No Bears review | Timely, topical and important filmmaking

Director Jafar Panahi returns to filmmaking with No Bears, a vital work of metafiction which examines the role of cinema in modern times. 



Jafar Panahi’s new film begins with a mundane shot of a street. Street vendors are whistling and singing while a pair of musicians go around playing a lovely tune. A waitress at a restaurant delivers a beer to a thirsty customer before receiving a phone call and retrieving her jacket. 

The waitress, Zara, meets a mysterious man, Bakhtiar, who informs her that he has finally gotten her a stolen passport, allowing her to leave Iran for good. Bakhtiar hasn’t managed to secure one for himself but insists that Zara go without him, devastating her. 


no bears

Credit: Picturehouse Entertainment

The sudden call completely disrupts what we’re seeing and reveals it as a film within the film. The real story of No Bears is that this production is currently filming in Turkey while the director, Jafar Panahi (played by the real Jafar Panahi), sits in a tiny room in a quaint village in Iran. He has been banned from leaving the country, so he can only direct through Skype and with the assistance of his second-in-command Reza (Reza Heydari). 

To understand the power of No Bears, one needs to understand the circumstances under which it was crafted. This can make the film feel like a chore; the story works much better if you’re aware of Panahi’s previous work and current situation. 

Jafar Panahi is one of the most, if not THE most, influential Iranian filmmakers. His films have been intrinsically political, which has made him a target. Panahi, a filmmaker who has won many prestigious awards at the top film festivals, has been arrested multiple times for criticising the Iranian government. 

Last July, he was arrested again and was ordered to carry out a six-year sentence in prison, which he was sentenced to in 2010. Even before July, the director had not been able to leave Iran and has been under house arrest for most of the last decade. 

no bears jafar panahi

Credit: Picturehouse Entertainment

Yet, he has persevered, and his art has not suffered. If anything, his art has grown more vital and more urgent. What’s so striking about No Bears is the lack of anger. This isn’t a film by a rash, angry filmmaker lashing out at the world and trying to expose something. 

No, this is a considered, mannered film. No Bears could have easily been a dry film with its non-confrontational and almost casual style. But this is a work of immense humanity and warmth. Panahi wisely showcases the power of cinema by utilising it to the fullest; No Bears isn’t exactly entertaining in the commercial sense (you can see the latest Marvel film for that), but it’s just as thrilling to observe such a vital filmmaker at work as it is to watch a superhero save the world. 

The film’s most impressive scene happens in the dead of night as Reza and the fictional Panahi climb up a hill to do some late-night location scouting. Panahi asks Reza where the border between Turkey and Iran is, and Reza tells Panahi he’s standing on it.

Panahi steps back quickly, startled by how close he came to stepping over it. No Bears is a film about borders, many of them. It’s also a film that completely lacks ego, despite Panahi’s history. No Bears is, without a doubt, a challenging film, but it also holds big rewards for fans of the auteur’s work. 

No Bears is in cinemas on November 11. 

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