This past July the Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi was imprisoned for protesting the jailing of Mohammad Rasoulof and Mostafa Aleahmad, two fellow directors who had been accused of inciting unrest by alleging, on social media, a connection between government corruption and the collapse of a ten-story building in southwest Iran that resulted in the deaths of at least forty-one people. Panahi’s arrest in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, where he had gone to inquire about his colleagues, marked the latest phase in a campaign that the Iranian judiciary has been waging against him for over a decade.
Panahi is one of Iran’s most controversial filmmakers, known for the depth and warmth of his characterization and his fearless critique of his country’s regime. Convicted in 2010 of spreading antigovernment propaganda, he was imprisoned for two months and released only after going on a hunger strike and garnering the support of the international film community. He was then placed under house arrest and banned from making films, leaving the country, or giving interviews for a period of twenty years. He also received a six-year jail sentence that was suspended at the time but is now, the authorities claim, being enforced.
It had taken a while for Panahi to run afoul of the state censors, who mistakenly believed that his early films, which are about children, were made for children, and therefore didn’t need to be taken seriously. His first two features, The White Balloon (1995) and The Mirror (1997), feature plucky little girls moving through Tehran; both films managed to placate the authorities while attracting fans outside Iran and winning prestigious film festival awards. In The White Balloon, cowritten with Abbas Kiarostami, seven-year-old Razieh, played by Aida Mohammadkhani, is fiercely determined to buy the pet goldfish she’s fallen in love with. The Mirror follows Baharan—played by Aida’s younger sister, Mina—as she attempts to make her own way home after her mother forgets to pick her up at school.
Partway through The Mirror, the little girl, lost by now, is riding a city bus. From the women’s section, she watches a band of musicians, overhears a woman telling fortunes, and listens to an elderly widow complaining about her unhappy life. When the bus reaches the end of the line, the girl realizes that she has gone in the wrong direction. A conductor questions her, and she—not Baharan the character, but Mina the actress—rips off the fake cast she has been wearing on her arm, sheds her headscarf, and announces that she doesn’t want to be in the film anymore: it’s all a lie. She storms off the bus and sits, pouting, on the sidewalk—at which point The Mirror veers from fiction into documentary.
No one can persuade Mina to continue working, but when Panahi learns that her microphone is still on, he orders the crew to follow her. At first we assume that the camera is just obediently trailing her through the streets, but certain scenes make us wonder if what we are watching is improvised or scripted. Is it a lucky accident that Mina runs into the old woman who bemoaned, on the bus, the sorrows of widowhood?
Mina tells her she’s finished with the film. The fake cast made her look clumsy, the director made her cry, her friends will think she’s a baby. She asks the old woman if Panahi made her say her lines too, and the old woman says she wishes they were lines. She was talking about her real life; a man had asked her to be in the film and simply tell the truth. Could cinema verité have followed Mina to a spot where she and an apparently nonprofessional actor would, between them, explicate Panahi’s working method—his blurring of the boundaries between invention and observation, professional and amateur, randomness and control?
Panahi’s trouble with the censors began with The Circle (2000). This harrowing look at the lives of Iranian women opens with a grandmother in a state of terror and grief because her daughter has given birth to a girl when the in-laws wanted a boy. The film was banned in Iran, as was Crimson Gold (2003), which includes a disturbing scene of soldiers arresting people for attending a dance party. Offside (2006) was made despite the fact that Panahi was denied permission to direct the film, which is about female soccer fans disguising themselves as male to attend a World Cup qualifying match because women are forbidden to attend sports events. These films seem even more timely, important, and brave in light of the current news from Iran, where protests have been erupting since mid-September, when a young woman, Mahsa Amini, was arrested for wearing her hijab incorrectly and died in police custody.
This Is Not a Film (2011)—which Panahi made while he was still under house arrest—was shot partly on his cell phone within his shadowy apartment. We see him talking to his lawyer on the phone; watching TV; feeding his daughter’s pet iguana, Iggy; politely turning down invitations; and acting out a movie he wants to make about an isolated young woman. At one point he talks about Mina’s surprise defection on the set of The Mirror, as well as another instance of reality stepping in on the set of Crimson Gold. The hero of that film, a pizza delivery man played by a schizophrenic war veteran, is insulted in a jewelry store. Outside on the street, he leans against the wall. His eyes roll back in his head, and he seems to retreat so far into himself that we wonder (as Panahi did, apparently) if he will recover.
When Panahi recalls these providential interventions, his face lights up. This Is Not a Film is the first of his features in which he appears as a main character, or in any case as his persona: genial, kindly, easily amused, remarkably easygoing—an unlikely candidate for an enemy of the state. Since the ban he’s played a central role in all his movies, which subtly or overtly acknowledge the dangers and particular challenges of trying to direct a film without going to jail. His contribution to The Year of the Everlasting Storm (2021), an anthology composed of seven international directors’ short films about Covid, is a gentler, more tender and loving update of This Is Not a Film. Panahi, the obvious choice to make a movie about home confinement, focuses on his elderly, hilariously opinionated mother, who arrives for a Covid-era visit in a full hazmat suit, and on the astonishing Iggy, once a medium-sized pet iguana, now looking more like a smallish dinosaur roaming—and dominating—the apartment.
