10 x Ten: Kiarostami's Journey
By Ed Hayes
Originally Published in openDemocracy
Ten: the latest film of Abbas Kiarostami tells stories of love, pain, divorce, womanhood and everyday humanity through conversations between a Tehrani woman and the passengers she picks up in her car. In London, openDemocracy's Farsi-speaking intern talked to Iran's leading film director and Ten's actress Mania Akbari.
"Ten" is a great film. Ten car journeys, ten dialogues, ten emotional situations. The result is the most powerful sense of intimacy: a power deriving from the depth of realism achieved. Watching "Ten," in contrast to the comfortable contract of voyeurism associated with most film viewing experiences, fact or fiction, one has the slightly uneasy sense of sudden personal involvement. A film supremely sensitive to the impact of some lives on other's lives, it is as if the spectator is welded into the fabric of the car - the inanimate eavesdropping on the animate.
In it, seasoned Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami uses the dramatic potential of modern digital video technology to wonderful effect. To his long-standing practice of asking non-professional 'actors' to play themselves, he now adds his own physical absence from the film shoot. The director is not behind the camera. Instead, Kiarostami used two digital video cameras only slightly bigger than a 20-pack of cigarettes, trained on the front seats of a car, to shoot the film. He edited it from 23 hours of footage.
"Ten" centers on a divorced woman and her relationship with her son, Amin. The actress Mania Akbari is herself a divorcee, and Amin is her own son. We watch the son, without inhibition in the way today's children can be with parents, caught between his separated mother and father in their battle for possession, self-possession and respect. Through the mother's struggles with the child, a little tragedy is played out. Pride and possessiveness make communication hideously painful. Meanwhile, various aspects of womanhood are embodied by the women who catch a lift with Akbari. This is a drama of the deferred nature of human fulfillment- a tragedy most people in any audience are all too able to identify with, in any country.
To describe "Ten" as a 'little tragedy' is not to belittle the film, but to describe a quality which makes it particularly fitting to a modern understanding of the tragic. Perhaps great tragedy need not be epic or all-encompassing right now. The purifying depiction and recognition of human imperfection does not ring true to us if it makes grandiose claims. Instead, we are offered the tragedy of the passing minute, the momentary gesture, frown or falsehood - gestures that express the difficulty of living amongst humanity, gestures that perpetuate this difficulty.
"Ten" begins once a million of these gestures of daily life have already been played out between its characters, and the small tragedies of their lives are set. In the film's opening scene, mother and son negotiate a familiar game of cat and mouse in and between the rutted tracks of past deceptions and betrayals. The mother defends her right to divorce and tries to make Amin see the difficulty of her position in society, in the process defaming Amin's father. Amin reacts violently, strenuously defending his father, and soon adding to the mutual bad-mouthing he deplores. Each seems trapped, unable to give or receive help.
In the moment of viewing, it does not matter that we cannot distinguish between the fictional scenario, and whatever the relationship is between the 'real' little boy, Amin and Mania, his mother. In his 1990 classic Close Up, Kiarostami balanced his drama on the knife-edge between reality and performance. In "Ten," the sense of real, unmediated selves is what matters most. Its scenes have a similar fascination to the margins of a home movie when the camera catches glimpses of unguarded reality. But by focusing, not on an involved plot line, but on the essential aspects of a character reacting to events in the context of a particular life situation, Kiarostami allows the smallness of contemporary tragedy to breathe freely. The final moment of "Ten" suggests continuation rather than resolution.
I spoke to both Abbas Kiarostami and Mania Akbari in London, before "Ten" opened at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA). On this visit at any rate, Kiarostami demonstrated a mild contempt for publicity, suddenly cutting a day of interviews to a quarter. He is aware that he is an acquired taste, and does not seem to feel the need to widen his appeal, as long as he can go on making the films he wants. As he put it, 'My films do not have a large audience in any country' - an attitude that scarcely deters either the rapt attention of an ever-swelling, loyal following, or growing critical approval.
