★★★★★ Jafar Panahi's sentence of six years in prison this July is the latest instance of harassment that the director has received from Iranian authorities, stretching back as far as 2010. Panahi has made a film about escaping Iran - in which he plays himself making a film about escaping Iran.

★★★★★

Jafar Panahi’s sentence of six years in prison this July is the latest instance of harassment that the director has received from Iranian authorities, stretching back as far as 2010. Panahi’s courageousness as an agitator is matched only by his inventiveness as a filmmaker. After defying the government for over a decade, Panahi has made a film about escaping Iran – in which he plays himself making a film about escaping Iran.

Yet far from an exercise in indulgent meta navel-gazing (and seriously, who would deny him a little of that as he contemplates six years in an Iranian prison cell?), No Bears is a compelling, emotional and humane study of fear, perseverance and resisting oppression through witness. Though Panahi presents little comfort in this vision of Iranian society, he does offer quiet, profound defiance.

While the cast and crew of his latest film are in neighbouring Turkey, Panahi directs the shoot remotely from a tiny village along the northwest border. From his tiny, basic room, the mobile internet signal makes directing near impossible, begging the question as to why he isn’t just directing from Tehran with reliable broadband. The villagers wonder, too, worried that Panahi may attempt to cross the border and bring trouble either from the Iranian border police or the people smugglers that control the surrounding areas.

The film within a film concerns Zara (Mina Kavani) and Bakhtiyar (Bakhtiyar Panjeei), who have crossed over to Turkey, and acquired stolen passports in order to escape to Europe. The film is not quite a documentary, but their escape attempt is real, though it is often intentionally unclear where fiction and reality separate. Often, the camera sits as its subjects move away from it, at once creating a sense of objectivity while obscuring and distorting what we can see and hear. So too, the images that are intentionally and unintentionally captured back at the village; firstly when Panahi lends his camera to a local who instead of recording a wedding ceremony accidentally tapes a conversation about an illegal crossing, secondly an accusation that Panahi has inadvertently photographed two young lovers having an affair.

It is this second infraction that causes the most disruption, the villagers pressing Panahi into turning over the picture – which Panahi insists does not exist – as a way of definitively incriminating the lovers. With the backing of the village elders, the girl’s betrothed pressures Panahi to inform on Gozal (Darya Alei) and her lover, before forcing Panahi to participate in an arcane swearing ritual to prove there is no picture. This is the power of the state in microcosm, compelling its subjects to comply and collaborate in their own oppression through elaborate and increasingly absurd performances of morality.

One character tells Panahi have merely been invented to keep people in fear, though the absence of literal bears does not preclude the figurative. And just like those bears, of all the images Panahi has captured, the one of Gozal and Solduz’s (Amir Davari) tryst exists only in the minds of their accusers. No Bears ends on a deeply cynical, bitter note: its act of defiance against that bitterness is to bear witness to it. Indeed, to bear witness, to document, and by doing so refuse to comply is perhaps the most profound act of resistance that Panahi offers us.

Christopher Machell