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Imprisoned Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi delivers testament to human ingenuity in 'No Bears'

Courtesy of Janus Films

The story of Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi is sad and enraging. Right now, Panahi is in prison. In 2010, he was sentenced to a six-year term for “propaganda against the system.” That ruling was suspended, but he was banned from filmmaking for 20 years. Bucking the system, Panahi continued to make small films, which have played at major film festivals including Berlin, Cannes, Telluride – and also in theaters around the world.

Last summer, when Panahi visited two filmmaker friends who’d been jailed, the authorities took the opportunity to also imprison him. Although Iran’s Supreme Court reversed the original conviction and Panahi is supposed to be free, the Iranian government has refused to release him.

From the point of view of a western film critic, Panahi’s major crime has been to make films of exceptional humanity and decency. His work includes 'The White Balloon,' 'The Circle,' 'Taxi' and now 'No Bears,' which was released last September after Panahi was imprisoned and, of course, while he’s still banned from filmmaking.

'No Bears' opens on two lovers who meet on a street to talk about getting forged papers in order to leave the country. It’s an unexpected scene because women are not wearing headscarves and there are signs in English. Then a man walks in front of the camera – he’s an assistant director – and via Zoom, talks to Panahi himself who gives instructions on the shot.

Turns out, this is a movie scene being filmed across the border in Turkey, and a partly fictional Panahi is directing from Iran. And with that, another story unfolds which takes place in the remote Iranian village where Panahi has gone to work on this Turkish picture. In the village, Panahi winds up in the middle of a conflict connected to very old traditions.

Courtesy of Janus Films
Courtesy of Janus Films

Years earlier, a newborn girl was promised to a man, and that man, now believes that Panahi filmed her talking to another man, whom she apparently loves. The villagers are angry and suspicious, and it seems that whether Panahi is dealing with fictional life in the Turkish film or life in the Iranian village, he is surrounded by dangers and risks.

And, let’s not forget – the reality of the Iranian village is also a fictional story, as is the version of himself Panahi creates for this very movie. It’s a tricky edifice the actual filmmaker Jafar Panahi has built for 'No Bears.'

Courtesy of Janus Films
Courtesy of Janus Films
Courtesy of Janus Films

Both stories take place in social worlds dominated by arbitrary rules that frustrate love and freedom. The village story is couched in superstition and ancient ritual – the girl’s umbilical cord was cut for this man when she was born. Hypocritically, the man only wants to marry her after another woman rejects him. In the Turkish story, the two lovers, who look to be close to middle-aged, face a maze of government paperwork, surreptitious travel plans, and tricky border crossings.

Like the characters, the actual Jafar Panahi also faces arbitrary and deceptive laws– and he is always in danger.

In its spirit, 'No Bears' is about the constant fight for honesty and integrity within social systems that mainly want people to obey cloudy rules whose goals are to rob human beings of their humanity. With 'No Bears,' Panahi confronts tyranny with imagination and delightful irony. In his movie he plays a man who simply won’t knuckle under; he doesn’t throw bombs or even march – he tries to thread his way in and around the scaffold of absurdities and malice his government sets up.

Now, just two days ago, Panahi issued a statement from prison saying that to protest his unlawful and inhumane treatment by the Islamic Republic’s judiciary and security forces, he would stop eating, drinking, and taking his medications until “maybe my lifeless body would be released from this prison.”

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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