What do you do if the government forbids you from making films? If you are Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, you make films about not being able to make films. The most recent of these films is No Bear. Sadly, it may be the last for some time.
In 2010, Panahi was charged with making propaganda against the Iranian government. He was forbidden to leave Iran, banned from making films for twenty years, and sentenced to six years in prison, but the prison term was put on hold. In the meantime, he has been making films that reflect the oppression of the society by focusing on bits of his story. These films include This Is Not a Film, 3 Faces and Taxi. Earlier this year, when he went to protest the imprisonment of other artists, Panahi was forced to begin serving his sentence.
In No Bears, Panahi has gone to a remote village near the Turkish border to be near the making of his newest film. He isn’t on location, rather he is directing from his computer (at least when he has a cell connection). The film is to be about people trying to get out of the country, and involves actors who are trying to get out of the country. The proximity of the border is a reminder to him that it would be easy to sneak out of Iran and be free to make films.
Meanwhile, he gets embroiled in a feud in the village that is focused on a young woman who was promised to a man at her birth. But she and the boy she loves want to run off to find freedom. The various village traditions that come into play have a farcical quality to them, but they also serve as a structure for the people’s lives—for better or worse. It may allow us to consider our own traditions and structures in daily lives.
Even as the film blends fiction and reality, it reflects the daily tensions of life in Iran. The fact that Panahi has been making films in spite of the prohibition imposed on him is a reminder of the need for people to express themselves. And for Panahi, it does not seem an option whether or not to make films. He is compelled to show the world, but more importantly, I think, his fellow Iranians, what is happening around them. He does it in a usually lighthearted way, but it is also very serious.
There is a scene that I think is telling about his need to document Iranian society. One night after his assistant delivers a hard drive with the day’s rushes from the shooting, Panahi gives him a ride back. One the way the assistant directs him to a lonely spot that smugglers use to bring in contraband. He points to a Turkish city a couple kilometers away. He tells Panahi how much easier it would be to make his films if he were there. Panahi asks where the border is, he’s told “you’re standing on it.” He immediately takes a step back. It seems unthinkable for him to not stay in his country in spite of the hardships the government has imposed. It is only by being there, that he seems to feel empowered to speak. Even though for the next few years that voice will have to remain silent.