I knew he rarely talked about his emotions or personal life in detail, preferring to let his films stand for themselves. In interviews over the years, Kiarostami has concentrated almost exclusively on the technical and philosophical aspects of his films. But his reticence did not come across as shyness. My fifteen minutes with him suddenly seemed rather intrusive.
I need not have worried. Despite the dark glasses shielding his eyes, this well dressed, well preserved 60-odd, far from being a difficult customer, was obliging, polite and tolerant of my imperfect Farsi. He also oozed control. Meticulous in his movements, gesturing fluidly and smiling little, his physical impression echoed the understated, subtly structured, but nevertheless immaculate control he exercises over his films. It reminded me of his one film appearance that I can recollect, in his documentary "Homework" (1989), where he questions the nervous school children about themselves, his eyes invisible behind dark glasses, his face as impassive as the hard lens of the camera beside him.
But Kiarostami is clearly able to temper this quality with the gentleness, charm and understanding of people that leads his non-professional actors to trust him with the manipulation of their images and their cinematic selves. I wanted to know about the emotional burden of directing people, a question that he deftly sidestepped to concentrate on the film's emotional effect on the audience:
Ed Hayes: …I found the first scene of the film, with its depiction of the friction between the mother and son, very painful to watch. How do you maintain that balance that I see between the compassion and the ruthlessness of the director in your films?
Abbas Kiarostami: …I don't know whether I was able to or not. However, what we have got…yes indeed, it was hard. In the screening [at the London ICA the previous evening] you saw that people laughed. They found it very funny. They saw the sarcasm, but they were not aware of the sheer difficulty of the relationship between those two human beings. For me, I understood their laughter, but at the same time I would say that they were not understanding the problems of this relationship at all. It was compelling, but…well, it wasn't amusing.
Kiarostami drew attention to the difference in the reaction of the audience to his own interpretation of the scenes, because their reaction, right or wrong, is clearly of the utmost interest to him. At a question-and-answer session preceding the special screening of "Ten," he did not want to disclose its details to those members of the audience who had not yet seen it. His stated aim has always been to make space for the interaction of the audience in his films, by weaving in narrative lacunae, scenes shot in darkness, moments of stasis and other spaces, saying, 'This is what I call a film: a triangle of the director, the actor and the spectator.' (See a report of another interview.)
Nevertheless, it is a definitive version of reality that Kiarostami presents us with. No relativising post-modernist - his priority is to project the essential nature of his subject.
"Ten" is free of any kind of narrative commentary on the action. There is no swelling music to guide our reaction, no special make-up or lighting to demarcate good from bad. Instead, it is a moral arena. The film's discussion of morality is presented by characters who represent different perspectives on universal questions. Morality is depicted in its differences, not to render it meaningless, but to show that it is contested. The mother justifies her own freedom and her divorce as a necessary escape. Her son asserts the impact of this rupture on his own life. The conflict between the two is not only a selfish assertion of each one's own needs. They are disputing the extent to which one should be bound to other people: their desires and needs. At first, the mother asserts her right to be unfettered, telling her son that he does not own her nor she him. In the midst of the shouting, Amin appears reasonable while his mother's repeated emphasis on freedom begins to sound ridiculous:
Mania: I'll tell you something. No one belongs to anyone, not even you;
you're my child but you're not mine. You belong to this world…
Mania: …We try to live here…
Amin: …That's right…but you don't let me speak! I'm only a child. I can't
belong to myself. I have to grow up to attain an age that will allow me to
belong to myself.
Mania: What's your problem today? You have to be mine?
Later, Mania accidentally gives a ride to a prostitute. This presents her and us with a very different conception, both of freedom and the bondage of social ties. Perversely attracted to the prostitute's lifestyle, she cannot reconcile herself to the idea of relinquishing the bond of love. When Mania asks her passenger about how she is able to reduce physical love to a transaction, the prostitute pokes fun at her naive sense of the relations between people, showing that there are material trade-offs in every relationship:
Prostitute: Who bought you that necklace?
