Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Apr 19, 2023 6:54 pm 
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The oppressed Iranian filmmaker's fifth clandestine film is a dry multi-layered puzzler

I wonder how Pauline Kael would have reviewed the films of Jafar Panahi, Iran's most famous filmmaker. She did have the balls to pan a sacred cow of a film like the exhausting Holocaust documentary Shoah. Panahi too is a sacred cow. He, or the character with his name in his latest film, No Bears, the fifth made clandestinely since he was forbidden by the government to make films, is a muted, ironic figure, the tight-lipped protagonist, the understated star of his own work. Jafar Panahi is a real life hero. Despite imprisonment, house arrest, and being banned in 2010 from making films for 20 years, he has managed to go on making them, and refuses to leave the country. But when he is showered with praise, how much can we separate the filmmaking from his well-deserved glow as a hero of artistic resistance to the oppressive regime of the mullahs?

Maybe Jafar Panahi's films could be more entertaining. It might seem impossible to make a fun movie about an oppressive country like Iran, but this was disproved last year when Panahi's own son, Panah Panahi, released his first feature, the hilarious, stimulating, meaningful and sad Hit the Road. His father Jafar's new one is many-layered and complex in ways that reviewers are delighted to parse. It offers rewards for seasoned fans. But its entertainment is of a very dry and subtle sort, if entertainment there is.

Nonetheless No Bears, which shows Jafar Panahi, or "Jafar Panahi," struggling to direct a film remotely from an Iranian village near the Turkish border, where the cast and crew are, is an impressively smart and understated film. Its blending of fiction and documentary elements is a feature of the director's style that goes back to his first work. For example, a clip he shows in This Is Not a Film records a girl being filmed on a bus who tears off a fake leg cast yelling that she refuses to participate in this charade. This is essentially what a couple does in No Bears: they are playing a version of themselves (or their film selves), a dissident couple, Zara (Mina Kavani) and Bakhtiar (Bakhtiar Penjei), who have escaped the country, but the wife protests that the in-film version they're being asked to enact is a whitewashed image of her far worse sufferings in ten years of struggle and she won't go on with it. Is this outburst true to life, or is it the fiction? We don't know.

This film has been described as revolving around "two parallel love stories." The first involves the troubled mature couple in the film-within-the-film who are, or were, seeking to escape the country. The other is a young couple in the village "Panahi" is staying in, Gozbal (Darya Alei) and Soldooz (Amir Davari). Accused of holding back a photo on a digital disc depicting a couple said to be in love, while the girl is being set up for arranged marriage to another, the No Bears "Panahi" denies that he made any such photo. He is asked by the village chief (Naser Hashemi) to go to a place called "the oath room" where he will swear to this, but he is assured parenthetically that this place is just a village tradition, and it is "okay to lie." That kind of says it all: this is a country where oaths and morality are a big deal, but lying is a common, assumed practice.

The interest, the dry fun, of No Bears is its confusing mix of urban and rural and of documentary and fiction. It is all fiction: the "real" "Jafar Panahi" seen here is a bit less like the "real" Jafar Panahi than in his previous four clandestine films. He is not making this film about the couple seeking to escape the country, but a film about making such a film. In the meantime there is much static from the "actual" location, where "Panahi" is, a small village (not actually where it's said to be). "Panahi" is renting a large room in the village, but his "host" is constantly looking for excuses to make him leave. There is trouble in the village, the fracas over the contested wedding, and "Panahi" is in the middle of it because of allegedly having photographed the would-be "bride" with her real "lover." A little boy claims when "Panahi" was taking his picture with several other boys, he saw "Panahi" photograph the couple. There is also more commonplace buffoonery of a sort Panahi seems to like now, when "Panahi" must climb a ladder trying to connect with wi-fi (the reviewer for Slant has said this is a ripoff from Kiarostami). All the sophistication of good digital cameras, slim laptops and smartphone, clashes with the rustic walls, obligatory glasses of tea, and feeble wi-fi of a village.

This contrast between the primitive and the modern is in your face here. The village is rife with "traditions" and rigid conventions about marriage. The old ladies serving "Panahi" provide excellent cooking, but with the shaky internet, the rental "host" a constant annoyance and the challenged would-be groom in a constant menacing rage, disorder is just round the corner. The latter individual delivers a prolonged rant in the "oath room" scene that illustrates something Iranians in films often seem to excel at: orally haranguing and abusing each other.

But the urban, and urbane, "Panahi" never loses his cool. His dry restraint stands as a reproach to all the misbehavior and his own mistreatment. He stands aloof; and beyond that lurks the courage of the real filmmaker who has endured so much harassment from the Iranian government and remained productive through it all - though post-No Bears, he was in prison again, initially along with the other top Iranian filmmaker, Mohammad Rasoulof (the third is Asghar Farhadi). (In early Feb. 2023 he was released from prison.)

Panahi's first clandestine film, the 2011 This Is Not a Film, was smuggled out of the country on a flash drive in a loaf of bread and shown at Cannes, the New York Film Festival (where I reviewed it), and in forty other festivals, winding up on many best movie or best documentary lists. The subsequent three and this one have likewise received top honors from critics and festivals. Mohammad Rasoulof was recently on the Venice jury. This in part is a triumph of digital technology and the internet, also celebrated indirectly in No Bears, with "Jafar Panahi" directing a film from across the Turkish-Iranian border, which dramatically he refuses to cross.

The title No Bears, is symbolic of a rejection of naïve village traditions embracing ignorance. The village chief talks about the danger of bears to "Panahi," but then says the menace of the ursine critters is only a superstition: there are "no bears." Martin Luther King famously declared that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Hopefully it bends toward rationality and artistic freedom too, even in Iran. But there is more gloom than hope in No Bears. Jessica Kiang wrote in her Variety review that where his earlier clandestine films celebrated "the liberating power of cinema," this is a darker one where Panahi "slams on the brakes." In his Slant review Sam C. Mac, noting the devotion to "meta" in Panahi shows his debt to his mentor Abbas Kiarostami, points to what is also my main objection in No Bears: that it's overburdened by an "increasingly convoluted plot" developed to illustrate its themes, and is not, despite what some critics have said, as visually interesting as his other recent films. But it is part of an œuvre that we cannot overlook.

No Bears 106 mins., in Farsi (Farsi title خرس نیست/Khers Nist), debuted at Venice Sept. 9, 2022 and was shown in about 50 other international festivals, including Toronto and New York. Its official US theatrical release was Dec. 23, 2022 in New York City (Film Forum). It premiered on the Criterion Channel Apr. 18, 2023, where it was screened for this review.

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