Something interesting happened in the opening minutes of Jafar Panahi’s No Bears when it was shown at the press preview for the New York Film Festival last month. Panahi’s new film is an intricate autofiction, starring the director as a version of himself who, as in real life, has been banned from leaving his native Iran. No Bears opens, however, with a scene set in Turkey – Panahi is famous for bending the rules of his confinement – in which two Iranian emigrants discuss plans to smuggle themselves further into Europe. Then the take is cut, the fourth wall is broken, and the opening scene is revealed to be a live transmission from a film set watched over by Panahi, who is directing remotely from a small village just on the other side of the Turkish-Iranian border. He gives his film crew some notes about the scene but soon loses service; the live feed on his computer glitches, and images freeze for several seconds before disappearing completely. Panahi spends the next several minutes searching his village for a signal.

These opening scenes caution us to expect a complex dance between reality and fiction on the part of Panahi, who by occupying a central position onscreen gives us no barrier between his role as director and his performance as character. That the film opens, without context, on a shot of Iranian film star Mina Khosravani walking in public bare-headed was a shock to many critics; the film premiered at NYFF just a week after Iranian women made international headlines for burning their hijabs in protest of the state’s murder of Mahsa Amini. Though we later learn that Khosravani is in Turkey, the transition transposing this scene onto Panahi’s laptop is seamless – creating a fantasy of interplay across borders, blurring the lines between narrative and meta-fiction, and, given Panahi’s longstanding difficulties as an Iranian dissident, creating a level of extradiegetic tension in simply watching the film. 

But the strange part occurred a few minutes later, when Panahi’s character is visited by his assistant director Reza (Reza Heydari), who crosses the border that evening to drop off the rushes. Sensing the director’s acute awareness of his proximity to the border, Reza drives Panahi through a smuggling route, in an effort to show how easily his Maestro could slip out of Iran. As the real Panahi, in this fictional scene, began to approach the (ostensibly) real border of the country that has detained him for over a decade – the film glitched, freezing on static images before going completely dark. The theatre’s house lights came up, and the small crowd of critics and industry members began to mumble uneasily amongst themselves. 

The technical difficulty, which I later learned was genuine and limited to the screening we were in, created a remarkable parallel to the interrupted transmission of Panahi’s feed in the first scene. For a second, it seemed quite likely that the director was playing some kind of joke – or teaching some kind of lesson – about censorship, distance, and the fidelity of image. Moonlit shots of the Iranian desert appeared and then skipped across the screen several times, like playback from a DVD with a fingerprint on it. In the process, the entire scene – depicting the route Panahi and Reza took, clues to their location, and, crucially, the revelation of whether Panahi did or did not actually cross the border (in one brief moment of playback, Reza tells him that he’s standing directly on it) were obscured and defied by the technical issue. When normal playback resumed, the director was back in his Iranian village. 

No Bears

What happened in between? Those of us watching had no idea whether or not this was part of the experience. Was the glitch an instrument of Panahi’s own canny elision, another way of stretching the limits of his liberties with Iran? Was it the work of the Iranian government, seeking to disrupt another instance of the director’s “propaganda against the state”? Or was it a genuine technical difficulty, perhaps the result of media files that had been corrupted as they were smuggled out of the country? (Panahi’s remarkable This Is Not a Film, 2011, first made its way to Cannes in a flash drive that had been baked into a cake.)

Intentions aside, the moment collapsed a barrier between art and life that we prefer to think of as impermeable when we look up at the screen. For a few minutes, the festival’s parade of images ceased to pass smoothly before its viewers, and we were left in the half-light wondering how these images got to be here in the first place, and what risks had been taken to present them. Panahi is an Iranian director who has been banned by the government from making more films, yet this is his fifth international festival premiere in the past ten years. The rules around what he can or cannot do are as rigid as his homeland’s totalitarian regime, yet he still finds ways to skirt them – to toe the line, as with the borderland he stands on in No Bears, getting right up to the edge without actually crossing.

His bravery demands special attention, particularly because almost every other film I saw at this year’s festival was made under more relaxed political conditions, with freedom of expression as a right in good standing. Yet very few liberties were taken with regards to expanding what audiences can or cannot see, leading to stories that deliberately diminished their own narrative potential. In so many of the films at NYFF’s diamond anniversary, visual stories revolved around an image or a figure that was intentionally withheld, like black holes at the gravitational centre of a galaxy. In a few instances, the filmmakers pushed past these constraints, insistently showing us things that were prohibited or prohibitive – or at least calling direct attention to the conspicuousness of their absence. 

