It’s unusual for a film director to be unavailable to speak about their movie in the weeks leading up to its release but this is the reality for Iranian director Jafar Panahi. As his film No Bears hits U.S. theaters on Dec. 23, the 62-year-old has been imprisoned for 165 days of a six-year sentence for criticizing the Iranian government’s arrest of fellow Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof, who was arrested just days earlier in July.
This is not Panahi’s first arrest. In 2010, he was accused of “colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic” and subsequently banned from leaving Iran or making films for 20 years. Since then, the director has used creative methods to tell his stories without censorship—notably smuggling the aptly named film This Is Not a Film (2011) to the Cannes film festival by storing it on a USB that he hid inside a cake. Adding to three decades of sophisticated work, No Bears is Panahi’s latest self-aware film that blends painful drama with moments of comical absurdity as seamlessly as it manipulates the line between reality and cinema.
In the film, Panahi plays a version of himself, a director who has been forbidden from leaving Iran—as is the case in his real life—but has traveled to a remote village near the country’s border with Turkey to continue his work. Across the way, his production team and lead actors can be found filming scenes directed by Panahi over video call.
His fictional film follows couple Zara (Mina Kavani) and Bakhtiar (Bakhtiar Panjei), as they attempt to escape exile in Turkey for a new life in Western Europe. Running parallel in the remote village Panahi finds himself in, is the love story of Soldooz (Amid Davari) a politically active college dropout, and Gozal (Darya Alei), who was promised to a local boy at birth as part of a peace settlement between their bickering families.
With Panahi imprisoned, Kavani, an exiled Iranian actor, has found herself as the mouthpiece for No Bears, taking on the responsibility of promoting the film.
“The last few months my life was very crazy, I spent most of it on an airplane,” says Kavani, who is newly returned to her Paris home. “It’s been an incredible period of my life, not only with the promotion of No Bears while Panahi is in jail, but Iran also had this revolution which was happening at the same time.”
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Kavani says she is just an artist, not a politician. But as she has worked the media and film festival circuits to promote the film, she has been bewildered to find that many people are—misguidedly—looking to her to be the voice of Iranian women who have been risking their lives in on-going anti-regime protests. What began as a rejection of the Islamic Republic’s violent treatment of women—sparked by the killing of Mahsa Amini in September, over her alleged breach of so-called morality laws while in police custody—has grown into a full-scale disruption of a repressive regime.
“It’s a big responsibility and you have to be so careful when speaking but what happens when you are from that country, the politics become part of you,” she says. Much like the rest of Panahi’s film, Kavani’s personal experiences overlap with her character’s. Born in Iran, Kavani has lived in exile for almost a decade after filming a nude scene in Sepideh Farsi’s Red Rose (2014), which resulted in her receiving threats that deterred her from returning to Iran and led her to accept political refugee status in France.
“The Iranian government was calling me the first Iranian pornographic actress,” Kavani recalls of the film’s backlash. She knew the reaction to appearing nude would be like this—especially given that local actresses can’t appear without hijab—but the appeal of creative freedom triumphed over her doubts.
“I always knew my future was not in Iran, I knew I couldn’t be an actress under a dictatorship,” she says, noting that her acting role models are Gena Rowlands, Meryl Streep, and Isabelle Adjani—all performers who are united by “freedom in their body, freedom in their mind, freedom in creation.” While she made her choice, the pang of exile still stings, she says.
Here lies the profound symmetry of No Bears—Panahi is trapped in Iran while Kavani can’t return, and this is the case for their on-screen characters. Kavani found filming tough at first because of the distance. “My director wasn’t there and it was frustrating,” she says, adding, “my first take was very emotional but suddenly Jafar told me, ‘Zara is a strong woman, you should be strong. She’s a fighter.’”
The actor says filming took place as it appears on screen, with Kavani in Turkey and Panahi directing from Iran over video call. She added that most of the team consisted of people who had worked closely with Panahi before, so they could guide her on his vision, and with the help of Turkish technicians who made the process seamless, the director’s presence was always felt.
While Kavani says she can’t speak for all Iranian women, in her role as Zara, who she describes as a “tragedian,” she hopes to show how strong she and Panahi believe women are. She recalls that many people asked if the film set out to capture the attention Iran is receiving globally, but that she has always insisted that this was in the works before the resistance movement reached its apex.
But intentions aside, the world is certainly looking to Iranian filmmakers for an insight into day-to-day life in Iran; for the first time in Oscars history, three countries selected Persian-language films as their submission for the Academy Award for best international feature. Houman Seyyedi’s dark comic World War III, Iran’s official entry, and Britain’s submission Winners, directed by Hassan Nazer, didn’t make the official shortlist, but Iran-born, Copenhagen-based director Ali Abbasi’s serial killer drama Holy Spider remains in the run.
Panahi’s film is not overtly political, but his political takeaways are undeniably woven in. From his on-screen run-ins with the local villagers, to the outcome faced by every main character in the film, Panahi sends a clear message that entrapped people will ultimately suffer. In fact, the film’s initially elusive name is explained within the plot when a villager warns Panahi that he is not allowed down a certain path because there are bears there. The same villager later admits this is “nonsense”—it’s merely a myth designed to scare citizens into submission.
“Panahi made a movie of his own reality, of the society in which he lives, the reality of our country and not only of the people in the country, but also the people out of the country, people from our country who are obligated to get out,” says Kavani. She adds that this is the motivation that keeps Iranian filmmakers putting out brave and honest films even though they threaten their own safety in doing so.
While Kavani doesn’t have much clarity on Panahi’s current situation in jail she says she is sure of one thing: “No matter what his situation is, no matter his condition. He’s passionate about cinema, and he continues to make movies,” she says. “Even in jail, I think he’s already thinking about making his next movie.”
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