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Writer and director Jafar Panahi's new film No Bears continues his remarkable run.Supplied

  • No Bears
  • Written and directed by Jafar Panahi
  • Starring Jafar Panahi, Mina Kavani and Reza Heydari
  • Classification N/A; 106 minutes
  • Opens in select theatres Dec. 23, including the TIFF Lightbox in Toronto

Critic’s Pick

If watching a Jafar Panahi film is something of a political act, then it is also a soul-nourishing one.

The Iranian filmmaker, currently serving a six-year prison sentence for the crime of making movies, has long tethered his cinema to the politics of his country, often going to extreme, only-in-the-movies lengths to make his voice heard (recall the tale of the director smuggling a copy of his 2011 work, This Is Not a Film, into the Cannes Film Festival on a USB stick buried inside a cake). But Panahi has never been interested in producing thin diatribes or blunt polemics – his films, often starring himself as a slightly fictionalized version of the dissident filmmaker “Jafar Panahi,” are inspired stories that interrogate humanity as much as they do authority.

As stirring as This Is Not a Film and 2015′s Taxi, the new film No Bears continues Panahi’s remarkable run, with a conceit that serves as a bitter punchline to the filmmaker’s current incarceration. The film opens on the lively streets of Turkey, where two lovers are planning an escape to France thanks to a pair of fake passports. But something about the scene feels off – it is too polished and artificial for a typical Panahi movie. Which is when No Bears pulls out the first of its many metaphorical rugs from under its audience’s feet, revealing that the moment is actually a scene from the film-within-a-film that Panahi (again playing himself) is directing remotely from a tiny village near the Iran-Turkey border.

The filmmaker – both the real-life man and the character depicted in No Bears – has been barred by the Iranian government from leaving the country, necessitating the directing-by-WiFi circumstances. But why did Panahi decide to direct from this remote, dusty village – where the internet connection is shaky and the locals are suspicious – instead of from the comfort of his home in Tehran? What thrill or promise lies for Panahi just beyond the village’s outskirts, where smugglers regularly sneak into Turkey with ease? And what does his film crew make of Panahi’s decision to make a movie so explicitly about the act of border-crossing? These are the questions that No Bears wrestles with for the duration of its quietly entrancing runtime.

As Panahi struggles to calm the myriad concerns of his frustrated in-movie actors and an assistant director (Reza Heydari) who is more rebellious than obedient, the filmmaker also wanders into a local controversy over a photograph that he may or may not have taken of a young village couple. Eventually, these two dramas brush up against one another, resulting in a story that mingles fact and fiction, reason and superstition, autonomy and repression.

It all leads to a moment in which the title “No Bears” is explained away with a wave of the hand and a shake of the head – a brutally honest gag that is as funny as it is painful. And there is no doubt that Panahi will have the last laugh – Iran can imprison his body, but his vision will continue to spread across the globe.

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