In an age that increasingly relies on visualisation to communicate, we come up constantly against a strict grammar, both in cinema and across other media, dictating what kinds of images are shown in which context. In the free-expressionist West, which lacks official censorship but is lately culturally obsessed over self-censorship and mass censure, the rules can feel ironclad despite being implicit. As an artistic medium, the imperative of cinema is to question this grammar, to employ it but also to subvert it when needed, in favour of the specific messages the filmmaker hopes to convey. Conventionality is often the enemy of these messages – and it was the antagonist of this year’s anniversary slate.

To the extent that Hollywood means anything these days, it is in the context of its role as an image grammarian. A tour through NYFF’s blockbuster-oriented Spotlight slate was an excellent opportunity to study this type of visual conduct, and to admire how conditioned the code of conformity is. Several of this year’s biggest Hollywood films take as their subject various skeletons in the American closet, from slavery and lynching to the systemic abuse of women. Like horror movies, these films are extremely selective about the extent to which their monsters are actually seen. In Till, Women Talking and She Said, three very different communities reckon with abuses of power by white men. Justly centring Black and female perspectives at the narrative heart of each project, these films nevertheless seem uncomfortable with confronting the source of their conflicts head-on.


Chinonye Chukwu’s Till, which details the murder of Emmett Till from the perspective of his mother, carefully places the lynching off-screen, later showing Till’s body only from brief, oblique angles. Chukwu’s stated intention, to avoid depicting this violence so as not to perpetuate it, is on the face of it admirable here. But the film ultimately feels hollow in its sanitized simulacrum of an unspeakable horror, and sadly ironic in its wish to centre Mamie Till-Mobley’s perspective without doing justice to her legacy as the mother who demanded an open casket for her brutalised son. Till-Mobley’s bravery in showing Americans something they were not ready to see is the reason that we know who Till is today; Chukwu’s film seeks to honour her but cannot follow her lead. While its unwillingness to reveal Till’s body is understandable from the director’s perspective, it raises uncomfortable questions about the value of this project: Can a tragedy be rectified by re-enactment and dramatisation when reparative justice is still glaringly absent? In the final scenes of Till, Chukwu struggles to find a happy ending for a real-life event that still lacks one. 

Maybe minimising the villain is the easiest way of dealing with impossible justice. In Sarah Polley’s Women Talking, a group of women in an isolated religious community come to terms with systemic sexual violence in their village. The men in question are never seen, instead spending the duration of the film on their way to bail certain members of their sect out of jail. This helpfully renders all males in the village both complicit in the abuse and monolithic in their power – with the exception of August (Ben Whishaw), a local schoolmaster who serves to record the minutes of the women’s meetings (because none of them can read or write) and who spends the latter half of the movie mostly bursting into tears. Sensitive and childlike, August represents the exception to the rule, the “not all men” who turns out to be the only man the film actually sees fit to confront. What’s more troubling is that the many women of Women Talking are monolithic as well. Though they spend the entire movie debating how to live with or leave their township’s cycle of abuse, their conversation remains exasperatingly abstract. The possibility of real differences between them – or of individual courses of action taken by them – is unthinkable here. Thus much of Polley’s film is unintentionally Beckettian: the same conversations happen over and over again, no decision made, the specific nature of individual experience conspicuously ignored. Until it is again time to foist a happy ending on the viewer.

Maria Schrader’s She Said follows the exact same visual grammar as Women Talking and Till, but has the advantage of veracity (and real-world justice, of a sort) to help it along. Adapted from Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s book about breaking the Harvey Weinstein scandal for the New York Times, Weinstein himself plays a bizarrely phantasmagorical role. His distinctive body type and gait are aped perfectly by Mike Houston, in a short cameo that shows him only from the side and the back, during a brief visit by Weinstein and his lawyers to the Times’ offices. Seeing this hulking, balding, shuffling figure entering the Times Building on 42nd Street elicited an unexpected bout of laughter at the premiere; people were impressed by the accuracy. But the shock of recognition speaks to the extent to which all of Weinstein’s physical traits have become seared into collective memory since his downfall. His size and appearance were implicitly important to the public’s understanding of the dynamics of his interactions with women, and it’s gratifying to see even the slightest reference to them here. For much of She Said, Weinstein is merely a name, defined more by the hotel rooms and offices he occupied than by any personal or physical trait. It takes seeing the man, even obliquely, for his presence to really sink in. The fact that his visage has been burned into all of us over the past few years allows Schrader to make much out of even this sparing re-enactment. 


