A filmmaker appearing as himself for the entirety of a film might be forgiven the first time. The second time around, he is sure to attract some amount of ridicule for his vanity. But then, Jafar Panahi is not just any other filmmaker. For much of the past decade, he has worked from within the limitations imposed by the Iranian Government. Yet, it were those very limitations which birthed the Panahi we see now, using these to mock the regime and point fingers at all that is wrong around him.
His latest film No Bears was made just before the Iran judiciary in July ordered him to serve a six-year prison sentence from a decade ago, on charges of producing “anti-government propaganda”. The film, being screened in the World Cinema category at the 27th International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK), has Panahi playing himself, just like his last four films made since 2011. Here, he is sitting in a remote village near Iran’s border with Turkey, remotely directing a movie being shot in Turkey, giving out instructions to his assistant director through video call, even as the internet goes on and off.
Things are not fine in the movie within the movie. The couple are planning to shift to Europe for new beginnings using fake passports. But, only one of them gets a fake passport on time, and the woman refuses to go alone. In the village, Panahi poses as a photographer who is out there to document quaint traditions. His presence evokes suspicion among the villagers, who are not accustomed to seeing a man with cameras. A photograph that he is rumoured to have clicked, of two young lovers, kicks up a storm, as the girl is engaged to another guy. He denies having clicked the photograph, but hardly anyone believes him. At one point, he even takes part in a traditional ceremony where he swears that he does not have such a photograph. Poignantly, he suggests that he would do it in his own way, shooting the entire sworn statement in his camera, and handing them each a copy, rather than do it before a holy book.
It is a nice conceit in a film, where one is left constantly wondering where truth ends and where fiction begins, just like in most of his recent works. In one such scene, he travels up a dusty road at night to an unmarked portion of the Turkey-Iran border along with his assistant director. The moment he is told that he is standing on the imaginary line that divides the two countries, he steps back with a start. Quite a moment, considering the fact that this is a filmmaker who has been banned from making films or travelling outside the country since 2010, while some other popular Iranian filmmakers who are soft on the regime move about freely to festivals across the world.
Despite the plight that he is in, Panahi does not spare himself from criticism too. In the movie within the movie, the woman stops a scene midway and questions the filmmaker for creating a fake narrative around her life for his cinema, when the reality is something else. One wonders whether any other filmmaker facing adversity has continued to consistently churn out the kind of powerful, subversive art as Panahi has.