Director Jafar Panahi, who is currently imprisoned in Iran for 6 years, made another film wherein Panahi plays himself in a exploration of Iranian culture. The film takes place in two locations, a town on the edge of the Iranian Turkey border where Panahi is staying and a city in Turkey where the film Panahi is directing remotely is shooting.
Jafar Panahi is staying in a town with questionable internet coverage, despite the sheriff assuring him the coverage was impeccable. Unable to connect and continue directing his newest film across the border, he explores the village that he is staying in with his camera in toe. He wanders above the buildings and takes pictures of those he meets or sees.
That night, his assistant director arrives with a hard drive of the daily shoots. The two take a drive and discuss Panahi’s inability to leave the country and the negative impact that it is having on the filming process. They come across the road that the local smugglers use and Panahi and his assistant drive down the road and flirt with the idea of smuggling the director across the border. Panahi decides he is unwilling to do so and returns to his temporary home in the village.
The next day, Panahi is confronted by some men from the town insisting that he took a picture of a certain couple, and that the picture can be used as evidence against them. The women in this village are betrothed to someone at birth, and the belief is that this woman has been with a different man. Panahi assures the men that he has no such picture. They leave, but clearly are unpersuaded.
The drama that Panahi experiences in the village in which he is staying is mixed with the drama from his film. In the film a couple are attempting to procure passports to escape the country and fly to Europe to begin a new life. The couple comes to odds when one of them acquires a passport, but the other does not. Their love is tested by this potential distance between them.
No Bears attempts to draw a comparison between the couple in Panahi’s film and that of the star-crossed pair in the village which he is staying. In this point the film fails to deliver what it set out to do. Because Panahi is the sole viewpoint, the stories of the four lovers are underdeveloped. The couple in the village is especially underserved as they are not even the secondary point of view of their own story. Instead, the film focuses on what the men of the village think about them.
The other goal of No Bears that Panahi succeeds on is a critique of the culture in both the small village but also in the region at large. Panahi leaves no question that he is against the assigning of marriage partners at birth. He brings such up at a ceremony where he is required to swear that he is telling the truth. On the larger scale though, No Bears accuses the government of not providing for their people and entrapping them in the country.
Panahi’s output since his initial arrest in 2010 has centered around the director playing himself and that conceit has allowed him to take exceptionally personal shots at the country that imprisoned him. No Bears is another film along that line, and while it gets a little lost in some of its side stories, the film is solid. Not Panahi’s best but a strong addition to this phase of his career.