TIFF 2022: No Bears, by David Bax
If one of the many benefits of watching movies from all across the globe is getting a view of lands and people in countries you’ve never visited then a director like Jafar Panahi are especially crucial to the international cinema scene because of his refusal to engage in traveloguing and instead present a more convincing, compelling and immersive, ground level, day to day image of his country. As with his previous narrative feature, 2018’s 3 Faces, his newest, No Bears, leaves the urban interiors that have marked so much of his work since his official ban on filmmaking by the Iranian government in favor of the countryside and its small town population.
No Bears concerns a filmmaker–Panahi playing himself–who has traveled to a village near Iran’s border with Turkey in order to direct a movie. Since both the real Panahi and the version in the film has been forbidden from leaving the country, he’s set up an unreliable internet connection in a room rented from a local to remotely direct a movie that’s being shot on the other side. Most of Panahi’s post-ban work has been similarly reality-based but No Bears might be more explicitly about his legal situation than any of his films yet. It’s not just that the logistics of it all play into the plot; the entire movie revolves around and focuses in on this feeling of being trapped by invisible forces.
Panahi’s humility being one of his greatest strengths, though, it would be unlike him to make a movie that’s entirely about himself, even if that is often the entry point. As in 3 Faces, he soon finds himself embroiled in local disputes and politics, attempting to remain a passive observer but eventually acknowledging the power that his relative wealth, privilege and notoriety afford him and succumbing to his own internal decency. And–again like in 3 Faces but also as with many of his films going back at least to 2000’s The Circle–his concern is chiefly with the plight of Iranian women. This time, a casual photograph Panahi took in the village may prove the undoing of a girl who has been betrothed to an older man since she was born.
That’s a devastating situation to even consider and Panahi treats it with the weight it requires. But No Bears is also replete with the kind of humanistic, slice of life comedy at which the director has long excelled. The pettiness and grudges that are the hallmark of any close knit small town are the source of loving humor.
As with so many great artists, Panahi truly does love people, even as he makes his nonplussed opposition to some of their ways and traditions gently clear. Even his economical shooting style of long, handheld takes speaks to his resistance to imposing too much of his own point of view on the men, women and children whose story he’s trying his best to tell. No Bears is another subtly momentous entry in the curious and humbly optimistic filmography of one of our greatest working directors.