In Taxi (2015), the funniest, warmest, and most slyly devastating of Panahi’s films, the confined setting has shifted from his apartment to the interior of a cab. The joke is that Panahi, unable to support himself as a director, is now driving a taxi in Tehran. Meanwhile, he is filming what happens using four cameras mounted around the inside of the vehicle. One passenger assumes that the camera on the dashboard is an antitheft device. By the end of the film, this casual assumption will have come to seem like a warning.
In the taxi two strangers get into a passionate argument about capital punishment. A seriously wounded man tries to record a last will and testament making his wife his sole beneficiary, counter to Islamic law. A dealer in contraband DVDs of foreign and classic films recognizes Panahi, figures out that the director’s “passengers” are actors, and suggests that they work together, since Iranian cinephiles will buy more DVDs for a chance to meet the maestro. A pair of frantic older women, gingerly carrying two goldfish in a glass bowl, tell him that they will die if he doesn’t drive them, by noon at the latest, to a sacred spring into which they need to dump the fish. The actors, professional and amateur, are so natural and persuasive that again it’s often hard to tell where the script ends and improvisation begins.
Taxi’s most appealing passenger is yet another charismatic little girl. Panahi’s fast-talking, feisty young niece, Hana, whom he picks up after school, starts off by berating her uncle for arriving in a taxi (what will her friends think?) and for being late. She could have been stranded like that girl in The Mirror. She’s got a camera. She wants to make a film. Her teacher has given the class a set of rules for making a “distributable film”: No good guys wearing ties. No contact between men and women. Respect for the Islamic veil. No violence. Avoid political and economic issues. No sordid realism. Only the most positive vision of the Iranian people: “If we notice anything problematic it’s up to us to censure it.”
Panahi is delighted by the irony of a schoolgirl reading the rules to a filmmaker who has been jailed for breaking them. That irony deepens when he briefly leaves the car and Hana films, through the open window, a bride and groom posing for wedding photographs. As they drive off, a street kid pockets some money that the groom has dropped, a “problematic” theft that, Hana fears, will make her film indistributable. She begs the boy to return the money, to allow her to depict sacrifice and selflessness. But what’s “problematic” for the boy—poverty—overrides Hana’s artistic ambitions.
Throughout Taxi, Panahi seems happy to be out in the daylight, driving through a city he loves. But there’s a moment when he looks suddenly uneasy, alert, and he asks Hana if she just heard something. She hasn’t, but his final passenger will explain what has put him on edge.
Her arms full of roses (Hana calls her “the flower lady” because she always brings flowers when she visits), Panahi’s friend Nasrin Sotoudeh, a well-known and widely respected human rights lawyer, slips into the front seat. She’s been disbarred for defending journalists and antigovernment activists, among them Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, and for representing women arrested for appearing in public without a hijab. But she’s on her way to visit a client, Ghoncheh Ghavami, a political prisoner—jailed for attending a volleyball game—who has been on a hunger strike and has defied the state’s efforts to make her say that the strike is over.
A hunger strike, Sotoudeh says, “We know what that’s like,” and with that remark the film turns from comedy into a more disconcerting political drama. Panahi tells her that, a few minutes ago, he thought he heard the voice of his prison interrogator. Sotoudeh says that’s common. Former prisoners often think they hear that voice: “They listen for it…. It’s the advantage of blindfolds.” So much for the charming faux cab ride. In this brief conversation we learn that both the director and the lawyer have been prisoners, blindfolded, interrogated, perhaps tortured.
When Taxi won the Golden Bear in Berlin in 2015, Hana Saeidi, by then eleven, wept uncontrollably as she accepted the award for her uncle, who was forbidden to travel. Concerned by the sudden darkening of the celebratory, even triumphant, mood, the show’s producers hustled the Panahis into the wings and summoned all the evening’s winners to assemble onstage.
Panahi’s new film, No Bears, is sadder and tougher than Taxi. It’s also more ambitious, daring, and formally inventive. Most of it is set in a rural Iranian village near the Turkish border: in compliance with the government ban against making films in his own country, Panahi is shooting his new feature in Turkey—except that the ban against his leaving the country means that he can’t be on the set. So he’s renting a little house in the village and directing from a distance on his laptop, at least when the spotty Wi-Fi functions.
A crew member, Reza, asks a sensible question that may have already occurred to the viewer: As long as Panahi is working remotely, why didn’t he stay in Tehran, where he was safer and the Internet reception was better? The director says he wants to be close to the production, but we already know that’s not the reason. The more plausible explanation is that by dividing the action between the ostensible “reality” of the Iranian village and the Turkish film set and the more obvious fiction of the film within a film, Panahi is able to multiply and complicate the ways in which reality and fiction can run parallel, be scrambled, and overlap.
