‘No Bears’ review: Jafar Panahi turns the camera on himself in powerful, subtly playful examination of limits personal, political and artistic | LFF
The remarkable prolificacy of Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, and the even-more-remarkable spirit of subversiveness that has only burgeoned in his work since his arrest and detainment by the Iranian authorities over 12 years ago is one of the marvels of modern cinema. That such a powerful artistic voice should be subject to such stringent censorship is an enormous blow to creative freedom and political expression; that such stringent censorship could not only be defied by such a powerful artistic voice, but that said voice could adapt, grow from, and so vociferously condemn its silencing by refusing to yield to it is an even greater triumph for creative freedom and political expression.
Panahi’s No Bears arrives on cinema screens as the great man once again faces renewed oppression at the hands of the Iranian state – he was detained again this July, purportedly for merely inquiring about the situation regarding his compatriot filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof – and it feels like a summation of the work he’s produced in these last 12 extraordinary years. It’s a nakedly political work, openly bemoaning the treatment of individuals seeking the freedom to simply live their lives as they please by dogmatic, duplicitous self-styled community leaders. It’s a reflexive work, partly following a director, played by Panahi himself and never explicitly identified, though plainly played by Panahi as Panahi, remotely overseeing production of a fiction film shoot taking place just a few miles away, over the Iran-Turkey border. And it’s a thoughtful, playfully and flexibly metaphorical work, exploring the presence of borders and boundaries in everyday lives, the spaces we travel from, though, and to, the state of being in one’s place or of being elsewhere, and how image and filmed footage can reflect, represent, or distort reality, how perceptions of an image, even imagined, can be manipulated, and how all of the above impinges on the personal.
It sounds dense and difficult, but No Bears sees Panahi in typically light, artistically ebullient recent form, the liberation of his style not undermining the potency of his message but rather confirming it – here is a man who won’t capitulate to the cruelties exacted upon him but can rebel against them with a cheeky smile on his face and a gleam in his eye. And yet No Bears doesn’t strike a note of unearned hopefulness – Panahi knows those cruelties too well to indulge in some rosy optimism, closing the various strands of this multi-layered movie with tense, open-ended uncertainty, as some roads to freedom, happiness and security are shut off, and others appear fraught with peril.
As great movies do, No Bears constructs itself in the spaces beyond the screen, leaving its audience to contemplate what may occur, or may have occurred, further down the road, or behind closed doors, or after the phone signal died. After all, every movie only exists in the mind, in its being perceived by one’s sensory organs and interpreted by the human brain, and what a movie says can be as significant as what a movie does not, or cannot say, as long as it’s been crafted with the care to guide the mind beyond its own borders.
Panahi’s cinematic mastery is most overtly on display – though never exhibited with anything so vulgar as overtness – in how he envisages the spaces in which his movie takes place, and thereon the spaces of transit which it occupies in both presence and absence, in travel and transgression, then stasis and conformity. There’s a distinct awareness of an entire world operating outside of what it can perceive in the moment, of forces either circumstantial or intentional shaping the contours of those spaces. Panahi shoots through doorways and windows, down corridors and roads, over thresholds personal and political, physical and imaginary. He observes people preparing to leave, in the process of leaving and travelling, and simply existing in places where they do or don’t belong, in states of familiarity, discomfort, uncertainty, relaxation. He speaks to his own situation by reconstructing it, and to others’ situations too, and reconstructs these situations out of the fabric of reality, even as the many narratives he films, or has others film for him, may pursue fictional narratives.
The act of filming, of recording either in still or moving image, is regarded as a most meaningful act, defiant and subversive under the auspices of a state that controls through banning, restricting, limiting. Pictures here bear witness, act as testimony not only in capturing it but simply in existing; in the conscious reflexivity of No Bears’ own existence, it is a witness to the limitations that state has imposed on its maker, and a witness to his astonishing determination both as an artist and as a person.
This review is from the 2022 BFI London Film Festival. No Bears will be released in the U.S. by Sideshow (II).