Written and directed by Jafar Panahi, who also takes on the lead role, two parallel love stories in which the partners are thwarted by hidden, inevitable obstacles, the force of superstition, and the mechanics of power. Also starring: Naser Hashemi, Reza Heydari, Mina Kavani, Bülent Keser, Mina Khosrovani, Vahid Mobasheri, Bakhtiyar Panjeei and Sinan Yusufoglu.
There’s an ingrained issue when talking about No Bears because the viewing can so easily be split into two different experiences. On the one hand you could be going into this film like you would any other with some or maybe no prior knowledge, on the other hand you could be going into this being fully aware of how the film reflects the struggles of its unjustly convicted director. If it’s the latter, then it’s almost certainly going to skew your judgement to a more positive reaction but you can’t expect every viewer to have that knowledge. It’s great to be able to see the extra layers behind the work but not everyone is going to be aware of the political climate in Iran or research the filmmaker’s life beforehand. So, if you do want to get everything you possibly can out of this film, then it’s worth reading up, if you’re not already aware of Jafar Panahi’s persecution.
Removing that knowledge does dampen the emotional and dramatic impact of the film. It’s a slow moving and simply styled exploration of a small community, as well as following the making of a film about an effort to try and escape the country. One of those strands is more effective than the other, showing how isolated, traditional villages have their own, very specific way of doing things is interesting but it can also be quite repetitive. It goes back and forth along the same line, deepening the lack of privacy and the extreme consequences the smallest of actions can have. It’s a shame that more time is spent upon exploring the village, when the film within its film actually has the more intriguing, emotional story. Leading to the most convincing moment of the film in a monologue from Mina Kavani’s Zara, it’s powerful and raw, it’s only a shame that they didn’t embrace that style more consistently and earlier on.
The film’s overall style and tone feel as though they’re holding back, they’re going for something understated when there’s such a determination and outrage beneath the story. Again, in the context of the film’s origins, it makes more sense but standing on its two feet, it’s not living up to the emotional damage and journey it had the potential for. It doesn’t quite embrace the exhaustion of avoiding the relentless political and societal traps, it gets closer towards the end but it comes too late. Part of the problem is that the story comes entirely from the perspective of writer, director Jafar Panahi’s character, when the core of its emotions are coming from the secondary characters. Holding that outsider styled view unfortunately limits the impact their stories can have.
No Bears is framed around two love stories but never gives them enough space to fully explore their emotional potential. Seeing the plot play out through the eyes of Jafar Panahi’s character gives a degree of separation which holds the film back. It moves in a very slow, understated and at times, repetitive manner, it’s a shame as there is a definite intensity and outrage to be found within the lines. For anyone aware of the larger political issues and how they feed into the filmmaker’s experiences and struggles, there’s more to gain from this film but those going in cold might be left wanting.