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The decision to write, direct, produce and star in a movie can often backfire. However, you can’t deny the element of bravery that comes with that, whatever the outcome. When all of this is performed in secret within one of the most oppressive regimes on earth – Iran – bravery almost becomes an understatement, and critiquing the finished article seems somewhat churlish.
But critique it we must, and it’s true to say that filmmaker Jafar Panahi‘s latest bone of contention, No Bears, while far from perfect, is wholly admirable and undeniably important. Avoid if you’re looking to be royally entertained, but if you’re after a demonstration of film as a political weapon, this one’s for you.
You’d also be wise to familiarise yourself with Panahi’s career, so as to watch No Bears with the right mindset. As we become more and more aware that this is real-life playing out amongst the storyline of two couples facing struggles in Iran for two different reasons, our appreciation of Panahi’s mission grows. The man himself appears to take on the role of mediator within the piece, as well as filmmaker behind the scenes. When a group of locals start to get suspicious of his activities, things get really interesting.
A quick internet trawl will show you just how much Panahi has suffered for his art over the last decade or so; imprisonment and house arrest have been the norm. At present, he’s incarcerated for “propaganda against the regime”, and so was unable to attend this year’s Venice Film Festival to pick up the Special Jury Prize – surely there’s a movie to be made there.
For all the criticism that’s levelled at the Western World nowadays – the UK and USA in particular – No Bears doesn’t make you feel like it’s undeserved, but it sure does make you grateful for small mercies. Parani’s due to serve six years for his current conviction, meaning his tenuous relationship (to put it mildly) with his homeland of Iran has done as much to bring worldwide attention as his undoubted talent.
If his sole aim was to make audiences sit up and take notice, then he’s surely succeeded. If he was also after making a bona-fide classic, then he’s fallen a bit short, although the former was of course more important. Having said that, whilst the subtitles are of course a necessity, a real strength of the film is how expression alone almost conveys what’s being said; a testament to the way it balances fact with fiction.
Whether or not this is more movie than documentary, vice-versa or 50-50, should be subjective, and therein lies another positive. No Bears goes on general release in the UK – albeit limited – this month.