Ten sequences examine the emotional lives of women at significant junctures.
‘I am unable to grasp the greatness of Abbas Kiarostami … Two digital cameras, a car and your actors, and off you go.’ When the great American film critic Roger Ebert dismissed 10 with these words (quoted in Andrew 2005: 8) he was swimming against a tide of critical consensus. The Iranian filmmaker was after all a familiar figure in critics’ polls for the Greatest Living Director, on the back of films such as Close Up (1990) and The Wind Will Carry Us (1999).1 Ebert’s view is nevertheless important for the way it raises key questions surrounding this film and how we assess it; but it also sheds light on the way we continue to talk in general about filmmaking and filmmakers.
Ebert’s main concern was with the way the film is viewed and discussed through the prism of Kiarostami’s ‘greatness’. Given that the idea of the auteur has dominated discussions of world cinema since the 1960s, and is still a main way through which we read and classify films, this is hardly surprising. 10, though, forces us to rethink the concept of the director as the film’s main creative vision. What Ebert found problematic about the film may therefore be what makes it most interesting.
The film’s credits give equal prominence to all cast and crew, with Kiarostami listed as merely the first of 25 names. While Kiarostami is technically in control of all aspects of the film (scripting, cinematography, editing), the emphasis here is on a more democratic process, within which the ‘director’ is just one presence among many. In the case of 10, this is actually a reflection of the film’s production, as the film literally undoes the notion of a director ‘behind the camera’: virtually the entire film is shot on two digital cameras fixed to the dashboard of a moving car, one facing the passenger seat, the other facing the driver. While theories of art cinema have tended to focus on aspects of style as an authorial signature, the distinctive feature of 10 is its apparent lack of style. Movement in the image is produced only by the city streets through which the car travels, or in the editing between one camera and the other; the only sound is that of dialogue and the ambient city noise caught by the cameras themselves.
The narrative of 10 seems initially just as unembellished as its shooting style. We are in present-day Tehran. A young boy, Amin, gets into the passenger seat of a car, en route for the local swimming pool. Over the course of 15 minutes, in a virtually unbroken shot, the boy harangues his off-screen mother – at this point only a voice from the driver’s side of the car – about her selfishness in divorcing his father and remarrying. It is only when the boy finally leaves the car in a rage that we have a reverse shot, revealing the source of the maternal voice: an elegant, subtly made-up woman in fashionable sunglasses (Mania Akbari, the boy’s real-life mother). Several (male) reviewers of the film make the point that the woman’s appearance comes as a surprise: her sophistication and attractiveness do not seem to match the shrill, hectoring voice through which, up to this point, we have perceived her.
Whether or not we agree with these inferences, the deliberate withholding of a face to go with the voice can only be a rhetorical decision on the part of the filmmaker(s); a deliberate teasing out of our visual expectations, which in turn prompts a set of questions: Why might our visual expectations prove so misguided? What is the history to this mother–son relationship, and what is the real power relationship between the two? Changing the shot at the very end of this first long sequence, and forcibly shifting our viewpoint, also marks a structural shift in the narrative, which from this point takes the mother’s point of view across nine further encounters and dialogues. Mostly these are with other female friends or women met on the road, thematically linked by the dominance of men in female lives (two of the women are experiencing unhappy relationships; one, unseen, is a prostitute). But these dialogues are also punctuated – and, significantly, ended – by further arguments between Mania and Amin.
The presence of a woman here in the literal and figurative driving seat may not seem remarkable to many viewers, but it is significant in the context of Kiarostami’s cinema: as Geoff Andrew points out, the character of Mania marks a radical shift in Iranian screen representation (Andrew 2005: 44–5). But the fact that Mania is apparently just a typical busy mother, trying to negotiate both her son’s mood swings and the Tehran traffic, begs the question of why this shift is so notable. In an essay written just before the making of 10, Azadeh Farahmand reminds us that Iranian cinema, with its strict codes regarding the representation of women, makes realistic representation almost impossible. For instance, because females on screen are considered to be in public view, they are obliged to wear the chador (full body cloak) and headscarf even in private, domestic scenes (Farahmand 2002: 99). While Kiarostami cannot challenge these codes within Iran’s Islamic Republic, Farahmand’s main criticism of his work prior to 10 is that he avoids the issue altogether, focusing instead on male protagonists and safer, ‘exotic’ films destined to succeed with international critics, and at festivals such as Cannes (where, in 1997, Kiarostami won the Palme d’Or for A Taste of Cherry).
In 10, however, Kiarostami addresses these criticisms with deceptive cinematic intelligence. The director has shown his fondness for the road movie format in previous films such as Life and Nothing More … (1992), but in 10 the choice of form has special connotations. Kiarostami’s choice to locate the 10 dialogues in a car is an economical means of creating visual interest from a static premise, given that the genre permits a permanently moving background. But, as Andrew points out, the car interior is also a distinctive social space, at once public and private (2005: 59–60). This would be less relevant in a male-centred film, but, in 10, it means that the female performers can be natural, intimate and believable, while still operating within the strict dress codes. The one moment of transgression occurs in the film’s penultimate sequence (the nearest thing to a climactic moment), where Mania’s friend, recently separated from her boyfriend, pulls back her headscarf to reveal her shaved head: a sequence that was consequently censored when the film was screened in Iran.
