The end-of-year round-robin has been rendered extinct by social media, where “personal news klaxons” go off incessantly like air-raid sirens in the Blitz. Were such letters still common, however, the 62-year-old Iranian director Jafar Panahi could write a livelier one than most for 2022. This year he has directed his tenth picture, No Bears; the jury at the Venice Film Festival, including Kazuo Ishiguro, singled it out for a special award. He has seen his son, Panah, acclaimed for his directing debut, Hit the Road. And as a fierce advocate for gender equality (The Circle, from 2000, concerns the persecution of women in Iran, while his biting 2006 comedy Offside shows women posing as men to enter a football stadium), he must have taken heart at the protests following the murder of the 22-year-old Mahsa Amini by so-called morality police.
He will have contemplated these events from the prison cell where he has languished since July, when he began a six-year sentence for “propaganda against the regime” after questioning the detainment of his colleague Mohammad Rasoulof. Panahi’s custodial term was handed down in 2010 as punishment for his support of the opposition party – back then, he served two months inside before being placed under house arrest. He was also given a 20-year ban on making films. His response? To make more films.
His body of work was already formidable, but his movies since the arrest amount to nothing short of an uprising in cinematic form. Half of his entire output has addressed, and been produced under, his current intolerable conditions: This Is Not a Film, Closed Curtain, Taxi, Three Faces and now No Bears. These pictures insert Panahi into fictional narratives; in Taxi, he is shown moonlighting as a cabbie after his directing credentials are revoked. Bulldozing the divide between life and art (an Iranian speciality), these films were shot on mobile phones and minuscule digital cameras in Panahi’s apartment and in cars, before being whisked out of Iran. It scarcely matters whether This Is Not a Film really did reach Cannes in 2011 on a USB stick concealed inside a cake – it’s a perfect Panahi story in its blend of travails and absurdity.
With the exception of the mournful Closed Curtain, No Bears is the gravest of Panahi’s post-arrest work. His usual puckish spirit is channelled here into a structure incorporating fragmented points of view. An objective camera shoots everything we see, and there is also a film-within-a-film – about a couple escaping Iran on fake passports – which Panahi directs via video call. That’s when he can get a stable signal in the border town in which he is living. (It is suggested that he, like his characters, is preparing to flee.) Comic moments depicting this titan of world cinema stymied by technology hark back to his late friend Abbas Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us, and hint that poor coverage can be as confounding as oppressive regimes.
Another perspective comes from the camera that Panahi lends to a local man to shoot a nearby wedding. Viewing the unedited footage, he points out that the would-be auteur mistakenly pressed the start button when he meant to stop, and vice versa. The footage is useless. Or perhaps not: the microphone has picked up a conversation about crossing the border.
Incriminating cameras figure repeatedly in No Bears. Panahi is accused of photographing a woman kissing someone other than the man to whom she was promised at birth. The director swears no such image exists; the town’s elders in turn produce a child who claims he witnessed Panahi snapping the illicit lovebirds. The escalating tension begins to suggest an Iranian Blow-Up, or perhaps a Western like Bad Day at Black Rock, with townsfolk intimidating an outsider. There’s even a sheriff, though he wears a pea-green tank top rather than a Stetson.
Panahi agrees to record a video testimony, creating a third film-within-the-film. A fourth emerges via a camera that is used to track down an actor who has absconded from Panahi’s movie. An occupational hazard, this: the young star of his 1997 film The Mirror also decides during shooting that she no longer wants to take part.
You might be wondering how bears come into this, or don’t. Rumours of their existence here symbolise fear in all its manifestations: “The stories made up to scare us,” as someone puts it. But there are no bears. The dauntless Panahi proves this with each remarkable film he smuggles out into the world, cake or no cake.
“No Bears” is in cinemas from 11 November
This article appears in the 09 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, On the brink