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No Bears, and the bears on the road by Jafar Panahi

The best film news of the past week was the release (on bail) of Jafar Panahi, Iran's most famous filmmaker, from Tehran's notorious Evin prison. There, the frequently lauded director had been serving a six-year prison sentence for "propaganda against the state" since July last year. A sentence that provoked many protests in the film world and beyond. Wryly, of course, Panahi was able to benefit from a notoriety that other imprisoned artists have to do without. His hunger strike, which had just begun, Panahi was fortunately able to break off after two days. Nice side note to all that is that his latest film No Bears right will be released in Dutch cinemas next week.

In September, Panahi was able to witness from his cell how No Bears, in which he himself plays a film director who gets into trouble, was awarded the Special Jury Award at the Venice festival. Not bad for a filmmaker who had also previously been imprisoned and decided to go on hunger strike. In 2010, he was banned from filming for 20 years. And then he was resourceful enough to still make, in Iran even, some six feature-length films. Including the Golden Bear-winning Taxi Tehran (2015).


Jafar Panahi began his career as an assistant to that other famous Iranian filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami. For his directorial debut The White Balloon (1995) received the Camera d'Or at Cannes. Two years later, in Locarno The Mirror in the awards. Both were officially children's films. However, those children were an excuse to have more freedom, Panahi would later explain. In the children's film department, state supervision was less strict.

Another three years later, those children are no longer needed and he makes his first great masterpiece. The Venice Golden Lion-winning The Circle is a drama, as austere as it is impressive, about women released from prison who roam the streets of Tehran like hunted game. A film that is a typical representative of Iranian neorealism. Human rather than directly political, but socially engaged, often poetic-realist in tone and with a documentary slant. In its own country, The Circle Panahi imposed his first screening ban.

The same fate befell Crimson Gold (2003), about a taciturn pizza courier who has returned broken from the war in Iraq. Again, the same song: awards at Cannes and Chicago, but barred from Iranian cinema.


Although real politics are not discussed, it is not difficult to see a critical view of the situation in Iran in this and subsequent films. In doing so, Panahi often stands up for women. See, for instance Offside (2006), a comedy about the tricks girls come up with to cheer on their favourite football team in Tehran's stadium. Because yes, women are not welcome there. So-called to protect them from the looks and rough language of the men. That film did not make it into Iranian cinema either. That many there Offside yet saw is due to the illegal DVD market.

His earlier arrest and the film ban was imposed on Panahi for alleged plans to make a film about political upheavals in Iran. So that he could make his acclaimed Taxi Tehran shot illegally and with a hidden camera. For this, he himself crawled into the role of a taxi driver. With actors and non-actors, a mixture of fiction and documentary, he edited the conversations with his customers into a lively and telling portrait of Iranian society. Yes, if anyone knows how to make a virtue of necessity, it is Panahi.

No Bears

Also, the once again turned out of sight of the authorities No Bears is another typical Panahi film. A drama full of entanglements that could have been tragi-comic, but soon turn out to be mostly tragic. A drama full of references to filmmaking itself, in which Panahi does not spare the filmmaker he plays himself. But also a story that directly or indirectly refers again to all kinds of Iranian situations and relationships.

Typical, for instance, is the scene in which the filmmaker, working in a small village on the Iranian-Turkish border, is asked by the village elders to make a statement. Namely, it is alleged that he has taken a photograph that allegedly shows a bride-to-be secretly making out with another boyfriend. However, the filmmaker, played by Panahi, says he knows nothing about it. So he is asked to swear to it on the Quran. But the filmmaker suggests something else. How about if one captures his statement with a video camera?

For the film he is shooting there, he also has to cut corners. This is because the camera crew and actors, who play a couple trying to flee to France, are on the Turkish side of the border. The director himself is not allowed to cross that border and gives his instructions via a laptop and online connection. When it turns out that fiction and reality are unexpectedly close, it painfully confronts the filmmaker with his responsibilities.

Metaphor for Iran

With that film-in-film construction and the village with all its intrigue and the power of people smugglers, Panahi creates an original, penetrating and layered drama. Full of thorny situations and suggestions for possible interpretations. That village, with its traditions, customs and superstitions, could just be a metaphor for Iran.

Somewhere, the filmmaker meets a man who warns of bears lurking in the dark, only to suggest that maybe those bears only exist in our fear. Well, who knows. But if we step out of the film story and look around in real Iran again, we see that Panahi and many others do find bears in their path. And then those massive protests in Iran hadn't even started yet.

No Bears can be seen in cinemas from 9 February. Some exhibitors, including Filmhuis Alkmaar and Lumière Maastricht, are also programming some of Panahi's older titles.

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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