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Actual and imagined boundaries

Well Bears
Regissør: Jafar Panahi

FILM FROM THE SOUTH / Jafar Panahi's "No Bears" is a strong film in itself, but gains even greater impact in light of the situation the now imprisoned Iranian filmmaker is in.


Jafar Panahi has won awards at the world's most important film festivals, including Cannes, Venice and Berlin, and is one of Iran's most recognized living filmmakers. This despite fierce opposition from the regime under which he lives and works.

Panahi has been sentenced to a 20-year professional ban, travel ban, house arrest and prison, but has nevertheless continued to make films, presumably under the radar of the Iranian authorities. When he went to the prosecutor's office this summer to inquire about the imprisonment of director colleagues Mohammad Rasoulof and Mostafa Aleahmad, Panahi was arrested again. He is now serving a prison sentence of six years, which he was originally sentenced to in 2010 along with the professional ban for "propaganda against the authorities".

Solidarity marking

In light of this – and not least the extensive protests in Iran recently – it is both gratifying and timely that Panahi was this year's recipient of Film fra Sør's honorary award. The director's new film also won at the festival in Oslo in November Well Bears the main prize, the Silver Mirror. In addition, he was given a mini-retrospective consisting of the feature films Taxi Tehran (2015) and Three women (2018)

Well Bears had its international premiere at the Venice Film Festival in September, also there in the main competition. On the red carpet to the screening of the film, jury leader Julianne Moore as well as several jury members and directors participated in a solidarity marking for Panahi and other imprisoned filmmakers under the auspices of the International Coalition for Filmmakers at Risk. The same jury also awarded the film with its special prize during the festival's award ceremony.

Like the Silver Mirror on Film from the South, this is an award given to the film itself – and it should be pointed out that Well Bears is a well-deserved winner of both awards. At the same time, it is difficult to separate it from the filmmaker and the circumstances surrounding the film's creation. Like several of his films are this is a metafictional and semi-documentary film which in several ways comments on the situation Panahi found himself in prior to his arrest this summer – and which is further actualized by the imprisonment, which thus took place quite a short time before the film's premiere.

Film within the film

As he often does in his films, Panahi here plays a kind of fictional version of himself. IN Well Bears he is in a small Iranian village near Turkey in order to be as close as possible to the filming of a film he is making about a couple trying to get out of Iran illegally – and which is being filmed on the other side of the border. The actors in this "film within the film" also play characters that are close to their (in the film) real people. And eventually, events in their lives will influence the recording.

© Arthaus

These scenes are also actually filmed outside Iran, with director Panahi at a similar distance via Zoom and WhatsApp. Mina Kavani, who plays the woman in the couple, is herself an exile living in Paris, without the possibility of returning to her homeland.

However, the film's Panahi also faces growing opposition in the village, due to a photo the population claims he took of a young couple about to get married. The alleged image intensifies local intrigue surrounding an originally arranged marriage, based on local traditions Panahi has little knowledge of.

Imaginary bears

In a key scene in Well Bears Panahi has moved outside the village and realizes that he is standing exactly on the border with Turkey. He is encouraged by his entourage to cross it, but Panahi almost instinctively steps back and instead returns to the village. The border is experienced in a very concrete way – at the same time that it is also an abstract demarcation, which is not visible in the actual landscape. This paradox is illustrated precisely in the scene.

“At its core is acting Well Bears about boundaries and how deeply they are rooted in the people the film deals with."

A parallel can be found in the film's title. At some point, Panahi becomes i Well Bears warned to go outside the settlement late at night, as there may be bears in the area. Later, however, he learns that there are no bears – they are only a fantasy placed in the minds of the inhabitants to keep them in place. The metaphor is clear enough: the limitations in people's lives are not only about the country's restrictive legislation, but are also created by various ideas. The film also makes it clear that many of these performances are rooted in tradition. Not surprisingly, they can be linked to religion – but not exclusively.

Commenting on the reactions

In the film, a photograph (or the assumption of its existence) creates problems of Kafkaesque proportions for Panahi. Likewise, the film recording he has worked on also gets No Bears,dramatic consequences for those involved, albeit more indirectly. It is obvious to read this as sly comments on the violent reactions Panahi's films have been met with.

At times, the intricacies surrounding the photograph may appear satirical, but the development in both central plot lines must certainly be serious enough. And the satire is only one aspect of a multi-layered narrative. At its core is acting Well Bears however, about borders and how deeply they are rooted in the people the film deals with – whether they are geographical divisions, mental conceptions or both.

To install Jafar Panahi. © Arthaus

Despite all the attempts to stop him, Jafar Panahi has shown a very admirable will and ability to continue making films. He can hardly do that as long as he is imprisoned. But these outrageous circumstances do not the less that Well Bears gains even greater impact when it is shown across more and more of the world's borders.

 Well Bears was shown at the Film fra Sør festival in November
and will have a regular Norwegian cinema premiere on 10 March 2023.

Aleksander Huser
Aleksander Huser
Huser is a regular film critic in Ny Tid.

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