< Iranian Film Opens as Director Is in Prison
By Andrew Smith
31 December 2022

In 2010, Iranian director Jafar Panahi was arrested on charges of making an anti-government film without permission and causing anti-government protests. The government banned Panahi from making films for 20 years.

Since then, he has made five highly praised movies.

His latest, "No Bears," opens soon in U.S. theaters.

This image released by Sideshow and Janus Films shows a scene from the film No Bears.
This image released by Sideshow and Janus Films shows a scene from the film "No Bears."

But Panahi himself is in prison.

In July, Panahi went to the Tehran prosecutor's office to ask about filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof. Rasoulof was arrested in July for social media posts he made at that time.

The visit led to Panahi's arrest. He was sentenced to six years in jail based on a charge from 10 years ago.

Making films in secret

Panahi makes his films in Iran without government approval. He has played himself in the movies, which secretly show Iranian society.

Panahi made "This is Not a Film" in his home. "Taxi" was filmed almost entirely inside a car, with a smiling Panahi playing the driver and picking up passengers along the way.

In "No Bears," Panahi plays a fictionalized version of himself while making a film in a rural town along the Iran-Turkey border.

Film critic Justin Chang of The Los Angeles Times called "No Bears" 2022's best movie.

The film comes at a time when the Iranian film community is under severe government rules. A week after "No Bears" was first shown at the Venice Film Festival in September, 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died while being held by Iran's morality police. Three months later, a wave of women-led protests continue.

More than 500 protesters have been killed since September 17. That number comes from the group Human Rights Activists in Iran. More than 18,200 people have been detained.

On Saturday, the well-known Iranian actress Taraneh Alidoosti was arrested after publishing a message on Instagram. The message expressed support for a man recently killed for crimes the Iranian government says he carried out during the protests.

International film awards

"No Bears" will test an Academy Awards policy. That rule says only governments can enter films for the prize of best international film. Critics have said that permits authoritarian governments to control which films compete for the valuable prize.

Film companies Sideshow and Janus Films have bought "No Bears" with the hope that it can win other prizes at the Academy Awards.

In "No Bears", Panahi rents an apartment from which he directs a film with the help of assistants.

At one point in the film, Panahi stands along the Iran-Turkey border at night. As he looks at the lights in the distance, he thinks about crossing it. Doing so would lead to a life in exile that Panahi, in real life, has refused.

Some parts of the film are very close to real life. Parts of "No Bears" were shot in Turkey, just like the story in the film. In Turkey, an Iranian couple is trying to get stolen passports to reach Europe.

The Iranian couple is played by Mina Kavani and Bakhiyar Panjeei. Kavani herself has lived in Paris for seven years. She left Iran after nudity in the 2014 film "Red Rose" brought media harassment.

Talking about Panahi, Kavani said, "This is the genius of his art. The idea that we were both in exile but on a different side was magic . . . this is very interesting to me, that he is in exile in his own country, but he's talking about those who left his country."

When "No Bears" played at the New York Film Festival, Kavani read a statement from Panahi.

The statement said independent Iranian filmmakers have always tried to push against censorship. She added that Panahi said, "No matter where, when, or under what circumstances, an independent filmmaker is either creating or thinking."

"No Bears" opens in New York on December 23 and Los Angeles on January 10 before opening across the United States.

I'm Andrew Smith.

Jake Coyle wrote this story for the Associated Press. Andrew Smith adapted it for Voice of America Learning English.


Words in This Story

society -n. the organization of people who live in a country or area

entirely -adv. completely, not partly

fictionalized -adj. referring to stories created from the imagination rather than reality

rent -v. to pay money to the owner of something for its temporary use

apartment -n. a room or set of rooms in which people live, usually inside a building with other apartments

nudity -n. the state of not wearing any clothes

harassment -n. behavior aimed to cause another person trouble through repeated attacks

genius -n. having the character of being very intelligent and creative

censorship -n. the blocking of any information that one person or group does not want to be seen or known by others.

circumstance -n. situation

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