No Bears

Reviewed by Stephen Pye

It is almost impossible to describe the latest film by Iran's greatest living director, Jafar Panahi. He is at present serving a six year prison sentence in Tehran for his film making, though his conviction has now been quashed.

The film is set in Northern Iran on the border with Turkey. Panahi is directing a film about a young married couple who wish to leave Iran for the west, but only one of them has a passport. Panahi is not allowed to leave Iran so is directing via a laptop and mobile phone, with what is at best an intermittent signal! He is doing this whilst staying in a village close to the Iranian side of the border. Whilst there he is accused by the local elders of inadvertently taking a photograph of a young couple, the female of whom is betrothed to another man, thus he becomes a potential witness to what would be a serious scandal according to the customs of the local community. How these two intertwining narratives, one part fiction, and one at least partly true, work out, supplies the focus of the film. He is both at one and the same time being filmed himself in person, whilst directing a film at which he cannot be personally present!

Panahi has always been concerned with authenticity, and how we differentiate between reality and our own understanding of it. He is also deeply concerned with his audience, believing that his films are incomplete until the imagination of those watching has been brought to bear on the film.

Panahi is taking a huge risk filming in an area where smuggling goods and people across the border appears to be the main source of income for the local population. But risk is what his films necessarily entail, and his dedication to his craft, given the proclivities of the regime and the revolutionary guards, has inevitably seen him flirting with danger and imprisonment throughout his distinguished career.

Part of the beauty of the film is that in spite of everything Panahi retains a wonderful sense of self-deprecation and humour, so the film never becomes sententious, almost regardless of the very real and serious issues it is dealing with.

It is a work of great art, his masterpiece, and for us, who are allowed to watch it, unlike his own people, it is both disturbing and enthralling in equal measure.