خرس نیست Khers Nist
dir: Jafar Panahi
So, a couple of months ago, I watched and reviewed a flick called Hit the Road by Panah Panahi, son of legendary Iranian director Jafar Panahi, and made a joke about nepo babies getting gigs they otherwise wouldn’t get except for their successful parents.
Of course I was being ironic, because few directors in Iran since the Islamic Revolution have been punished and jailed more than the father of that director. Now I have a chance to review, or at least talk about, a movie made by that chap’s father, from whom all the nepo glory flows.
I think Jafar Panahi is either in jail currently or under house arrest. Last year he was sentenced to six years in prison. He has been imprisoned, on and off, for ages. The regime doesn’t like it when he makes movies, feeling somehow that their fragile totalitarian state will somehow crumble into dust if people either inside or outside of Iran see his films. But like many of his fellow Iranian directors, when his films win awards or acclaim at film festivals, the regime happily claims credit for their success bringing glory to the Islamic Republic of Iran.
A recent flick he made was called This is Not a Movie, because he was banned by the regime from making movies. So he made something that technically, sort of, maybe, wasn’t a movie, because what else is the man going to do? His son’s out now making awesome movies, so Jafar can’t sit back on his laurels anymore, even if they keep punishing him.
When this flick starts, it’s a long continuous scene, filmed somewhere in Turkey, and it eventually shows a couple fighting over a passport, and how one of them seemingly is going to fly to Europe, and the other is not. But then someone calls ‘cut’, and the actors, and another chap who was previously offscreen, start addressing the camera directly, talking to the director, Jafar Panahi.
It’s a film, but these characters are actually trying to get to Europe. Actors, but real people who’ve had to flee to stay alive or out of torment. And they need further notes on their performances.
And then the director loses internet connectivity. So. Jafar Panahi, playing himself, because who else would, sits in a room in a village near the Turkish border, trying to direct a crew several kilometres away as they try to film a film about Iranian asylum seekers trying to flee to Europe. All the while, he’s not meant to be making movies, but given his location he has plausible deniability. And since he’s not with the film crew on the Turkish side (he is in reality banned from leaving Iran), he’s doing what he’s not allowed to do. All he has to do is smoke cigarettes and get caught up in the local villager’s bullshit.
I hope the actual people of the village of Jaban aren’t as backwards as what’s represented here, but I’m guessing most of these people aren’t actors, so it’s hard to tell. In my limited experience, despite the cultural differences, the language and traditional differences, there isn’t a million miles of distance between what I see here and what I’ve in villages across Greece, Turkey or some other (relatively benign) parts of the Middle East and North Africa. To whit, the further away from a major city you get, the more “like this” the people be.
What am I talking about – well, I am certain Panahi would differ substantially in what he thinks of these people and their ways, but to me it’s like he’s saying the pathological cold viciousness of the regime, in how it snuffs out lives and tries to smother people like him, is only half of the problem. The other half is the perpetuation of many appalling traditions in the hinterlands under the guise of custom and history.
The dumbest reason anyone can ever give for doing something, awful or not, is that “well, this is how we’ve always done it in the past”. In the midst of whatever’s going on with his film crew and his stars in Turkey, Panahi gets dragged further and further into the lives of the people around him, and it doesn’t go in the positive direction that you’d think these kinds of films would go.
In a different kind of film with a different kind of director, a city chap would spend time with these yokels who he thinks are peasants, but would come to admire their simple ways, and see the value of their humble existences where only true things matter, and realise that his big city ways are hollow and inhuman.
Instead, the dictates, morays and traditions of these people seem destined to strangle the life out of anyone who doesn’t conform, if the authorities don’t stamp them out first.
When Panahi hears of some festive occasion happening, he sends his landlord Ghanbar (Vahid Mobasheri) with one of his cameras in his stead. The ceremony is a foot washing one, as an engagement party. The women wash the bride-to-be’s feet, on one side of the river, and the men wash the groom’s feet.
Sounds…gross. But whatever makes you simple peasants happy. The landlord’s mother, when asked about this tradition as she prepares Panahi’s dinner, tells him it’s a great local custom that harks back to the days where, in order to force young girls into marriages against their will, boys would lurk and by the river, and upon spying someone they “liked”, would rip a girl’s headscarf off. After something like that happened, the girl would be obligated to marry the boy, because otherwise no other family would allow their son to marry her, because she would be forever tainted otherwise.
What the absolute fuck?
And if that isn’t awful enough, that being an “old” custom that’s not adhered to anymore, (which would completely take away what little choice or agency these girls would have had anyway), they have an even dumber custom linked to the cutting of a baby girl’s umbilical cord. When it is being cut, it is said they actually name the male to whom she will eventually be married, even though she’s only minutes old.
Somehow that manages to be even worse.
When Panahi hears about these appalling customs, he doesn’t react much, if at all. He just stares at people impassively, thinking “you fucking yokels”, but being aware that, as their guest, he’s not in a place to judge these people out loud. It would be impolite.
