Express at Marrakech: Jafar Panahi’s No Bears is an artist’s lament at the way of his world
There’s only one way to read Jafar Panahi’s superb ‘No Bears’: as an artist’s lament at the way of his world, and the connections it makes with all our worlds. The film, shot in secret, premiered at the Venice International Film Festival in September under the shadow of Panahi’s arrest, marking not just the steady increase in challenges for Panahi and his compatriots in Iran, but also reflecting the same situation globally. If you are a politically aware artist, have no doubts that someone is going to come after you.
At the ongoing 19th edition of the Marrakech International Film Festival, ‘No Bears’ drew a small yet discerning crowd (the red carpet with James Gray and his Cannes entry ‘Armageddon’ was the hot evening draw). Panahi, who has acted in a couple of his own films, is shown as himself, living in a tiny village near the border with Turkey. At one point in the film, Panahi and his companion are walking across a rocky stretch, and he asks: where is the border? The latter replies: you are standing on it. No line can be seen. One rock looks pretty much like each other. That line has been drawn by humans, to divide and rule.
Another pair, a man and woman in the city, are grappling with a different-but-same version of keeping people in forcibly. The woman gets a visa, not the man. He says, you go ahead, I will follow. But she refuses. There’s a practical aspect to this refusal. How will he manage without her? He can’t even take his insulin shot on his own! But there’s a deeper fear at play. What if he is never able to leave? This strand of the story, which feels both as if it is being made up as the players go along, as well as a trenchant critique of the repression the citizens have to face, is a film within the film. The man and the woman are characters in a piece of fiction, which feels disturbingly real, and very meta.
It’s interesting how self-aware the director is, as he lays out his wares. His privileges as a city dweller who can get up and leave the village with its set of rituals and superstitions, are under his own lens. As a chronicler at large, he has an elevated status, but he is also at the receiving end of a jealous lover’s ire, who feels that Panahi has photographed his soon-to-be-wife, and instantly, that becomes an insult to his (the groom’s) manhood. Patriarchy kicking in, nice and proper. It’s the men in the village who decide the fate of the women. And the tragedy that follows soon after feels almost inevitable.
The ‘No Bears’ in the title is shortened from ‘there are no bears’, a sentence that is both literal and metaphor, just like the speaker, who is at once interlocutor and explainer to the filmmaker. No fear, say what you want, he says, and we do not miss the irony. How can a filmmaker say what he wants if he has to keep looking over his shoulder?
Just the kind of film that makes the long, sleepless travel to reach a far-away film festival worth every minute of its time.