A Matter of Honor and Shame

In a strong show of support and solidarity, the 79th Venice International Film Festival honored Jafar Panahi by organizing an unprecedented flash-mob red carpet for the screening of his new film “No Bears,” despite the conspicuous absence of Panahi himself. The ceremony was a sad reminder of the shameful detention of him and fellow filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof by the Islamic Republic in Iran while his work was being celebrated on a prestigious international stage.

This was not the first time Panahi was absent at a festival screening of one of his films. He has been barred from leaving the country since 2010 when he was arrested and jailed for nearly three months on bogus charges of acting against national security. He was also banned from making films for 20 years, but he kept working surreptitiously in defiance of the absurdly unjust verdict. He strongly suspected at the time that the Islamic regime imposed the ban to force him to flee the country. That’s why he spoke up and reiterated that he had no intention of leaving, even though he had offers to work outside of Iran.

In a telling scene in “No Bears,” which demonstrates Panahi’s deep devotion to his country, he is taken to an unguarded area on the Turkish border trafficked by smugglers one evening. As he stares at the distant lights of a Turkish town that shine like a golden necklace around a lake and offer a possibility of escape, he is told by his guide that he is standing right on the crossing point. Panahi steps back and hastily returns to the Iranian village where he is remotely monitoring the production of a film he is attempting to make on the Turkish side. He refuses to flee to freedom. He wants to be free in his own country.

With “No Bears,” Panahi’s career seems divided evenly into two distinct periods with five pre-ban (“The White Balloon,” “The Mirror,” “The Circle,” “The Crimson Gold,” “Offside”) and five post-ban films (“This Is Not a Film,” “Closed Curtain,” “Taxi,” “3 Faces,” and “No Bears.) The films in the first period, spanning from 1995 through 2006, clearly demonstrated what he could accomplish despite the Islamic Republic’s highly strict censorship codes. The “unauthorized” films he has made under limitations of a ban since 2011 are strong testaments to how he has survived as a filmmaker against insurmountable odds and produced high quality award-winning films.

Although the ban did not affect Panahi’s creative output, it greatly restricted the choices of films he could make and the way he would make them. While his pre-ban period was dominated by the socially conscious tales of the dispossessed, his post-ban films have been narratives of self-introspection with elements of meta-cinema, which Panahi had briefly experimented with in his second feature “The Mirror” (1997.)

Despite the restrictions of clandestine filmmaking, Panahi’s vision grew more critical over the years, and he attempted to push the boundaries with each post-ban film. He left the confined comfort of his apartment in “This Is Not a Film” for a Caspian seaside villa in “Closed Curtain,” the taxicab in Tehran traffic in “Taxi,” the expansive open spaces of Northwestern Iran in “3 Faces,” and a remote village near the Turkish border in “No Bears.” He started to shed light on the stories of other Iranian artists and intellectuals in his films, either directly or by allusion. The ordinary people of the lower depths, who were the major characters of his pre-ban period, also gradually re-appeared in his films and claimed a larger share of their narratives. “No Bears” is entirely populated by them. The only artist on the screen is Panahi himself, appearing as a well-intentioned director who finds himself facing increasingly challenging situations.

“No Bears” follows two parallel stories on two sides of the Iranian border with Turkey. On the Iranian side, Panahi explores stifling taboos, paralyzing superstitions and blind traditions that tragically hinder a society’s transition to modernity. We find him in a village where the inhabitants refuse to trust one another, and an oath is mandated to simply believe someone is telling the truth. The governing body does not hesitate to interrogate anyone or encourage people to spy on each other. Simultaneously, Panahi remotely directs scenes for a movie about a community of Iranian refugees in Turkey. The film within the film features characters trapped in a hopeless purgatory while attempting to flee their dark destinies. In both stories, life itself seems to be too cruel for fiction and the director Panahi plays fails to manipulate realities according to his script. He is increasingly dismayed by the depth of desperation he is witnessing on both sides of the border, and the endings he creates for both stories are clear indictments of an oppressive autocratic regime that has brutalized its citizens over the last four decades.

With “No Bears,” Panahi seems to have managed to successfully mix elements of his pre and post ban movies. What happens in the Turkish town is imbued with the bitter realism of his pre-ban films while his self-reflexive narrative in the Iranian village has the characteristics of the post-ban films that prominently feature him and characters in similarly uncertain situations. Interestingly Panahi started appearing in his films after the authorities banned him from leaving the country. He probably figured if he was not allowed to travel with the films, he could travel virtually in them!

In addition to his daring thematic choices, Panahi also utilized technology to expand the possibilities of artistic expression in the face of state censorship. His attempt to direct a film remotely is a good example of his creative use of technology, while it seems to be a nod to the celebrated Turkish filmmaker Yelmaz Guney as well who directed “Yol” from a prison cell. Unable to travel to shoot his film, Panahi can understand Guney’s situation when he made “Yol,” not to mention how deeply he could also empathize with an imprisoned filmmaker based on his own experience.

The ironic significance of the title of the film seems to be an affirmation of its central message and is demonstrated in a scene at the border village, which is perhaps a microcosmic representation of the country. On his way to a gathering, Panahi is warned by a villager about the danger of bears on the road. But moments later the same villager admits that there are no bears, and they only exist in some nonsensical stories made up to scare people. He thinks it is the people’s own fears that empower others, a wry allusion to the intimidation measures sinisterly practiced by the Islamic Republic to scare its critics.

Jafar Panahi is one of those critics who has firmly stood by his convictions and paid a heavy price throughout his career. As a filmmaker and a political activist, he has clearly shown that he is not afraid of the bears that don’t exist. In fact, his unwavering will has never been more visibly on display than now that he is confined again to a prison cell detached from the world as the world is celebrating his art, and his courage.

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