No Bears - Khers nist - Jafar Panahi - door

No Bears
2022, directed by Jafar Panahi

So much happens in the nearly seven-minute opening shot of No Bears that even a scholar of Iranian cinema could be excused for missing the allusion to Kiarostami at the end – but in the second shot when Ghanbar raises a ladder to the roof, it should at least stir a whiff of familiarity. An important visitor from Tehran has come to a farming village in western Iran to make a documentary. Finding his communication cut off, he seeks higher ground to catch a clear signal. The same situation had formed an important plot point in Abbas Kiarostami’s 1999 film The Wind Will Carry Us, only now it’s a wireless internet connection that’s broken instead of a cell phone call. This is our hint that No Bears will be Jafar Panahi’s effort to update a story told by his mentor, to bring the earlier film into the present day and thus to expose what has changed in the last twenty-three years.

Further parallels between the two films encourage this line of comparison. The visitor from Tehran finds himself at odds with the villagers, whose values are so different from his. In both films photographs cause disproportionate trouble, generating much of the film’s plot. Each film features a ceremony – a funeral for a woman who has lived a hundred years, or an engagement ceremony for a couple with only days to live. The Wind Will Carry Us is filled with mentions of death, while No Bears culminates in parallel stories of death. Each film is sharply divided between urban and rural, and likewise between high and low. Panahi’s host Ghanbar, for instance, is routinely positioned below his more cosmopolitan guest, and we’re repeatedly told that he works with a pick and shovel, like the ditch-digger in Kiarostami’s film.

No Bears - Khers nist - Jafar Panahi - laptop

On these last points we can begin to discern the key difference. At its heart Kiarostami’s film had been a positive message aimed at the outside world, an affirmation of Iran’s vitality in contrast to its grim reputation in the West. No matter how you might characterize the people occupying Iran’s highest places, the ordinary people of the country’s valleys, farms, villages, and presumably its cities were vibrant and life-loving like the ordinary people of any other country. In Panahi’s film this idealistic portrait is no longer applicable. The village chief tells Panahi that “farming is not rewarding anymore. The drought finished off farmers. They make their living by exchanging smuggled goods at the border.”

No Bears makes no further mention of climate change, but in this almost offhand remark it acknowledges that we now live in a world where the optimistic spirit of Kiarostami’s film is no longer pertinent. The high-low and urban-rural distinctions which structure both films are no longer contrasts but rather parallels. High or low, wealthy or poor, important or ordinary, our problems are equivalent because we’re all bound by a shared planet.

No Bears - Khers nist - Jafar Panahi - Naser Hashemi - village chief

The equivalence in No Bears is between two parallel stories of doomed couples seeking a better life elsewhere. Soldooz and Gozal are the young lovers trying to elope, fleeing the conservative village where Gozal is promised to the boorish Yaghoob. Zara and Bakhtiar are the middle-aged couple from urban Iran who have been trying to emigrate to Western Europe via Türkiye. Panahi himself plays the hinge between the two stories, shooting a fictional semi-documentary on the older couple (from across the border) and getting caught in the younger couple’s drama by accident. One story revolves around a still photograph, the other around a film. Each story includes a celebration where everyone but the couple is jubilant (a foot-washing ceremony and a birthday party), and each ends with a point-of-view shot from a vehicle driving downhill to a body of water where the dead bodies are discovered. It’s both ironic and true to life that one couple’s goal, a better life in Türkiye, is the other couple’s starting point. Soldooz and Gozal would be happy just to make it out of Iran, while Zara commits suicide in Türkiye thinking she and Bakhtiar will never get to Europe together. The point is not that one couple is more privileged, but that their problems are similar in spite of their differences in age, class, and background.

No Bears - Khers nist - Jafar Panahi - Bakhtiyar Panjeei - Mina Kavani - Bakhtiar - Zara

The comparison to The Wind Will Carry Us however only gives us the negative side of No Bears. It gives us context, but it doesn’t tell us much about the plot or the film’s methods, and it doesn’t explain the odd title. Certainly the film ends with tragedy, and it draws a dire picture of our times, but the opening moments point to the humanity within. First we see a vendor carrying a stack of flatbreads on his head, and his melodious voice will reappear minutes later. Next a tea vendor comes around the corner, and the camera turns to follow the steaming samovar on his cart. Then a pair of street musicians enters, bringing joy to the scene and to Zara’s customers at the restaurant. Both the main street and the perpendicular steps where Bakhtiar will appear are decorated in rainbow colors. All these touches let us know that we’re in benevolent hands, that the director cares for our nourishment and entertainment, and that if we care to look closely we’ll get something hopeful from the experience.

