persons (2018) were gunned down in remote villages where police interest appears to be less than in his hometown of Tehran.
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However, his work testifies not only to his perseverance, but also to his ingenuity and good humor. He’s a master at making the most of scarce materials, learning how to shoot a small, nondescript apartment from so many interesting angles that it seems like there are worlds in it. His circumstances mean that Panahi himself is the ingenious central character in the films he makes, while the fact that he makes the film against the odds becomes a plot element.
AT no bears, he is an observer, filming and photographing the village and its inhabitants from his rented terrace so that we can see it through his eyes. It is, of course, filmed by another camera, as we are periodically reminded of. These visible works highlight questions about cinema itself that are usually brushed aside, gentle provocations about ethics, truth and lies that can be asked of any film.
The Panahi cell itself is a provocation for the villagers, a harbinger of some as yet unidentified disaster. When he is suspected of having photographed a couple sitting under a nearby tree – a couple who could not be seen together, since the young woman was promised to someone else at the time of cutting the umbilical cord – after that, all sides of the photograph, new evidence in a quarrel that lasted for decades.
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“In the city, you have problems with the authorities,” says the city sheriff. “Here we have a superstition.” When he arrived in the city, Panahi was delighted with the bizarre customs that existed in this vast community. That feeling soon evaporates, especially after he is summoned to an old man’s kangaroo court – another tradition – to swear he doesn’t have the photo.
However, he is not angry. When Panahi is moved, at least on the screen, it is bewildering. It would be entirely understandable if, after so much harassment and periodic imprisonment by a repressive regime for the great crime of making films, he would issue angry tracts that his sympathizers at festivals would then watch out of a sense of duty. But Jafar Panahi is a humanist, enchanted and forgiving of the world. In addition, he has the makings of an artist. The string of films he’s made in the 12 years since his hands were tied are sharply insightful yet funny. Which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be angry about him. He’s in prison. This is indeed a crime.
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