Todd Field’s masterfully orchestrated Tár spins a similar story to She Said, but with almost inverted rules over who’s perspective is seen and shown. In its way, Field’s film is a portrait of a black hole. Cate Blanchett stars as the eponymous conductor, a fictional mentee of Leonard Bernstein’s who is now leading the Berlin Philharmoniker through a suite of Mahler symphonies when she begins to face scrutiny for scandals related to the grooming of younger women. As the accusations pile up, the disparity between accused and accuser is, in this case, reversed – we are welded to Tár’s perspective, and increasingly left to wonder about the veracity of the allegations against her by invisible figures. The film adopts a psychological thriller’s framework to track her unravelling; by its climax, it’s hard to know what’s real and what’s not. When people turn on Tár, they disappear from the plot, extricating themselves from her life in order to avoid a confrontation with her imperiousness. The result is a film that stridently avoids real conflict, trapping its main character in a world of attenuated but secondary perceptions of her own reputation.

I was initially moved by the intensity of the Field’s vision and the seriousness with which he strove to depict verisimilitude – both in meticulously conjuring Tár’s social position and in furnishing the incredible music she conducts. Ultimately, though, I was left feeling spurned by this film’s cynical vision, which prefers to follow its flawed protagonist down delirious rabbit holes than actually sit with her actions and their consequences. Field’s film seems to detail what happens to those who live in the world posited by Hollywood’s feel-good visual grammar, where victims are protected and abusers are isolated. Absent a confrontation, and averse to the violence implied in retribution, the two parties simply spin out to other orbits, with the abuser, who was usually more powerful to begin with, landing just fine somewhere else. In Tár’s case, she takes a pay cut and begins conducting for film scores.


Some movies are cannier about their games of hide and seek. Huang Ji and Ryuji Otsuka’s Stonewalling carefully orchestrates an effective visual omission as part of its incisive exploration of modern-day China. Starring Yao Honggui as an aspiring student, the film follows her and her boyfriend through a series of odd jobs, from modelling and influencing to possible prostitution, as they increasingly commodify their adolescent bodies. Early in the film, Yao’s character discovers she’s pregnant, and soon develops a plan to give the baby to a family from her hometown that’s holding her mother financially responsible for a stillbirth years earlier. The unborn baby thus becomes a bargaining chip, a human life meant to offset crippling debt, and much of Stonewalling’s suspense lies in the implausibility of such a tenuous arrangement. The meaning of the title becomes clear as the film stretches on through the duration of Yao’s pregnancy, which eventually overlaps with the first months of the pandemic. The couple she’s giving it to increasingly seem uninterested in the offer, but their refusal mostly comes in the form of delay. What’s most remarkable is that we never witness the child. We hear it, and we certainly see the level of work being put into its prenatal care, but the infant itself remains forever off-screen, carefully demarcated as a point of absence in a system that has reduced it to a commodity object.

Master Gardener

In Paul Schrader’s Master Gardener, the director repeats the narrative formula which has furnished his late-period renaissance: a man with an odd talent tries to move on from a cruel past. Last year’s Card Counter starred Oscar Isaac as a gambler who once tortured POWs at Abu Ghraib. For his turn, Joel Edgerton plays Narvel Roth, a horticulturalist who was once a member of a violent white supremacist gang. Unlike the Abu Ghraib flashbacks, which were truly jarring to watch, the backstory to Master Gardener is slicker and a bit harder to follow. But its consequences gratifyingly extend into the present, thanks to Narvel’s full chest of neo-Nazi tattoos – doubly unfortunate for being a turn-on to Narvel’s boss (Sigourney Weaver) and a turn-off to her mixed-race grandniece (Quintessa Swindell), the film’s love interest. Schrader’s latest version of his “man in a room” plot asks more of his audience than any other so far – namely, that we believe in the implausible redemption of a man once brazen enough to coat himself in symbols of hate, now being motivated by interracial love. The tattoos serve as a visual motif of this exchange, both the starkest evidence of Narvel’s past and the greatest indicator of his capacity for change, as in a scene where he removes his shirt in the same room as the sleeping Swindell and stares at himself for a long time in the mirror. Schrader lets us stare too. Far from keeping these harbingers of hate at arm’s length, Master Gardener makes an audacious statement about the power of bearing all as a step toward renewal, forgiveness and love. It’s a conspicuously optimistic message by the aging director, and was met with almost shocking amounts of approval at NYFF. 