The decision to film with two digital cameras, besides the democratic and pragmatic virtues of being cheap and simple, also allows for other advantageous effects. While it is speculative to say that the performances are enhanced by the director’s non-presence, the fact that they are not directed or observed in any strict sense possibly helped to achieve the convincing blend of frankness and familiarity between its main performers. This would have been helped by the fact that digital cameras, unlike traditional film cameras, allow long takes such as that in the first sequence. But the invisible nature of the filmmaking in 10 also gives rise to marvellous intrusions of chance, which at once add to the film’s dramatic themes and bring the film closer to the feel of a documentary, be this the unplanned meeting with an old woman on her way to the temple (a meeting which partly determines the content of ensuing sequences), or the occasional leering, chauvinist comments elicited from passing male drivers.
10 in this way achieves the apparent spontaneity that a formative generation of great film theorists – chiefly amongst them André Bazin and Siegfried Kracauer – saw as the medium’s strength and purpose. Because the recorded incidents and discussions happened without the immediate intervention of a director, and seemed to have shaped the direction of the overall narrative, 10 exemplifies what Kracauer called ‘the found story’: a story that is ‘discovered rather than contrived … part and parcel of the raw material in which it lies dormant’ (Kracauer 1960: 246). It also appears to exemplify the aesthetic and philosophical goals of neorealism, as argued for by Bazin in his famous essay on Vittorio de Sica’s Umberto D: ‘to make cinema the asymptope of reality … in order that it should ultimately be life itself that becomes spectacle, in order that life might in this perfect mirror be visible poetry’ (Bazin 1971: 82). Neither Bazin nor Kracauer, however, driven as they are by an essentially religious belief in the redemptive possibilities of cinematic realism, are particularly interested in the politics of representation, especially from the point of view of gender.
The first thing to note in this respect is that the ‘found’ nature of 10, as already seen, is specifically bound up with the issue of female representation and visibility. The female protagonists of 10 remain consistently prescribed by the actions of men – whether it be a partner or husband that has left or died, or in Mania’s case, a son she must repeatedly collect and deposit – and consequently the private space of the car is a kind of temporary utopia at best. But then films themselves are inherently utopian, especially when their movement across borders affects the way they are perceived. Indeed, what is so problematic about the climactic unveiling sequence, described above, is that it only ‘exists’ outside its country of origin; both reflective of its place and social contexts, but non-representative of the national cinema culture from which it emerges. We might speculatively argue that the acting-out that takes place is a form of cathartic process for its protagonists, most of whom are apparently discussing their own lives and concerns; but this itself underlines the point that such catharsis is a result of the film, and the film cannot fully transcend the world it depicts. This is further suggested by the decision to end the film not with the cathartic conclusion, but with a coda that repeats an earlier sequence of Amin getting into the car, demanding to be taken to his grandmother’s. Indeed, the fact that the tyrannical patriarchal figure is actually a child makes the film’s reflection on gender roles and power truly unsettling.
Returning to the original point about authorship, then, the idea of a shaping creative vision is important, but only inasmuch as the ability to shape filmed footage towards poetic or rhetorical ends is a necessary one. Kiarostami’s skill is reflected in the way he selects and structures the material: how each sequence is juxtaposed with another, and how the rhythm within each sequence – what to leave out, when to cut between the two actors – is honed to particular cinematic effect (note for example the elegant way that, in the penultimate scene, silence and the movement back and forth between faces allows for a crucial moment of reflection and shared understanding). This judicious use is what gives the film its understated dramatic unity and emotional power. Given the film’s simplicity and generosity to its main subjects, though, attributing such effects to Kiarostami’s greatness, correctly or not, seems largely beside the point.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Iran. Production Company: Abbas Kiarostami Productions, MK2 Productions. Director: Abbas Kiarostami. Screenwriter: Abbas Kiarostami. Cinematographer: Abbas Kiarostami. Editors: Vahid Ghazi, Abbas Kiarostami and Bahman Kiarostami. Cast: Mania Akbari (Driver), Amin Maher (Amin).]
1. See for example the Guardian’s 2002 poll of ‘World’s Best Directors’, which placed Kiarostami sixth: http://film.guardian.co.uk/ features/page/0,11456,1082823,00.html (accessed 26 August 2012).
2. It is worth pointing out that 10, like most of Kiarostami’s output since the late 1990s, is co-produced by the French company MK2. His work’s ‘nationality’ is consequently a debatable issue, as his recent films have benefitted from mainly European structures of investment and distribution.
Geoff Andrew, 10, London: BFI, 2005.
André Bazin, ‘Umberto D: A Great Work’, in What is Cinema? Volume II, trans. Hugh Gray, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1971, pp. 79–82.
Azadeh Farahmand, ‘Perspectives on Recent (International Acclaim for) Iranian Cinema’, in Richard Tapper (ed.), The New Iranian Cinema: Politics, Representation and Identity, London and New York, I.B. Tauris, 2002, pp. 86–108.
Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1960. Neil Archer
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.