Mania: It's fake. Iím not too keen on jewelry.
Prostitute: Who bought it for you?
Mania: My husband.
Prostitute: You see… [giggling] and that night he gave you…
Mania: You're saying that life is all trade?
Prostitute: I don't care…but you have to give and take as well. [pause]
You're the wholesalers and we're the retailers.
Then there is the lift Mania gives to a dutiful old lady, whom she picks up to help her journey to a mosque. She describes her hardships and the importance of prayer. The word 'Islam' means submission, and this old lady represents this element of religion, contrasting with the younger Mania's struggle against the world around her. She quavers that she has only a pilgrimage rosary to her name; that she gave away all her possessions, her ten pillows and her eight mattresses. Mania's response, 'Very good, the fewer ties you have, the better', seems rather hard-hearted, a suspicion confirmed by the occasion when she scolds a sister abandoned by her husband of seven years, for being over-dependent. Even though she is in the driving seat, she is not shown as infallible. These alternative attitudes to living in the world are left to vibrate in harmony or dissonance upon the screen.
Abbas Kiarostami is an exacting director when it comes to achieving the realism he wants. In "Homework," playing the adult inquisition he remains impassive as a child weeps, terrified by the ordeal, until his friend arrives. For one scene in "Ten" where a character had to appear miserable, he told us, he invited the actress to give him a call any time she was feeling really wretched. That is when they shot the scene. The old lady who had given away all her possessions was entirely unaware of the camera's presence, merely making use of a lift in Mania Akbari's car. Throughout filming her son, Amin thought they were only doing screen tests, and wanted to know when the 'real' film would start.
Mania, however, was consciously willing to put herself entirely in his hands. In the question-and-answer session, she often deferred to Kiarostami, pausing over a question that she considered might give away something important about the film, and thereby court his disapproval.
Yet it is more of a two-way relationship than this might suggest: a deeper trust between artists, built up in the process of filming. As Mania described it, 'Even though I did not watch many films, I was really excited by "Close-Up." After seeing it, I decided that one day I should definitely get to know Abbas Kiarostami from close quarters.' Hearing along the grapevine that he was planning to make a film about women, Mania sent him a fax expressing interest. In composing her fax, she said she tried to tailor it to Kiarostami's own style: sincere and minimalist. He asked her to write something or film something, and so she made a film of herself talking to the camera about herself. He watched it and explained how he would make it less theatrical. She shot another video. Kiarostami liked it and they started shooting. Originally Mania was to be in one section of a planned film on conversations between a psychiatrist and his patients. But as shooting went on, Kiarostami concentrated on her. The film became "Ten."
During the question-and-answer session, Kiarostami joked that while people normally say that he has ruined their lives, Mania says he has made hers better through making the film. About ruining lives, was he in jest or in earnest? The kind of exposure that it takes to produce the accurate distillation, which is the hallmark of his characters, must surely vanish once the film is over. What must it be like to lose these creatures of one's art, once the charming and coaxing is over?
The word Abbas Kiarostami used to describe his role was not 'control'. It was hedayat - guidance, a term that retains a sense of the free will of the subject, like divine guidance. The film was shot according to a script, but this was for Kiarostami's eyes only. Before shooting a scene, he would describe the situation he required, and the actress would drive off with the cameras rolling. Direction took place after watching the footage, a different method to the conventional director's sculpting of screen performance:
Kiarostami: Really, I guided her in order that she manifest her own self more. At first, yes, she was a bit theatrical. I made her understand that I did not want her to act, I wanted her to be close to herself. I told her 'don't act' and 'be yourself' and so…she understood in her role it was necessary that she should be with the realities of her self rather than playing a part, and should not think about the films she'd seen and the characters she'd seen, and so… she altered and became more herself.