And despite adhering to all the local customs and saying all the right things at all the right times, he’s still an outsider, and he is continuously running afoul of, well, pretty much every expectation and desire of the townsfolk.
At the time when that foot washing ceremony was happening, Panahi was just taking happy snaps of people, of kids, and, at one point, he might have taken a snap of a guy and a girl sitting under a walnut tree.
The potential existence of this photo upends the lives of every single person in that stupid village, in a manner of escalation that, however believable it might be, staggers the mind with how surreal it is that something so harmless could cause so much fucking harm.
And that’s kind of the point, or at least one of the points that I think Panahi is making. The crushing bureaucracy of the regime coupled with the superstitious idiocy of the villagers makes even the most minor or harmless thing into a disaster that ruins so many people, just like Panahi and directors like him, who never even really get to say exactly or explicitly the things they’d like to say, always having to achieve workarounds or modifications of what they really want to say, in order to try to stay out of prison, or not have their extended family members tortured or killed, still getting into trouble no matter what.
There’s no appeasing such mentalities – they are never satisfied; they will take every sacrifice and demand ever more, whether it’s the brutes of the Revolutionary Guards or the local sheriff.
At every stage Panahi tries to pacify the passions of the locals, but there’s always something else, something more that is demanded, until trying to prove that no such photo exists, demands are still made, further obeisances still have to be made, and he has to swear before Allah in a special “swearing room” that no photo exists.
One of the helpful yokels, when Panahi is making his way to the swearing room, pulls him aside and tells him to be careful on the path he’s going, because the bears could get him. After Panahi consents to sit and listen for a bit, as the reality of the “room” is explained to him, as a way of settling disputes, he’s told quietly that it’s okay to lie in order to restore peace.
And then, as Panahi makes his way to the room, he tells him there were never any bears anyway, it’s just a tale they tell to keep people on the straight and narrow.
And that’s how you get the title. It’s not a reference at all to Mohammad Rasoulof, his fellow Iranian director’s recent movie There is No Evil, but for me at least it connects. In the same way that the earlier film conjectures that there’s no need for a Satan to exist for people to do terrible things (in the name of the Islamic Republic), people have to be threatened by bears (that don’t exist) in order to get them to conform, never for their own good, but always for the “good” of those in power.
There is no evil, and there ain’t no bears, and yet, awful things happen anyway.
During the “swearing” ceremony, Panahi in his own sly way finds a workaround for his situation, thinking that he can fulfil the dictates of the locals’ requirement, without actually having to betray his conscience or the integrity of his word.
He asks the yokels if, instead of swearing on a copy of the Qur’an, he could film his attestation on camera, and send everyone a copy of the file, to assert that there is no incriminating photo. I took that, on some level, to also be a way of saying that his films of course are fictionalised in a lot of ways both big and small, but they are truthful, as he sees it, in his eyes and hopefully in the eyes of Allah.
And though most of the hicks don’t have devices that would be able to play such a file, they all the same seem to be okay with his workaround, the jerk who demands that some girl has to marry him because of something said twenty years ago, doesn’t accept it at all, and threatens more violence until he gets his way.
Jacob (Javad Siyahi) is a terrifying incel, and no part of any community should be trying to make such a jerk “happy”, and yet, that’s the way things are done around here.
It doesn’t lead to a happy ending for anyone, let’s just say.
The story that’s been going on in that other film within this film, of the plight of the Iranian couple trying to flee Turkey for Europe, similarly doesn’t end artistically or personally well for any of the people involved.
It’s almost like Jafar Panahi is admitting that, for all his artistic hopes and dreams, for all his intent to improve the lives of all Iranians, in or outside of Iran, or his appeals to people’s basic humanity, that maybe it’s just making things worse for many people, including him.
There’s a much earlier scene where a young lad, one accused of inappropriate dealings with the young lady in the photo that Panahi says doesn’t exist, begs him not to give the photo to the village elders. Just give them time to elope and jump the border, and then all will be well. Panahi asserts that that’s not the right way to do things. The right way is to talk things through, reasonably, respectfully.
The young man, Solduz (Amir Davari) says to Jafar Panahi, the director, “So, how did talking work out for you? Really solved all your problems with the authorities, didn’t it?”
It’s a gutting admission from a veteran director of his own powerlessness.
How can you keep banging your head against the wall of such ignorance, in the cities and in the countryside, when it pervades the country and keeps everyone in thrall?
I don’t know. But I hope he gets to make more films before the regime ends him. And I hope his son gets to stay out of jail as well and make more films as great as Hit the Road, because honestly, the only directors who should be going to jail are the ones that make Transformers movies.
8 times I love Iranian cinema, but I don’t know how much more I can take before drowning in despair out of 10
“You know very well that villagers are different from city people. Town people have problems with authorities. We have problems with superstition.” – that must be it - No Bears