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.
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.
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.
A distraught interviewee in Homework
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:
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?
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.
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.)
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
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?
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. I’m not too keen on jewellery.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
Untitled (1999), oil on canvas by Mania Akbari
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.
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’:
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.
Hayes: You didn’t feel that he was
interfering in your role?
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 realised 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.
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 counselling? 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.
Abbas Kiarostami and Mania Akbari during the filming of 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.
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…
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 recognised this
process as a kind of purification of her own state:
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Mania Akbari, also, it is a painter’s analogy which springs to mind:
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.
Still life with kettle by Paul Cezanne
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.
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.’
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:
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.
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
found myself apologising 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
politicised the veil, so that it is no longer through religious conviction that
it is worn, as was previously the case. The veil has been secularised.
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, sceptical 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.
Akbari: Anyhow. I haven’t found
peace of mind yet. One day maybe….