The opening scenes of No Bears make it clear that Panahi’s real-life experience has left its mark. He’s still bemused, determined, mostly cheerful, and calm, but the stresses and anxieties of having worked for so long in defiance of intense harassment and restrictions are visible on his face, in his mood, and in the ominous tone of the film. From the start we intuit that things are unlikely to go well, and there’s hardly a moment when we don’t sense some lurking danger. Ever since drought has wiped out the local farms, he learns, smuggling across the border is the region’s principal source of income. The smugglers, the Revolutionary Guard, the villagers who are suspicious of strangers and at war with one another, the Turks who also hate outsiders and attack an Iranian actor—everyone poses a different sort of threat.
The border itself is a sinister presence. In one tense and revealing scene, Reza takes Panahi to a mountaintop from which he can see the lights of the city where his film is being shot. There’s a Mephistophelean gleam in the younger man’s eyes when he tries to convince Panahi to leave Iran: How easy it would be to just walk across! Panahi asks where the border is, exactly. Reza says, “You’re standing on it, exactly,” and Panahi takes a few steps back.
Though his neighbors are apparently hospitable—his landlord’s mother cooks him a delicious-looking meal—it doesn’t take long for their suspicions to surface. When Panahi lends his landlord, Ghanbar, a camera and asks him to film a traditional engagement ceremony, he hears, on the soundtrack, his neighbors gossiping about him. He might be a spy planning to cross the border illegally. He owns a showy, expensive car. He’s on the computer all day long, talking to God knows whom. He seems to be trouble, and the trouble’s not worth it.
The village has its own worry: an illicit affair. A local girl has fallen in love with someone other than the man who’s been chosen for her. “When a girl is born,” an elder informs Panahi, “her umbilical cord is cut in the name of her future husband.” The villagers insist that Panahi has taken a photograph of the secret lovers and that it is needed to settle a feud between the families of the two rivals. Eventually Panahi learns that the couple is planning to run away, and it’s no coincidence that the film being shot in Turkey also concerns two lovers attempting to leave the country—in their case, with stolen passports.
At night, on a hilltop where there’s a strong Wi-Fi signal, Panahi tries to deal with the worsening crises on set. The actor playing the man trying to leave the country actually does want to leave the country, and the smugglers say he needs to go now. A critical scene falls apart when an actress pulls off the wig meant to facilitate her escape under an assumed identity and rants at the camera about not wanting to be part of a lie. It echoes what little Mina did during the filming of The Mirror, except that here the actress, Mina Kavani, is not actually stepping out of character but playing an actress stepping out of character as she shouts about having endured torture and prison and refusing to go into exile.
Away from the camera, Panahi is still trying to defuse the villagers’ hostility. He goes to visit the sheriff—a shifty politician, cagey but not all that bright—who informs his guest that his car has been attracting the wrong kind of attention. Their conversation seems so natural, the sheriff so unlike an actor, that again we have to remind ourselves that Panahi wrote the dialogue. The first time I watched the film I thought the scenes in the village might be at least partly a documentary gone seriously awry; it took a second viewing for me to see that Panahi was in charge, shaping his narrative more elegantly and pointedly than reality could have managed. Eventually we come to realize that the film is so intricately structured, so filled with persuasive and artful parallels and dramatic plot twists, and the tone of the dialogue so much like that of Panahi’s earlier films, no one could sensibly conclude that these scenes are entirely unscripted or taken wholly from life.
The controversy about the alleged photograph escalates until Panahi is summoned to appear in the village’s Oath Room to swear that no such photo exists. By now we will have noted the suggestion that Iran’s problems—the harsh laws, the mistreatment of women, the cruel and senseless abuses of power—not only are imposed from above by the government and the mullahs but are being echoed in the villages. As one local man says, “You know very well that villagers are different from city people. Town people have problems with authorities. We have problems with superstition.” The result looks much the same.
On his way to the Oath Room, Panahi is accosted by a villager. They’ll have tea and then he’ll accompany him, the man suggests; the route is dangerous, because of the bears. In the teahouse, Panahi’s new friend tells him what to do in the Oath Room. You take an oath. It’s even OK to lie as long as everyone’s honor is saved and some kind of peace is brokered.
After tea, the villager sends Panahi on his way, alone: “Doesn’t look good if we go there together.” Panahi asks about the bears. The man says, “There are no bears. Those are stories made up to scare us. Our fears empower others. No bears! No bears! Just paper bears!”
The fact that Panahi is in prison—he and Aleahmad both contracted Covid and received intentionally inadequate medical care—even as his film premieres in Venice, New York, and other locations suggests that indeed there are bears, though maybe not on the path to the Oath Room. It reminds us that the stories “made up to scare us” can be genuinely frightening, and that humans are worse than bears when it comes to finding ingenious ways to torment our own species. The worst, or almost the worst, has already happened to him. His brilliant films are a testament to the determination, perseverance, and courage required to keep making art, no matter what.