Director/screenwriter Jafar Panahi is currently incarcerated in an Iranian prison cell. As an introduction to the AFI Fest, which is currently taking place in Los Angeles, this was reminded to our audience. That’s not all. We have also been informed that he has told his wife that this time in prison has been his most difficult – a shocking statement considering his arrest in 2010 led him to a hunger strike. This set the backdrop perfectly, as the film portrays Panahi’s perspective on the current situation in his country.
In the opening minutes, the fourth wall is broken when we learn that Panahi (playing himself) is using a substitute director to film his new feature, presumably because he’s not allowed to direct himself. Meanwhile, he stays with his cast and crew in a small town near the Iranian border for a few days…
This begs the question: Is he trying to escape? As someone who looks at the world through the lens of his camera, he begins to take some pictures around town. Even though his options are limited, he found a way to explore the things he loves by thinking about what he might want to do next.
There are early warnings that getting attention is not a good thing in this small town, and soon there are questions about a photo that was taken. The film balances what starts off as a sort of comedy of errors with a building preoccupation that ultimately ties the plots together. Insinuations and suppositions quickly turn into assumed facts, and misunderstandings become accusations. With a deft hand, the script guides the audience through questions without directly stating their themes, emphasizing the importance of freedom and truth.
The circular nature of the spiraling questions is clearly dangerous. In reference to the title of the film, a character refers to a threat when he goes for a walk at night to draw Panahi into a conversation. The same character later assures him that he can walk alone because there are no bears around and that he shouldn’t believe such stories! So – which one is it? Does the truth still matter when we are manipulated? Do perceived threats become real as we announce them? The film shows how easily any situation can be reframed. When the just system has no interest in being just, everything is (potentially) at risk.
One thread that continues to reveal itself is of characters asserting that they are good people trying to do the right thing. This often happens when they apologize for an action they are about to take. The detachment this allows is overwhelming. As these justifications occur, no bear is heading towards its peak.
The final images are simple and powerful, bold statements emphasizing Panahi’s desire to make its voice heard, whatever the cost. The movie brings you closer and while it might not be a movie that viewers look forward to revisiting, that first encounter leaves you with a lot to process. It’s a labor of love from a man who knows this might be the last time the world hears his voice. We only hope that is not the case. A-
no bear is currently on the festival circuit and will eventually be distributed in the United States by Janus Films. It opens in the UK on November 11 from Picturehouse.