Iran (2002) Dir. Abbas Kiarostami
Forgive me as I am not entirely sure how to describe this film let alone review it. It isn’t through being weird or impenetrable as it is neither of those things but it is different. Oddly enough, I have already reviewed a similar film no doubt inspired by this one but that had more structured narrative to it whereas this one is a lot freer.
Perhaps I should elaborate – Ten is shot exclusively in a car being driven by the same unnamed woman (Mania Akbari) and comprises of – you guessed it – ten conversations she has with different passengers. These are designed to reflect on the attitudes of contemporary Iran whilst touching on the treatment of women, regarding their social status and the freedoms, or lack thereof, afforded to them.
A regular topic for many Iranian directors, it is no surprise Abbas Kiarostami would throw his voice into the mix, taking an unusual approach later employed by Jafar Panahi in his 2015 film Taxi Tehran. The major difference is that Panahi had been banned by the Iranian government from filmmaking and was filming in secret – Kiarostami had no such restrictions, just a simple, economic idea for a film.
Both films involve discussions about the state of the country but Panahi’s is the more political of the two as well as a meta attack on the oppression of filmmakers. Kiarostami tells a rather tenuous story through his conversations involving the female driver’s life. Her first passenger is her own son Armin (Akbari’s own son Armin Maher, who has since gone on to become a transgender filmmaker now called Amina), who features in a further three more scenes.
Taking Armin to the pool, the boy is openly hostile towards his mother for remarrying and Armin hates his stepfather. Armin also chastises his mother for lying in court about is father to get a divorce. His mother explains that for a woman in Iran to get a divorce, she has to declare either domestic abuse or her husband being a drug addict. Armin doesn’t care and gets out of the car in a mood.
During this opening scene, the camera is trained solely on Armin and it is not until the end when it cuts to showing his mother, a striking woman in trendy shades and white headscarf. She may be distraught at her son’s attitude towards her and honestly, it is shocking how Armin speaks to her but she lets him get away with it because she loves him, and possibly, Sharia Law insists the male is always right.
Oddly enough, there are moments where Armin comes across as precociously logical for a nine year-old in discussing these matters. His poetic eloquence explaining why his stepfather is a stranger to him could have come from a man eight times his age, it is a shame this mature sense of rationale isn’t shown when listening to his mother’s side of the story.
Next, the woman’s sister (Mandana Sharbaf), a teacher, is also having trouble with her child accusing her of being a bad mother. Later in the film, the sister is distraught when her husband of seven year suddenly leaves her and the driver is forced to tell her to toughen up and move on. The concept of love in a relationship is bandied about, more so in the discussion with a prostitute (Roya Akbari, Mania’s younger sister, a filmmaker and artist in her own right).
Mistaking the driver for a client in the dark, they drive around a bit and the topic turns to why the girl is in this line of business. She sees it as a trade, and is able to distinguish sex from love. When asked if she feels any guilt or shame, the girl feels the driver is talking down to her, but admits she sometimes feels bad for the wives who call their husbands while they are with her and they lie about coming home soon.
I find it intriguing a country that treats women with disdain as immoral and obscene over the slightest thing has a prostitution scene. Presumably, this is part of their patriarchal right to have their cake and eat it, but it seems anomalous for women in an oppressed society to voluntarily to be in this position, unless it is a form of feminist control to them.
Contrasting this is the pious old lady the driver picks up to take the Mausoleum to pray for her dead husband and son, which she does three times a day. The final passenger is a woman leaving the Mausoleum (Roya Arabshahi), praying her boyfriend will propose to her, despite not being religious herself. This plot is concluded in the penultimate scene.
So why is this film so difficult to review? For starters, it is atypical of any other I have seen, even Taxi Tehran, and features just one of two shots, either the driver or the passenger, with few cuts between them. This might sound like pure drudgery for some audiences and I can see why yet I did find it engaging through the natural performances despite the clearly scripted foundation for the improvised dialogue.
Whilst telling a story through dialogue and not action isn’t a new concept, its application here is more about making a statement, and for non-Iranians like myself, there is a lot to unpack in these discussion simply from trying to appreciate the context from which they are derived. This is one occasion where a straight fictional narrative would help us outsiders, but the upside is the lack of perceived artifice from the non-professional cast and uncomplicated imagery.
Kiarostami might have inadvertently created the template for reality TV with Ten except there is substance, gravity, and social importance to his work. It’s ingeniously simple and so realistic it sometimes feels like an out of body experience rather watching a film, but whatever it may be, it does so much by doing so little.