When Panahi interrupts the opening shot with the word “Cut!” and Reza steps in to address the director, and even more when the camera pulls back from the laptop screen to place us in Panahi’s lodgings across the border in Iran, again it’s a lesson from Kiarostami – this time from films like Through the Olive Trees and And Life Goes On that willfully confuse documentary and fiction. The technique is a long-standing hallmark of Panahi’s films too, and its effect is to make us look at a scene in multiple ways simultaneously. Here we’re watching the drama of Zara and Bakhtiar, but we’re also seeing Panahi trying to tell their story, and because we’re likely to suspect that that too is scripted, it invites us to consider the actual filming process, standing back at a third remove. The rest of No Bears will likewise cut back and forth between the stories, surprising us with cuts that remind us of the multiple layers, and also pointing to Panahi’s own biography as a banned filmmaker trying to continue his work and reach an audience.

No Bears - Khers nist - Jafar Panahi - Bakhtiyar Panjeei - Mina Kavani - Bakhtiar - Zara

All of this can get dizzying, but in fact it’s simply a variation on what cinema has been doing for over a century. As Ingmar Bergman argues in Persona, the essence of good cinema is ambiguity, and the layered points of view in Kiarostami’s and Panahi’s films are one way of introducing ambiguity. The tale of Panahi’s troubles in the village of Jaban is also ambiguous. Did he really photograph the lovers under the walnut tree? We hear his shutter snapping when he turns away from the boys on the terrace, but we don’t see the couple, and we don’t know what was in the frame, nor do we know how much the boy who witnessed it really knows. Did Panahi delete the file after encountering Gozal on the road at night? Did he back it up elsewhere? Because these questions aren’t answered, we’re invited to imagine all possibilities. Ambiguity mirrors real life, where it’s often not easy to find an exact truth. In sharp contrast to all this ambiguity are the three deaths and Bakhtiar’s grief at the end. Ambiguity is important to cinema because life tends to be ambiguous, but death is pointedly unambiguous.

The location of the dead bodies adds an important symmetry. Zara drowns by what seems to be the same lakeside restaurant where the birthday party took place, and the young couple, after being shot trying to cross the border, drag themselves to the brook where the foot-washing ceremony had occurred. The sites of celebration become sites of tragedy. The unhappiness that would lead to tragedy was already present in each celebration, but the celebrants were oblivious to it.

No Bears - Khers nist - Jafar Panahi - walking at night

At the end Ghanbar urges Panahi to get away from the scene of the couple’s death, and Panahi drives up the road a bit before stopping. After the unambiguous finality of those deaths, the film ends on a note of ambiguity, which we should take as a sign of life. Panahi pulls on the emergency brake, and the film cuts to black. Is he stopping to reflect before moving on? Does he plan to go back? Will he finish the film he was making? We may not be able to answer those questions, but if we reflect on the title we can make sense of the open ending. On his way to the swearing ceremony a village elder had pulled Panahi aside and warned him of bears on the path. After discussing things over tea, the same old man told him that there are in fact no bears. “There are no bears. Nonsense! Stories made up to scare us. Our fear empowers others.” In a world governed by superstition and tyranny, where a changing climate dries up crops and inequality drives people across borders, where tragedy lurks behind joy, we must face life with the courage the old man imparts to Panahi. We must live as if the bears are made of paper, as he goes on to say. When Reza took Panahi to the hills at night and told him he was standing on the exact border of Iran, the director – despite every temptation – jumped back, resolved to stay in his native country. At the very end, when he pulls on the brake, we are no longer looking at the fictional Panahi we’ve been watching, but rather at the real director, resolving courageously to stay and confront the problems that surround him.


A Matter of Life and Death – Seemingly offhand line alludes to a current global threat (nuclear war or climate change), putting the film’s argument in context; ambiguity as a token of life

Stalker – Character who stands at the edge of a hopeful crossing and recoils from it

The Wind Will Carry Us – Visitor from Tehran who seeks a high place for electronic reception; recording of ceremony; unexpected trouble over one or a few photographs; significant distinction between high & low; comment on vitality and death