Certainly, both Kiarostami and Mania were in agreement over what realism comprised - a closeness to one's 'self', to one's essential nature. But there may be nothing at all obvious about 'being oneself':
Mania Akbari: We watched some of the rushes together after filming and he would say, 'Here you are very angry, excessively so, and it's not good to be so angry. So let's do the sequence again tomorrow noon, or afternoon, and try to bring your tone of voice down, be less angry in your dialogue. If you watch yourself, you'll see it wasn't good at all.' I saw that he was right - it was very aggressive, very angry. When I saw this, I could act better. It was better for me.
Ed Hayes: You didn't feel that he was interfering in your role?
Mania Akbari: No, not at all, because I felt that in this film the acting doesn't dominate as such. He mainly reminded me of myself. He would say 'Watch out! Your anger and harshness sometimes become aggravating.' This particular moment in the film wasn't actually important to him, but I was seeing myself within the film…and I realized that I had to be more humble. This film had a very therapeutic aspect for me. Why? Because I saw into myself, into my moods, my contradictions, my psychological contrasts.
If you have seen Kiarostami's films, this will ring bells: the overall mood of many of his films is resignation to life and a certain restraint. Kiarostami has vigorously affirmed his dislike for the 'noisy films' produced in Hollywood, or in Iran on an American model. While obviously correcting a theatricality in Mania Akbari's performance, he seems also to be recommending a way of life to his actress; she should achieve a more balanced essential character as well as a more balanced performance. What are we dealing with here? Film direction hovering on the edge of counseling? Mimesis forever sliding towards the pursuit of an ideal? The correction of her character is a move closer to the real, but also a move towards the ideal.
"Ten" vividly captures this tension within Mania's nature. It made me recall the incredible performances Kiarostami coaxed out of the child-like Sabzian, sinning, lying and confessing in "Close Up," or the astute, shy, betrayed child, Farzad, in "The Wind Will Carry Us." 'Realism' remains the stated intention. But Kiarostami's cinema homes in on the actors' awareness of an artistic ideal, which parallels the self-improvement of our actual lives. Ten enshrines a fascinating cinematic analogue to the uncertainty principle. As we try to capture the essence of Mania's character in fleeting encounters, it really changes.
Abbas Kiarostami: …Her character changed. Her irritability altered. She became aware of her very aggressive state. Very gradually it happened in the course of the film that she became quieter, more tranquil and the result was that her character turned, and the film became dynamic. This was in the course of three months of shooting…
This change, and the resulting change which we witness in the relationship between mother and child, is very powerfully represented in the final cut of "Ten." At first, in her clashes with Amin, his mother is desperate to justify herself. She compares her husband to her new man. She says that before she was like a corpse, whereas now she is like a river in full flood. Of course Amin will react badly to this. By the end of the film, they still argue, but the mother is less anxious to justify herself. While there is enough tension in her relations to preclude a happy ending, she seems more relaxed, resigned to the inevitability of her little tragedy - the fact of distance emerging between her and her son. In all great dramas we witness characters changing as they live through events, and we change with them. In retrospect, Mania recognized this process as a kind of purification of her own state:
Mania Akbari: In the moment of performance, I didn't think about it as a dialogue with the world, but afterwards, many of my inner fears poured away. Why? Because I thought that I was making a connection with all the people of the world - I have cried out some of my own words, my internal needs, with a loud voice…and this was, for me, very calming.
It is something new for Kiarostami that he should concentrate so unswervingly upon the directly human. (Ten's only respite from this comes from snatches of Tehran glimpsed behind the characters, through the car window.) Even his "A Taste of Cherry" returned time and again to the images of the earth being turned over by diggers on a construction site, and finally to shots of the car from a distance, contextualising humanity within the landscape. Kiarostami originally studied fine art at university whilst paying for his studies by working as a traffic policeman. Only later did he find his way into a job making adverts. He still paints, and takes landscape photographs.
