There was an empty seat beside the name ‘J Panahi’ at the Venice Film Festival press conference for “No Bears.” The arthouse darling, famed for finding ingenious ways around draconian Iranian laws (“This Is Not a Film” was smuggled out of the country on a USB stick buried in a cake posted from Iran to Paris), was detained in August to serve a deferred six-year sentence, amid a government crackdown that saw directors Mohammad Rasoulef and Mostafa Aleahmad locked-up too. In this sobering context, the harassment that Panahi-playing Panahi experiences in his slippery work of docurealism lands all the more sickeningly and gestures to details that we are probably yet to discover.
Panahi is a director who has always mingled fact and fiction, and here the distinction is more addled than ever, so that by the time the final credits roll it’s not exactly clear what was staged and what was real. One could argue that it is a sound strategy for bypassing stringent scrutiny: create a work of cinema so elusive in its relationship to reality that plausible deniability is baked into its terms of existence.
“No Bears” opens on a busy street in Turkey full of vocal street vendors. A man impressively balances a large wicker basket of bread on his head as he walks, while another plays the flute passably well. Zara (Mina Kavani) rushes out of a cafe to meet Bakhtiyar (Bakhtiyar Panjeei) for a hushed conversation about the arrival of her counterfeit French passport, bought from smugglers. She has a new identity that buys her three days to leave the country, something he encourages, yet she refuses to leave without him. Then something surprising happens. After “Cut!” is called, AD Reza (Reza Heydari) turns to the camera to talk to the director who is watching from a remote location. Panahi gives him notes on what we now see is a film-within-a-film.
Panahi has relocated to a small village by the Turkish border, renting a cottage from the hospitable-yet-anxious Ghanbar (Vahid Mobaseri). No one in the village is sure what brings a man of his repute to their tradition-led locale, defined by its proximity to a place that is not Iran and where people smugglers and their fast cars are a faceless force. Panahi brings his customary affection for the small good deeds of neighborly people to the fore when Ghanbar clambers up a ladder to the roof to see what’s wrong with Panahi’s internet connection. However much curiosity, as well as fear and suspicion, that the villagers have around his presence, confrontations rarely take place without refreshments. Hospitality and harassment prove the two sides of our intrepid filmmaker’s experience here.
AD Reza drives out to meet Panahi when they can’t connect online, leading to an astonishing section that cuts all kinds of ways. Reza wants to take Panahi to the border for what seems to be an act of location-scouting for their film. They stagger wordlessly up a dusty, rocky hill until a mysterious Somewhere Else glowing with hundreds of tiny lights glitters on the horizon. Panahi asks exactly where the border line is. Reza points to the ground directly under their feet and Panahi steps back, spooked. For most of the film he is a stoic, unrattled presence, yet here his eyes glow with fear. “No Bears” breaks its fourth wall to show what mixed feelings exist around escaping your mother country, even one that would have you behind bars.
A consecutively unfolding drama takes the form of a love triangle in the village. Gozbal (Darya Alei) is being socially pressured into marrying a man she doesn’t love, while being secretly in love with Soldooz (Amid Davari). Panahi is embroiled in this after he is accused of taking a photo of Gozbal with Soldooz together, thereby proving that they are having a liaison. This is the catalyst for the constant harassment he receives from the polite but persistent Village Chief (Naser Hashemi) and the hot-headed husband-to-be. Panahi illustrates this fairly unpleasant scenario by focusing on the customs and superstitions of village life, making it clear that these men are acting out of beliefs rather than malevolence. Even as events become oppressive, he is still able to conjure stray moments of delight born of humane observations.
Back in Turkey, events are also becoming more airless. Far from being a work of fiction, the film-within-the-film is revealed as a documentary intent on capturing Zara and Bakhtiyar at this pivotal point in their lives as these enemies of the state try to escape. Panahi (the director of “No Bears”) dances between showing the predicaments of these lovers with their emotions running high, and the perspective of Panahi (the director of the film-within-the-film) as he and Reza strive to stay ahead of their subjects to keep documenting their high-stakes story. One moment, the audience will be shown the personal peril of dealing with smugglers, the next they are shown the logistical difficulties of acquiring permission to film smugglers. These two angles are rounded out with a third implied one as we imagine Panahi, the now-imprisoned force behind it all, serving time as a punishment for daring to depict Iranian life in this way.
The humane light that Panahi strives to use on even his most oppressive characters belies a sharp awareness of the power lines and misinformation that color an atmosphere where no one is easy around telling the truth. In one gorgeous scene, an old man that he encounters en route to a specific destination tells him to come in and have tea first. They can go on together afterwards, says the old man, which is better for safety reasons as there are bears out there. Later, when they separate, Panahi asks about the bears. “There are no bears. This is nonsense. Stories are made up to scare us,” replies his companion, in a remark significant enough to be the title of the film. It’s an obscure yet bold statement, one that encourages us to mind the fearful stories we choose to heed.
“No Bears” premiered at the 2022 Venice Film Festival. It will be distributed by Celluloid Dreams at a date TBD.