Jafar Panahi’s Nifty Meta Exercise Packs An Emotional Punch
Jan 23, 2023
Iranian director Jafar Panahi has been incarcerated since July 2022 for “propaganda against the system” after he visited authorities to inquire about another detained filmmaker, Mohammad Rasoulof. This is far from Panahi’s first brush with a repressive system that has been trying to silence him for years, and the director is perhaps better known for his ability to make films despite these unfair odds than for the films themselves.
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It’s a reality all the more frustrating and bittersweet for a filmmaker as imaginative and bold as Panahi — it is heartbreaking to imagine just what he could do if he were free. But more importantly, this reputation can also suggest a too-simple picture of the way his art practice and social reality interact. If Panahi’s films are heroic achievements, they do not come about without a real human cost, which no amount of international recognition or awards can ever make up for. Though they enjoy great success on the festival circuit, they are not mere documents of Iran without effect on the things and people being filmed.
This interplay is at the center of his latest effort, “No Bears,” in which Panahi plays a version of himself as a filmmaker simply trying to make a film any way he can. We find him staying in a small rural village in Iran near the Turkish border, directing via Skype his actors and crew who are in Turkey. The film he is making centers on two Iranian refugees in Turkey who are hoping to get the documents that would allow them to finally escape to Europe. It’s a story apparently based on that of his two actors, Zara (Mina Kavani) and Bakhtiar (Bakhtiyar Panjeei), and the line between reality and fiction is blurred more than once as they regularly break the fourth wall to address their director about their real problems getting real papers.
From the start, then, the character played by Panahi (we’ll call him Jafar) comes across as rather entitled, an image miles away from that of the heroic filmmaker smuggling his movies across borders to unmask the suffering of his people. Jafar may be staying in a poor rural village, but he is treated like a king there and does not seem to question his host’s behavior at all. He takes up his starstruck and very polite landlord Ghanbar (Vahid Mobasheri), on all his generous offers and even orders him around a little, having him fetch things and even shoot some video footage for him. In Jafar, Panahi appears to have created a caricature of himself, mocking his own sense of entitlement — first in a jovial and almost farcical register, but then in an altogether darker mode.
Danger lurks throughout the film, even in its more lighthearted early moments, but Jafar’s apparent lack of concern does much to quell the audience’s fears. After all, Panahi could never have achieved what he has if he hadn’t learned to live with danger. We can see how his relaxed attitude is what allows him to make connections with people, get ideas, and, most of all, stay curious: at the village, Jafar declines an invitation to attend a local wedding but decides on the spur of the moment to have Ghanbar film some of it for him with a camera he lends him. Ghanbar, whose real job is grave-digging, is thrilled to be involved in the creative process, and his excitement is contagious. But Jafar’s relaxed attitude becomes worrying when he is confronted by locals who accuse him of having captured with his camera while idly taking pictures of locals, the bride-to-be, in an illicit embrace with a lover. Rather than respect his hosts’ fears and superstitions, Jafar needlessly draws out a conflict that could be resolved in minutes by taking an oath that Ghanbar himself says does not have to be sincere.
Ghanbar’s position further highlights Jafar’s undeniable sense of superiority: in refusing to fulfill the villagers’ demands, the filmmaker decides to take it upon himself to counter old rules and traditions for the sake of — what exactly? Although these old customs are obviously harmful and dangerous (the young woman was promised to her would-be husband at birth, and the two men are threatening to come to blows over a potential picture), Jafar is less concerned with the wellbeing of the people involved than with upholding his own ideas and principles.
Panahi skillfully reflects this arrogance in the film’s visual style and set design: Jafar’s abode in the village overlooks a street so that he is literally standing above the people below. But that sense of inequality is most apparent in the scenes showing Jafar making his film. Although the idea of a filmmaker having to work via Skype is shocking, this version of Panahi goes out of his way to make it more difficult: instead of staying in Tehran, where he would have better Wifi, he moved to the village just to be “closer to the action” — though being left alone and taking something of a holiday from the bustle of the big city is probably a nice bonus, too. The contrast between the tension and fear experienced by his two actors (and their respective characters) and his own tranquillity is shocking; when he asks them to redo a highly emotional scene which we know to be based on their own real-life situation, he comes across as callous and self-centered.
But is he? If questioning the village’s traditions or trying to make the best film, he can have unintended and sad consequences, that is because of an oppressive system where it is near impossible, it seems, to move without hurting somebody. Panahi does not paint himself and his practice in a kind or perfectly innocent light here. However, his ability to still clearly identify who the real culprits are is an inspiring testament to his clear-mindedness and his unshaken ability to imagine a better, more just world. [A]
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