Legendary Iranian director Jafar Panahi (Closed Curtain, Taxi Tehran) explores ideas of freedom, and what they mean to two very different couples in No Bears, his latest film about life in the homeland that currently has him cruelly incarcerated.
Exiles Zara (Mina Kavani) and Bakhtiar (Bakhtiar Panjei) live in Turkey and have been trying to escape to western Europe for ten years. Solduz (Amir Davari) and Gozal (Darya Alei) are in love in a mountain village in Iran, but she is betrothed to another man, and they must hide their feelings or face the wrath of the village.
Panahi – playing a lightly fictionalised version of himself – gently draws the two stories together. He is making a film about Zara and Bakhtiar’s plight, while staying in the village which Solduz and Gozal long to escape from.
So why is the fictional Panahi in an Iranian village rather than making his film in Turkey? Because in a twist that would be surreal if it wasn’t actually mirroring real life, he is directing them over Zoom, having been banned not only from leaving Iran, but from filmmaking altogether.
No Bears starts in a gently comic tone, with Panahi requesting ladders and waving his phone in the air, as if to say: ‘Don’t worry viewer, I may be under house arrest, but it’s all going to be okay.’ And we are fooled into expecting a gentle observation of rural Iran, lulled by the gentle rhythms of the everyday.
The twist would be surreal if it wasn’t actually mirroring real life
But as he weaves his two stories together, the tone shifts at a nail-biting trot towards something more sinister. We’re left not only fearing for Panahi’s lovers, but for our director too. As he walks through the darkness to meet a group of angry men, a stranger gives him a piece of advice. Lie to them. They mostly do not care about the truth, only the appearance of the truth. This will keep the peace, and that is what they want.
Keeping that fragile balance is not an acceptable compromise for Panahi. In this startling work, he places the responsibility on ordinary Iranians to act, even if it leads to heartbreak. Because, as with his latest deceptively sharp-edged meta drama, he knows that not every story can have a happy ending.
In UK cinemas Nov 11.