An Entire Society Exists Within Me

Jafar Panahi after the ban


Jafar Panahi (director). No Bears. 2022.
Jafar Panahi: Interviews. Edited by Drew Todd. University Press of Mississippi, 2019.

JAFAR PANAHI’S NO BEARS opens with a long, 270-degree pan around the T-intersection of two streets. We know the action takes place sometime in the post-pandemic present because in the background of the frame we briefly see a man wearing a mask. (Other than the bright, aggressive clarity of the digital image, which situates the film in the ugly whites and grays of contemporaneity, this man is our only temporal marker.) Later we learn that this town is in Turkey, somewhere near the Iranian border, but for now all we have is the anonymous streetscape: for the first few seconds the camera is stationary, our gaze on the rolling gates and colorful bollards and plastic signs advertising haircuts and beard trims. A simit peddler approaches up the block and the camera slowly pans left with him as he turns off into a side street. Just as the peddler exits the frame, a tea salesman enters from the same side street, wheeling his steaming pot on a little cart. The camera trails him until it has rotated 180 degrees to face the other end of the block. Here it picks up two slow-moving street musicians as they collect tips from people hanging around on the sidewalk. (As usual with Panahi, the only music in the film is diegetic.)

The camera stays on the musicians as they perform for a man and a woman in a sidewalk café, but though we have now focused our attention on six different people—the simit peddler, the tea salesman, the musicians, and the couple at the restaurant—we intuit that none of them is our protagonist. The woman orders tea for herself and her boyfriend from a waitress in a loose, red-orange shirt, and now at last we land on our true target. The camera moves with the waitress as she brings a beer to another customer, picks up a call on her cell phone, looks down the hill to check for her caller, and runs inside to get her coat. She steps outside and walks a few steps down the intersecting street to meet Bakhtiar, her gangly, sharp-angled lover or husband. He has joyous news: he has procured a French passport for her. Zara is thrilled, but when she asks about his own passport, Bakhtiar becomes far less emphatic: she will have to go ahead to France, he mumbles, and he will arrive later. It’s evident that these are topics of immense importance to these characters, but our understanding of them is limited, our context for this scene extremely minimal. What we can see is that to Zara, one passport rather than two is a defeat. The camera pans with her as she walks back to the café, angry and disappointed, unpersuaded by his desperation. It tracks her as she goes inside before it returns to the second street and to Bakhtiar, who lights a cigarette and retreats down the hill.

It is worth dwelling on this scene and the camera’s movements in such insistent detail because—especially in the five films he has made since his initial arrest and twenty-year ban from filmmaking in 2010—Panahi has specialized in these kinds of slippery moments, favoring long takes that offer total spatial legibility but little in the way of easily assimilable information about character and plot….