No Bears Jafar Panahi (Iran; 2022) Naser Hashemi, Reza Heydari, Jafar Panahi
viewed Tyneside Cinema 22 Nov 2022; ticket £10.25
No bears….when no means yes…?
The structure of Panahi’s ‘No Bears’ is key to understanding not only his perception of the state in which Iran finds itself today but also defines the director’s own parlous situation.
Pahani has structured ‘No Bears’ so that he the director is the pivot about which two different fictive scenarios play out their own laminations of realty. Within the folds of these laminations, Panahi finds himself increasingly implicated in and then overtaken by the development of events. It is a movie about positions: the actors in relation to the play out of the two contrasting scenarios which are themselves in a constant state of flux; and the consequences of this for his own position as ‘director’. Panahi’s creative use of the position of the director as both an overt active and passive covert manipulator is subjected to an intensification of relational pressures, as his attempts to control both sides of his camera break down, exposing him to the psychic emotional and fateful consequences of social interpolation.
Panahi’s use of this particular filmic structure is testimony to film’s ability to render a complex idea as a simple cinematic expression. For whilst it’s hard verbally to explain the finesse of ‘No Bears’ structure, when viewed by an audience as an inherent part of the film’s design, the structure is self explanatory and easy to follow. And the structure in itself is a key element in the audience’s ‘enjoyment’ (sic) of the film as they witness and understand something both of the collapse of the relations underlying Panahi’s filming and Panahi’s retreat in the face of forces that he cannot resist. Darkness falls across the land.
Panahi’s position as the remote director of his film, overseeing a shoot in a small Turkish border town from an Iranian border village, enables him to contrast the opposing elements making up Iranian society: the mostly urban middle classes and the poorer rural population. The filming of ‘No Bears’ alternates between these two social groups observing that they have little in common in the way they experience the world and that very different types of constraints hold them in place.
The urban couple Panahi is filming have fled Iran illegally and are trying to get to Europe, for which journey they need to ‘acquire’ passports. Panahi’s scenario in this section comprises multiple interfused laminations so that it is not clear whether the interactions between all the parties (including Panahi) are fiction, filmed reality or comprise some intermediate point between the two. It doesn’t matter because what Panahi shows is ‘pain’. The pain felt by these people of having to live under the crushing weight of a fundamentalist state. A system that governs and judges them by its own invariant rigid religious ideology and that imposes upon them an alienated lifestyle. The only solution is escape. Most escape into the intimate protective carapace of family or friends. Some decide on literal escape, either legally or illegally: they want to get out. But it’s a decision that brings its own particular angst, intense feelings of loss and betrayal, which for many is insufferable. Whether they stay or go, there is no escape from their situation. It doesn’t matter whether Zara’s suicide is scripted replicated or actual, her psychic reality is that her choosing death puts an end to the intolerable. That’s the reality.
In the small rural village, as Panahi is informed, life proceeds by way of tradition and superstition. There may be intensities but there is little angst. In the passage of time change is apparently slow but such changes as come about are perhaps less perceptible for being elided into the notion of tradition. Panahi insinuates himself into the border village and its social relations. At first there is no problem. He directs his film ‘remotely’ using his computer and observes the interactive life of the community: and they observe him. They see and understand that he is not just an outsider but a ‘towny’ – a man with a camera quite other to themselves but an otherness that they accept. Panahi is taken for his own worth as he presents himself to and interacts with the inhabitants.
But Panahi discovers as he lives in the village, as with his middle class subjects, that he cannot exist outside of the network of extant relations. He is folded into events and situations. The director becomes the ‘directed’ as different parties ‘direct’ upon him their own intentions and purposes, and some want to implicate Panahi as a saboteur of their traditions. The growing suspicion of and antagonism towards him is influenced by the presence of an Islamic Revolutionary Guard in the village. This is not traditional. The presence of a state police in the community is something that is non traditional, bringing a new sort of fear to this community. Whereas previously (one way or the other) they would have sorted out Panahi’s presence using their own resources, now the governing Mullah’s and elders have to obey the strictures of the State. They confront Panahi with the Revolutionary Guard’s decision that he must leave, get out immediately. On the surface the village may look and claim to be a repository of tradition: but the notion of tradition has at this point been subverted. Tradition has been truncated to mean the simple mechanical compliance with prior practice. But other traditions the ones governing the manner in which people should relate to one another, the mediation of relations between people – respect and tolerance – have been forcibly eliminated, dropped. Bad tradition.
The deep ideological penetration of the State into the village’s affairs and governance has radically undermined the basis of its life. The State has cynically exploited ‘the idea of tradition’ in order to undermine and discredit ‘tolerance’ and replace it with an enforcement system of strict observance to law and custom. A familiar political stratagem that is now evident almost world wide. And it is this enforcement system that is probably responsible for the killing of the two ill starred lovers as they try to flee the village.
Panahi’s position in ‘No Bears’ is analogous to the actual situation in his life. In ‘No Bears’ Panahi’s position as director is progressively undermined as events not only move outside his control but actively work to crush him. This is film as participation in a shared life of pain: not film as an exercise in narcissistic power. This is cinema as an expression of mutual oppression. But throughout the film with all its difficulties and injustices Panahi’s humanity, imbued with patience toleration love and understanding, shines through as the way he makes films as the way to live.
Premonition of a time to come. It’s difficult to separate out Panahi’s ‘No Bears’
from the situation that has defined his life in Iran for the last 13 years. His arrest in 2010 charged with propaganda against the Islamic State, his 6 year prison sentence and concomitant 20 year ban on making films. Throughout this period he has been steadfast in his decision to stay in Iran and on his own terms to confront the Iranian State with the persistence of his refusal to leave and his continued determination to make films that express other Iranian values of tolerance and understanding. He has chosen to live dangerously with the bears.
‘No Bears’ reads like his premonition that he has used up all of his ‘lives’. The ‘bears’ are about to come for him, strike him down and destroy him. Indeed shortly after ‘No Bears’ was completed Panahi was again arrested and gaoled. We don’t know that he will ever come out alive.
‘No Bears’ is a consummate piece of film making, endorsing Panahi’s own observation in ‘Taxi Tehran’ that all films begin with a perception. Panahi sees that he is stranded in a culture where death closes in on all sides, in all states of mind the fictive and the actual. The repression set in motion by the Iranian state has reached the point where torture and death have become the chosen means of ensuring the survival of the state. The only way in which the bears can survive is by feeding on the bodies of its citizens. The revolution is eating its children.