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No Bears review – powerful and perceptive tale of dissent, politics and filmmaking

Iranian director Jafar Panahi's latest is an audacious, multifaceted work about human responsibility and the intersection of life and art

When a filmmaker slips into self-reflexivity, it’s usually a sign they’ve run out of things to say. Of course, for Jafar Panahi, the stakes are somewhat different: presently imprisoned in Iran for six years, the dissident filmmaker has been officially banned from making films or leaving the country since 2010. No Bears is his fifth feature since then, the same number he made pre-ban.

His first post-ban films, This is Not a Film and Closed Curtain, were limited, by necessity, to his home (he was under house arrest). So, the fervently socially-conscious Panahi, whose films dissected women’s rights and social ills in modern Iran, was forced to turn his camera inwards, towards himself. His films since then have repeatedly asked the same question: when a filmmaker’s very purpose is to reveal the wrongs of the society around him, what kind of film can they create when they are forcibly prevented from making such films? The answer is found in that turn towards self-reflexivity. For Panahi, the very act of filming is an essential survival skill: to film is to be alive.

No Bears arrives as maybe the pinnacle of his post-ban work, and it is arguably the most audacious and powerful. Here we find the director, playing himself, setting up shop in a remote village on the border with Turkey. Just over the border his film crew are making a drama about refugees and migration, with the actors playing variations of themselves. Panahi directs over Zoom, but with a shoddy poor internet connection the filming is frustratingly stop-start. Alongside this, the local villagers suspect Panahi may have inadvertently taken a photo of a young couple whose pairing goes against an agreed-upon arranged marriage: he is forced by the villagers to repeatedly deny ever taking the photo, even going to their “swear room” – a room where you swear an oath to tell the truth – to avoid the conflict boiling over in an increasingly Kafka-esque showdown.

In between these two plot strands, No Bears finds a jumping-off point to discuss multiple philosophical questions: the ethics of socially-conscious cinema; the moral quandaries of turning real-life pain into dramatic construction; how best to navigate arcane, surreal rulesets based on traditional logic that has long since gone out of date; at what point does dissent turn into recklessness?; whether to flee an oppressive state or to remain, fighting the good fight.

It is this last part that connects the film’s multi-faceted layers, and one which Panahi has long fought over His lifeblood lies in the fact that he sees himself as an Iranian filmmaker – the stress is on both those words. To leave Iran would be to vacate his responsibilities. At one point, Panahi’s assistant director shows him the smuggler’s route that would take him over to Turkey, and to safety. He stands at the invisible line between the two nations, surprised by how simple it is to get here: “If it is so easy to cross the border, why is it so hard for me?” he says. It’s a painful, tricky question, one which we can visibly see Panahi has long been wrestling with.

In embracing this trickiness, No Bears emerges as a powerful and perceptive tale of dissent, politics and filmmaking, and one of the director’s great works. Let us hope this is not the last we see of Jafar Panahi.

No Bears is released in UK cinemas on 4 November.

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