But in "Ten," Kiarostami leaves aside his great credentials as a cinematic landscape artist, relying entirely on his ability to direct people. Not, it seems, as in a theatre. There is no less emphasis on the film's artifice, which remains with us throughout, in its countdown of scenes numbered 10, 9, 8…. The metaphor Abbas Kiarostami offers me to describe his role, is of a dynamic mirror:
Abbas Kiarostami: I imagine that everyone, who uses a mirror to look closely at him or herself, changes. I employ such a mirror so that one can examine, discern one's faults, so that one can make a fuller comparison of oneself in connection with others. Cinema can be a mirror in which we see ourselves, but also those around us within society, helping not just the actor, but also the spectator.
He was positively keen to make the point that he did not choose his actors because they were exceptional, but rather representative of something universal. We can see this in the presentation of a number of women in different stages of their lives, or in the search for balance in Mania's character. She is not the star of the film, but the fulcrum for the interaction between various representatives of humanity. If she doesn't exactly 'represent' us - she probably does something more important than that. She is like us.
For Mania Akbari, also, it is a painter's analogy which springs to mind:
Mania Akbari: In my view, this film "Ten" resembles Cezanne's "Coffee Table." You know why? Because in this film, both we, the spectators, are in the effect, and at the same time the effect is in us. Because it is a reality from the inner parts of every person.
The audience at "Ten's" ICA screening contained a fair proportion of expatriate Iranians, who questioned the political connotations of the film. There was an audible ripple through the audience at Kiarostami's emphatic denial that he was trying to make any political point. For a community many of whom have been excluded from Iran since the revolution, a condemnation of the present regime is the mandatory gesture.
Meanwhile, the western press has repeatedly identified Amin, Mania's son, as a symbol of Iranian manhood. As the only male who gets into the car, maybe it is tempting to extrapolate from this to the point where "Ten" becomes a critique of Iranian patriarchy. Amin, ordering his mother to be more traditional, becomes a portrait of burgeoning Iranian masculinity. (He tells her that she should have been at home more, cooked him more meals and washed up, rather than leaving it to the maid.) One critic even commented on Amin's 'quintessentially Islamic hand gestures of argumentation.'
But when is a quintessence quintessential? True, Kiarostami has long grappled with the difficulty of portraying women realistically under the strict guidelines laid down by Iranian film censorship. However, Mania for one, concurred with his categoric denial of the film's Iranian politics:
Mania Akbari: This film, in my opinion, talks about how relationships today are empty and distant from love. All women in the world, and men for that matter, thirst for love. This film isn't anti-men. Relationships have become transactions, have become materialist. I think this is what the film shows.
It is true that Mania's character rails against the difficulty of a woman's life in Iran today, having to claim that their husband is a drug addict to procure a divorce. But this is her statement in character, not part of an overall polemic. Amin has difficulties also. His fierce complaints against his mother are less the demand of a self-conscious burgeoning masculinity, than a child's impotent sense of instability in a world where his parents are at each other's throats.
I found myself apologizing to Mania for our tendency to see 'the veil' in everything that comes out of Iran. But she excused this reduction, as really the fault of Iran. It was, she argued, the conservative authorities who had politicized the veil, so that it is no longer through religious conviction that it is worn, as was previously the case. The veil has been secularized.
In general, "Ten," by portraying those strands of Iranian life which tally most with our own, gives the lie to any simple notion of a fundamentalist Iran. This is not another exotic film about Kurdish peasants. Mania Akbari's character is well off, educated, skeptical and urbane. In one scene, discussing with a friend the reasons for praying at the mosque, theirs is the uncertainty and yearning common to the experience of spirituality in the modern age:
Mother/driver/Mania Akbari: You believe now?
Friend: To a certain extent. Actually when I come to the shrine it soothes me.
Mother/driver/Mania Akbari: Anyhow. I haven't found peace of mind yet.
One day maybe…
Originally Published March 12, 2002
Bibliography / Endnotes
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