Once upon a time in Iran

‘No Bears’ is among the best from imprisoned filmmaker Jafar Panahi


Somewhere in Turkey, a man and a woman obtain a foraged passport. The passport is for her, and once the man receives his, he will join her in Europe. Getting across the border is the tricky part. But they are in love, and love compels you to do tricky things.

But there’s a catch: They aren’t real. They are actors Mina Kavani and Bakhtiar Panjei, making a movie in Turkey while the director watches via Zoom across the border in a remote Iranian village. He is Jafar Panahi, the writer-director of the movie being made and the writer-director of the movie we are watching. There’s a fine line between artifice and reality in any Panahi film — more so in his latest, No Bears.

Panahi is a titan of world cinema. His work in the 1990s and 2000s helped bring a new wave of Iranian cinema to the world stage. Then in 2010, Panahi was charged with propaganda against the Iranian government, put under house arrest and sentenced to a 20-year ban on making movies. 

No Bears is Panahi’s fifth movie since that ban. All of them are fantastic, but No Bears is even better. The story’s twists and turns are never too much or too little. Panahi’s movie-within-a-movie is about two lovers trying to cross a border so they don’t have to live their lives in secret. It might not be vérité, but it feels authentic. 

Then events start happening in the small village that mirror the two lovers on the lam. But Panahi refrains from heavy-handed underlining. You almost don’t recognize the parallel until Kavani breaks character and asks Panahi where the line between construction and documentation lies. “Didn’t you tell us that you’ll make a movie based on our lives?” she asks, more than a little concerned for herself and others. “What is this charade, then?”

There are real stakes, but what makes a Panahi movie so enjoyable is Panahi himself. He is a delight, both as a storyteller and as a presence. Watch in the early moments of No Bears how he walks around this village with a camera in his hands, capturing everything he sees. His landlord (Vahid Mobaseri) warns him not to go on the roof lest the neighbors think he’s spying on him. But who could believe that this man has nefarious intent in his heart? He’s like a Persian Winnie-the-Pooh. Walks a little like him, too.

Now compare that image with the look on Panahi’s face before the movie cuts to black. The customs of this town and the society he lives in are amusing, to a point, then terrifying. The ancient traditions enforced upon Panahi seem trivial, and Panahi makes every concession he can. It doesn’t take long for things to become gravely serious.

It’s a reality Panahi is painfully aware of. This past July, the filmmaker was arrested and imprisoned again, this time for six years. The cinema of some is far more urgent than the cinema of others. 

ON SCREEN: No Bears opens in limited release on Dec. 23.