2023 Milwaukee Film Festival: Day Three “No Bears”

Unfortuanately, not every acclaimed film gets to Milwaukee for full fledged theatrical releases. NO BEARS never did get a showing in Milwaukee’s theaters. Fortunately, the Milwaukee Film Festival is there to pick up some slack.

Here’s Milwaukee Film’s description of the film.

Acclaimed director Jafar Panahi (playing a fictionalized version of himself) relocates to a rural Iranian border town to remotely direct a new film in nearby Turkey. The story sharply mirrors
disturbing events that begin to occur around him. As he struggles
to complete his film, Panahi finds himself thrust into a local scandal. In the wake of Panahi’s recent real-life incarceration, NO BEARS has become an urgent addition to Iranian cinema.”

All of the above is accurate, if leaving out some of the subtle points.

Panahi is forbidden from leaving Iran. Albeit, the film makes it clear that it certainly would be possible for him to do so, and he’d no doubt be welcomed with open arms in a western country if he appeared seeking asylum. Instead, he chooses to stay. Maybe as a symbol, maybe in the mistaken belief that he can eventually apply reason and convince people that do not want convincing. A lot of traditions and warnings are not based in reality as a conversation involving the titular “NO BEARS” makes clear. There’s a scene supposedly set at the border that like GRAND ILLUSION makes clear that it’s only an imaginary line.

Regardless, it’s made clear that the film within the film is about the conflicts of flight and crossing borders. The climax of the actual film involves the aftermath of one such flight. And it’s clear that it’s a decision not taken lightly. And the ramifications of going or not going can have tragic consequences in multiple ways. And yet, Panahi is pulled towards the border. It’s clear that he doesn’t have to be in this small village, he’d probably get better internet reception in Tehran too. But there’s a pull to connect with the people on his set, to direct, and to walk the streets without fear.

Iranian cinema has been blurring the lines between fiction and reality for a long time. NO BEARS continues that tradition. There’s the film within the film, but Panahi, who happens to take photos of the people around him as a hobby, accidentally becomes enmeshed in something of a love triangle / familial feud for a picture he may or may not have taken at random which may or may not depict two lovers clandestinely meeting. Panahi swears he didn’t take the picture. Was it because he really didn’t take the picture? Or because he doesn’t want to become enmeshed in this drama that holds no interest to him involving traditions he does not hold to or understand? Or is he just being obstinate because it’s interfering with his life? Maybe all three?

And do these out of date, seemingly absurd traditions have anything to do with who is in power in Iran currently?

There are no definitive answers given here. But, you come to understand the state of mind Panahi is living in anyways. It’s a remarkable portrait of a time of uncertainty, like living under Damocle’s sword. Every decision seems like it could backfire in some way. How is a man supposed to live in such a state? And is running the answer? These are all essential questions, particularly for Panahi himself, and it makes for an often fascinating film. Especially as you start to pull on individual threads and see where they go.

NO BEARS unfortunately had its one and only showing at the Milwaukee Film Festival yesterday. Fortunately, it’s available on VOD from the usual services and is playing on the Criterion Channel now. The 2023 Milwaukee Film Festival runs from April 20, 2023 until May 4, 2023. Tickets can be purchased via MKEFILM.ORG.