The well-deserved Centerpiece of this year’s New York Film Festival, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed beautifully elucidates this theme of depiction in the face of denial. Laura Poitras’ film is a structurally complex portrait of its subject, the great photographer Nan Goldin, jumping back and forth from her origins as an artist to her current work as an activist and founder of PAIN, an organisation dedicated to combating the opioid crisis through harm reduction. The Sackler family, which owned Perdue Pharma before filing for bankruptcy in 2019, artwashed the money they made off overprescribing OxyContin by sponsoring galleries and museums, some of which held Goldin’s photos in their permanent collections. Thanks largely to the efforts of PAIN, which organised rallies and “die-ins” at The Louvre, the Guggenheim, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, most arts organisations now refuse to accept funding from the Sacklers and have taken down their name. This vital organisational work is captured in real time by Poitras and placed between segments describing Goldin’s childhood, that remain thematically resonant thanks to a remarkable continuity throughout her life: Goldin’s penchant for documenting and showcasing images as a way of speaking truth to power. 

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed

Poitras directly connects Goldin’s artistic and political work to her childhood in the New England suburbs, where her headstrong older sister Barbara was effectively gaslit by the girls’ parents, committing suicide at 19 after a series of institutionalisations. Nan witnessed her parents covering up evidence of Barbara’s suicide, which led to her lifelong crusade against denial and inhibition. Images are, first and foremost, a kind of evidence, and Goldin tells us that she began taking photos as a way of proving that what she saw was irrefutably real. “The wrong things are kept secret in society,” she adds, “And that destroys people.” Her statement applies equally to the shaming of queer desire and the egregious lengths to which the protection of wealth and private interests are shielded from the public; it represents a through-line in her philosophy and a catalyst for her style. 

Oddly enough, a similar message arrives at the end of No Bears. The rest of the film, which played without interruption at my screening following the scene at the border, once again concerns the fight over an image – a symbol of power withheld from the light of day (and the audience) but made much of referentially. Earlier in the film, after Panahi loses service during his remote shoot, he leaves the house looking for an internet signal, but gets distracted by the villagers and begins taking photos. He gets some boys from the village together to pose together on a ledge, then turns the camera impulsively and crouches, angling his lens beneath the branches of a walnut tree. He snaps a photo whose subject is just off-screen. Later, we are told that he has captured a young man and woman seated together; the woman, Gozal, is betrothed to another man. A village dispute soon breaks out over the veracity of this news, and everyone demands to see Panahi’s picture. Panahi claims he never took it, and, having gone through the camera roll himself a few times, offers to hand the SD card containing all the photos of the villagers over to the injured party. In the process, he offends nearly every member of the village, and it becomes clear he is unwelcome there. Yet he never again tries to leave and take the smuggler’s route out of Iran.

Panahi’s missing image is the great void around which the atoms of this film swirl. Like the child in Stonewalling, it is so conspicuous an absence that it takes on a life of its own, stubbornly asserting its own vitality. In this instance, however, Panahi’s character is the only one who knows what’s true or not – his film merely captures the surrounding conditions and their aftermath, while leaving the existence of the image itself up to interpretation.

The title of Panahi’s film comes from a scene in the village, as his character is on his way to a town meeting where he has been asked to swear before God that he never took the photo. Walking at night along the edge of town, he is pulled aside by a villager for a word of advice. Initially shooing the man off, Panahi insists that he’s going to be late to the meeting. The townsperson tells him it’s not safe to go alone, because bears roam the hills. Chastened, Panahi stops to listen to the man’s advice about the council meeting, in which he is told to project modesty and take the oath, even if it means lying about the image to God. “It doesn’t matter if you took the picture or not,” the man says, “You just have to swear that you didn’t.” The villager then sends Panahi on his way, back up the trail. “What about the bears?” Panahi asks.

“There are no bears,” the villager says, “Stories made up to scare us! Our fear empowers others. No bears!”

The exchange is a joke that also damningly clarifies the point of the film: Left unchecked, absent unrealities can be just as dangerous as the ugly truth, because they force us to believe in something that we cannot be sure of. So much of human behaviour is driven by these fears. And, as the villager’s folk wisdom admits, perpetuating of this fear is a tool of manipulation by those who already have the power to wield it. In the high-stakes world of Panahi’s fable, an absent image can be just as violent as a depiction of violence.

New York Film Festival
30 September – 16 October 2022

About The Author

Nolan Kelly is a writer and filmmaker currently living in Brooklyn, New York.

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