After being arrested for creating anti-government “propaganda” in 2010, the Iranian director Jafar Panahi was banned from making films for 20 years. Since then, he’s made five widely acclaimed features.
His latest, No Bears, opens on Friday in some Canadian and U.S. theatres — while Panahi is in prison.
In July, Panahi went to the Tehran prosecutor’s office to inquire about the arrest of Mohammad Rasoulof, a filmmaker detained in the government’s crackdown on protests. The two men had previously been arrested for criticizing the government in their films and at protests.
At the prosecutor’s office, Panahi himself was arrested and, on a decade-old charge, sentenced to six years in jail.
No Bears is now one of the most acclaimed films of the year. The New York Times and The Associated Press named it one of the top 10 films of the year. Film critic Justin Chang of The Los Angeles Times called No Bears 2022’s best movie.
Resisting Iran’s regime
Panahi’s films, made in Iran without government approval, are sly feats of artistic resistance. He plays himself in meta self-portraitures that clandestinely capture the mechanics of Iranian society with a humanity both playful and devastating.
Panahi made This is Not a Film in his apartment. Taxi was shot almost entirely inside a car, with a smiling Panahi playing the driver and picking up passengers along the way.
In No Bears, Panahi plays a fictionalized version of himself while making a film in a rural town along the Iran-Turkey border, with the help of assistants. Their handing off cameras and memory cards gives, perhaps, an illuminating window into how Panahi has worked under government restrictions.
In No Bears, he comes under increasing pressure from village authorities who believe he’s accidentally captured a compromising image.
“It’s not easy to make a movie to begin with, but to make it secretly is very difficult, especially in Iran where a totalitarian government with such tight control over the country and spies everywhere,” says Iranian film scholar and documentarian Jamsheed Akrami-Ghorveh.
“It’s really a triumph. I can’t compare him with any other filmmaker.”
Film released amid protests
No Bears is landing at a time when the Iranian film community is increasingly ensnarled in a harsh government crackdown.
A week after No Bears premiered at the Venice Film Festival, with Panahi already behind bars, 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died while being held by Iran’s morality police. Her death sparked three months of women-led protests, still ongoing, that have rocked Iran’s theocracy.
More than 500 protesters have been killed in the crackdown since Sept. 17, according to the group Human Rights Activists in Iran. More than 18,200 people have been detained.
On Saturday, the prominent Iranian actress Taraneh Alidoosti, star of Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar-winning The Salesman, was arrested after posting an Instagram message expressing solidarity with a man recently executed for crimes allegedly committed during the protests.
In the outcry that followed Alidoosti’s arrest, Farhadi — the director of A Separation and A Hero — called for Alidoosti’s release “alongside that of my other fellow cineastes Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof and all the other less-known prisoners whose only crime is the attempt for a better life.”
“If showing such support is a crime, then tens of millions of people of this land are criminals,” Farhadi wrote on Instagram.
Panahi’s absence has been acutely felt on the world’s top movie stages. At Venice, where No Bears was given a special jury prize, a red-carpet walkout was staged at the film’s premiere. Festival director Alberto Barbera and jury president Julianne Moore were among the throngs silently protesting the imprisonment of Panahi and other filmmakers.
No Bears will also again test a long-criticized Academy Awards policy. Submissions for the Oscars’ best international film category are made only by a country’s government. Critics have said that allows authoritative regimes to dictate which films compete for the sought-after prize.
Arthouse distributors Sideshow and Janus Films, which helped lead Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Japanese drama Drive My Car to four Oscar nominations a year ago, acquired No Bears with the hope that its merit and Panahi’s cause would outshine that restriction.
“He puts himself at risk every time he does something like this,” says Jonathan Sehring, Sideshow founder and a veteran independent film executive. “When you have regimes that won’t even let a filmmaker make a movie and in spite of it they do, it’s inspiring.”
“We knew it wasn’t going to be the Iranian submission, obviously,” adds Sehring. “But we wanted to position Jafar as a potential best director, best screenplay, a number of different categories. And we also believe the film can work theatrically.”
The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences declined to comment on possible reforms to the international film category.