In one evening at Film Forum one can watch several films that are related in ways you may not anticipate; Jafar Panahi’s No Bears, and three films packaged as James Baldwin Abroad [James Baldwin: From Another Place (1973) directed by Sedat Pakay, Meeting the Man: James Baldwin in Paris (1971) directed by Terence Dixon, and Baldwin’s n****r (1968) directed by Horace Ové].
Both men slide between fictional and non-fictional worlds and contexts. In the Iranian director’s project, he is playing himself directing a film in Turkey remotely from just over the border in Iran (if you’ve tried to direct something remotely you know the frustrations). It isn’t made entirely clear why he is doing this, but we know that in his own country of Iran Panahi is in prison for attempting to leave, and his prior film was in fact directed from house arrest. In the Baldwin films, we see Baldwin attempting to create, shape and sometimes deflect attention from the identity he has gained, as a writer, expat, American Black (and sexually suspect) man. He crossed a border, an ocean, from America to Europe and from there tried to re-create himself, needing distance to regard America and its attempts to define and engulf him.
In the first film of the three, Baldwin wanders around Istanbul, the camera following. Faces in the crowds seem more focused on the camera than on the Black American strolling through. The puckish Baldwin can be said to sashay, making no effort to blend in or spy. He is fully there, performing. Panahi’s character seems to hide in plain sight, to record but not be recorded. The small country village in Iran (the countries aren’t explicitly identified in the film itself) in which Panahi takes refuge is not a refuge at all, as it demands from him acknowledgment and at least passing obedience to its superstitions and oppressive customs. The layered incredulity of the character Panahi towards these strange ways echoes in Baldwin’s frustration with the white British filmmakers (Meeting the Man) trying to document his life. Baldwin, no matter where he is, articulates the pressure of American history and attitudes. Baldwin lets loose, while Panahi’s character, in the confines of the movie within the movie, can never really do so. His director is cautious and taciturn, while Baldwin is expansive, emotionally volatile, and clearly a (former) preacher. Baldwin’s elusiveness plays behind a cascade of thoughtful, soulful language, where the Iranian remains tight-lipped.
The contrast between what is recorded and what is “off-camera” powers both films. Panahi alarms the town by filming what appears to be a banal domestic scene, a scene the record of which inflames possessive jealousy in a clearly unhinged resident. In contrast, Baldwin, in all three films, is the one being recorded, his commentary and his writing revealing what runs in the background of America’s sentimental perspective of itself. America’s interest in Baldwin masks the threats to his person and to all Black Americans, but we do not see them. We don’t have to (and he is unwilling to provide that service). In Panahi’s film, we witness the (initially) muted aggression of the local community, but the Revolutionary Guards, while spoken of, are never seen. Nor do we see the much referred to smugglers.
As I write this there is news of yet another young Black man, Keenan Anderson, killed by police (LAPD) after a minor traffic accident. The ghost of James Baldwin hovers. We are “free” here in America to record this, to make explicit such oppression. Panahi, lacking that freedom, shoots (his camera) over the wall.