Jafar Panahi just makes movies, but he’s also a living martyr to the medium, and our most authentically heroic contemporary, defiantly living and working as he does in a state culture that would rather he entirely disappear. The Islamic Republic of Iran would surely prefer to hang him, if they could. A sort of modern cinema’s St. Sebastian, Panahi has been arrested and censored and forbidden to continue making films — which isn’t all that unusual in itself, especially if you recall what filmmakers and other artists endured in the Eastern Bloc years.
But unlike filmmakers oppressed and gagged under various Communist thumbs, Panahi never took the hint and kept making films, covertly, illegally, relentlessly, and though they are not shown in Iran, they sneak out for the world to see, each distributed globally and streaming freely (on Amazon and elsewhere). No totalitarian force on Earth seems to be able to stop him.
His new film, No Bears, is his tenth feature, and the fifth he’s made since the government jailed him and commanded him to stop. Let’s sum up the tale, if you haven’t been tracking Panahi’s progress — and if you have, it might be good to take a macro view, now that the drama has been unfolding for almost 13 years. After years of skirmishes and detainments, Panahi was arrested in 2010 on unspecified charges, and eventually convicted of “assembly and colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic.”
He was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment and a 20-year ban on making or directing any movies. The next year, under house arrest and awaiting the results of an appeal, Panahi went ahead and made a film, This Is Not a Film (2011), documenting his life of confinement with a camcorder and an iPhone. Famously, the movie was smuggled out of Iran on a thumb drive hidden inside a cake, and premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.
Thanks to the predictable international outcry in the face of his persecution, the leash on Panahi began to slowly loosen, and he continued constructing and releasing features: Closed Curtain (2013), Taxi (2015), and 3 Faces (2018), each illegal at home and celebrated abroad. The films are all centered on Panahi himself as he gradually expands his range of motion — huddling in a vacation home with an array of interlopers, driving around Tehran as a taxi driver, venturing to a tiny northern village on a mission of mercy. All four films explore what you could call the Iranian Juke, a postmodern paradigm pioneered by Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Mahkmalbaf, among others, in films that walk and talk like neo-realism or even non-fiction, but actually occupy a demi-fictional realm where the objectively “real” and the contrived deceptively intermingle. Whom you might take for an authentic passerby is an actor, and vice-versa. Even This Is Not a Film, which has largely been defined as a straight documentary, has sizable suspicious chunks that may well have been scripted, rehearsed, and post-dubbed.
Like the earlier films, No Bears takes its own impossible circumstances as its primary subject. The opening scene is in a café, where a man and a woman squabble about a new passport and their effort to emigrate to Europe — except her hair is uncovered, which means this isn’t Iran. Soon, we learn it’s a film in progress, being shot across the border in Turkey, and directed via Zoom by Panahi, who’s secretly renting a room just a few miles away. The dependability of WiFi is an issue.
From there, the movie explores this bizarre borderland limbo with Panahi, at one point meeting his AD on a hillside at night to retrieve the day’s footage on a disc, and hesitantly stepping right up to the invisible line between freedom and imprisonment. As always, the quotidian around Panahi is filled with polite bustle, nosy neighbors, tetchy infrastructure, meals, rituals, and secrets. The film he’s making in Turkey turns out to be a reenactment of the discontented actors’ “real” story, but the more pressing trouble begins in the village Panahi’s hiding in, where he accidentally falls into a local crisis, partially triggered by his own filmmaking habits. A young man and woman have been contracted to marry since they were born, but she loves another man; it’s Panahi that exposes the conflict by impulsively photographing the pre-wedding ceremonies, and possibly capturing the lovers together.
We never see the photo in question — instead, the film focuses on Panahi as the grinding pressure of Persian traditions and age-old misogyny push him onto center stage, and force him to build a small tower of untruths in the process. This semi-real Panahi — how many are there? — cannot believe, until the tragic denouement, he’s responsible for what is, in this backwater, a life-or-death dilemma. He even films his own interrogation before the village elders, who have little reason to trust the sneaky shutterbug urbanite in their midst. Godard once famously quipped, “A tracking shot is a moral act”; in Panahi’s world, every act of filming has moral implications, with sometimes incendiary consequences.
There’s no watching Panahi’s last five films (and the plethora of shorts he’s made, many on YouTube) as merely movies — the force majeure of the cultural world around their making, and around Panahi’s chin-out stance toward the state, always invests them with an extra urgency and concrete vibrance no amount of craft or flash can approximate. The government of Iran had let Panahi slide on his initial sentence, until this July, when thanks to a crackdown partially fueled by the nationwide protests, they rearrested him and vowed to make him serve all six years. There he still sits. In August, the Ministry of Culture called No Bears more of a “political game” than a movie that “does not have a production license”; a month later, it won a Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival. The question now does not seem to be whether Panahi will make a film in Evin Prison, somehow, but when. ❖
Michael Atkinson has been writing for the Village Voice since 1994. His latest book is the new edition of his BFI tract on David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.
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