After his arrest for creating anti-government “propaganda” in 2010, Iranian director Jafar Panahi was banned from making films for 20 years. Since then, he has made five widely acclaimed films.
His last, No Bearsopens Friday in select Canadian and American theaters — while Panahi is in jail.
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, Panachi himself was arrested and, on a decade chargehe was sentenced to six years in prison.
No Bears it is now one of the most acclaimed films of the year. The New York Times and the Associated Press named it one of the 10 best films of the year. Los Angeles Times film critic Justin Chang called No Bears The best movie of 2022.
Resistance to the Iranian regime
Panahi’s films, made in Iran without government approval, are cunning feats of artistic resistance. He plays himself in meta-portraits that covertly capture the mechanisms of Iranian society with a humanity playful and destructive.
Panachi did This is not a movie in his apartment. Taxi shot almost entirely in a car, with a smiling Panachi playing the driver and picking up passengers along the way.
In No Bears, Panahi plays a fictional version of himself while making a film in a rural town along the Iran-Turkey border, with the help of assistants. Handing over cameras and memory cards provides, perhaps, an illuminating window into how Panahi worked under government restrictions.
In No bears, he comes under increasing pressure from the village authorities who believe he has accidentally captured a compromising image.
“It’s not easy to make a film at first, 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 . .
“He’s truly a triumph. I can’t compare him to any other filmmaker.”
The film was released amid protests
No Bears lands at a time when the Iranian film community is increasingly caught up in a harsh government crackdown.
A week later No Bears which 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 ongoing, women-led protests that have rocked Iran’s theocracy.
More than 500 protesters have been killed in the crackdown since September 17, according to the group Human Rights Activists in Iran. Over 18,200 people have been detained.
On Saturday, prominent Iranian actress Taraneh Alidoosti, star of Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar-winning Salesmanwas arrested after posting a message on Instagram expressing solidarity with a man recently executed for crimes allegedly committed during the protests.
In the outcry that followed Alidoosti’s arrest, Farhadi — his manager A separation and A hero — called for Alidoosti’s release “along with my other fellow cinematographers Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof and all the other lesser-known prisoners whose only crime is striving for a better life.”
“If showing such support is a crime, then tens of millions of people in this country are criminals,” Farhadi wrote on Instagram.
The absence of Panachis was strongly felt in the world’s leading cinema scenes. In Venice, where No Bears received a special jury award, a red carpet exit was organized at the film’s premiere. Festival director Alberto Barbera and jury president Julianne Moore were among the crowds silently protesting the jailing of Panahi and other filmmakers.
No Bears will once again test a long-criticized Academy Awards policy. Submissions for the Oscars’ Best International Film category are only made by the government of a country. Critics said it allowed powerful regimes to dictate which films competed for the coveted prize.
Distributors Arthouse Sideshow and Janus Films, which helped lead Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Japanese drama Drive My Car in four Oscar nominations a year ago, he got No Bears in the hope that its value and the purpose of Panachis would overcome this limitation.
“He’s putting himself in danger every time he does something like that,” says Jonathan Sehring, Sideshow founder and independent filmmaker. “When you have regimes that won’t even let a director make a film and yet they do, it’s inspiring.”
“We knew it wasn’t going to be Iranian submission, obviously,” Sehring adds. “But we wanted to put Jafar in for best director, best screenplay, a lot of different categories. And we also think the movie can work theatrically.”
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences declined to comment on potential reforms to the international film category.
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