This first-time director from Iran inspires cheers and controversy
As the lights at Arclight’s swanky movie theater go up at the end of Mania Akbari’s 20 Fingers at Los Angeles’ 2004 AFI Film Festival, a swarthy Iranian gentleman seated more or less center/center stands up and begins the Q&A session with the following in Farsi:
“Khanoomeh Akbari, Haalaa keh shoma een zahmat o keshidid behtar nemibood keh be jaayeh film shoma yek navar soti zabt mikardid va dar cinema na vaghteh maa na vaghteh khodetoon ro haroom mikardin?”
“Ms. Akbari, seeing as you’ve gone to all this trouble, wouldn’t it have been better if instead of a film you’d just made an audio recording of the dialogue? You’d have spared us and not wasted our time or your own on this film.”
And that wasn’t all. After he had received a measured answer from the director — she acknowledged there were many forms of cinema, and that a plot-driven drama that might have appealed to him was not the film she was interested in making — her interlocutor stood up again to rail against the film and ask his second question: Why did this film did not resemble another film he’d seen and liked much more Shabeh Yalda that also dealt with relationships?
There was more to come…
As Akbari, an attractive 30-year old Iranian woman with close-cropped short hair walked out of the movie theater at the end of this official Q&A, a slightly older Iranian came up weeping and accused her of propagating “lies and filth” about Iranians and their relationships “up there on the screen.”
Mania Akbari’s film 20 Angosht (20 Fingers) was first shown at the Venice Film Festival earlier in 2004 and has, at present, not received permission to screen uncut in Iran, where it was made. It is composed of seven vignettes, shot in video and transferred to film, in which the same two actors — Mania Akbari and Bijan Daneshmand — the film’s director and producer respectively — represent seven different couples engaged in intimate conversation.
For the most part, the frame is close and tight, and it is only the audio track, with its ambient noises of what lies outside the frame, that lets us see the greater world, the public context in which the couples’ private life is unraveling. There are a few wider shots. In these too, the sense of claustrophobic conflict builds palpably. In one such scene, a couple travels through Tehran on a motorcycle. The woman carries her infant child between herself and the man as they zip around the busy Tehran traffic and fight about whether or not he will allow her to have an abortion. It is a wrenching scene, a good example of how Akbari’s direction exposes the minute and often painful negotiations that underlie these relationships.
The film’s strong suit is its ability to turn the relationships inside out in the course of one parenthetical conversation. 20 Fingers presents its characters stripped bare of all their masks and defenses and in moments of extreme intimacy. The picture here is complex and worrisome, the struggle for dominance within a couple universal, the Iranian setting and characters notwithstanding. At the second screening, more than half of the twenty-odd questions were asked by non-Iranians who saw the film as relevant to their own experience of intimacy.
20 Fingers is poised to aggravate viewers not only because of its difficult visuals but also because of its challenge to some of the quiet conventions and self-deceptions that relationships can be built on. Akbari seems almost obsessed with revealing the characters to themselves as well as to us and in pushing them to a point where they must break down and face their own truths. In this regard, her work brings to mind John Cassavetes’ films. Asked if she was familiar with his work, she said she has no idea who he is.
In each conversation, we watch the relationship head into uncharted waters. There is an innate reticence. It’s easier to just stay on the surface. But there is also a sense of danger that grows with each line of dialogue. Swirling somewhere inside the maelstrom of conflicting motivations and desires revealed by the dialogue, the question that hangs, as if it had been asked and the film were the answer to it, is “What is love?” The director seems determined to dismantle some of the comfortable notions that allow the term to be used as a safe cover. At the same time, the word’s definition seems to expand. When Akbari sees her characters playing games, she calls them on it, again and again, until she reaches truth, no matter what the consequence. No wonder the reactions are so strong.
The original plan to use seven different couples in each of the film’s segments was scrapped after she shot the first vignette with Bijan Daneshmand. Akbari chose to stick with him throughout, playing the female parts herself. There is a great chemistry between the pair, and the ease with which they summon intimacy before a camera recalls the acting of long-standing ensemble casts who have soldered a relationship together over years. Daneshmand’s performance is strong and credible in each segment, but it is Akbari who propels the film forward in every episode — she is the woman who will not be shushed, who will not let up, and who pushes the envelope until something breaks.
While she readily acknowledges the influence of Abbas Kiarostami‘s cinema — she plays the lead in his film Ten — she seems utterly undaunted by it. 20 Fingers is distinguished by an unusual and unmitigated sincerity that is distinctly her own and that represents a bold new voice.
It is a shame that the film’s English subtitles are so poor — especially given the weight the dialogue must carry in the film. The Persian language, idiomatic and playful, runs along almost breezily, and tensions build. The subtitles here are at best functional and often archaic. Those who stuck with the screening felt rewarded in spite of this shortcoming.
Here is a transcript and translation of segments of my conversation with Akbari at the AFI Fest 2004. The conversation was conducted in Farsi.
Dorna Khazeni: How long have you been working in film and what were you doing before that?
Mania Akbari: I’ve only been involved with cinema for three or four years. I was a painter before. I began with painting. But I discovered art much earlier on. I was ten or eleven. My earliest influences were Sohrab Sepehri and Forough Farrokhzad. I began with literature, and literature always stays with you. I showed my paintings in Iran and outside. My first serious work in the cinema was Ten with Abbas Kiarostami.
How did you come to be in that film?
Abbas Kiarostami’s subject was women. I knew him, and we had spoken several times about women’s issues. He found my perspective interesting and also aspects of my own experience interesting. Whenever things actually come together, there is a collusion of events and energies. You’re aware of some things and not quite aware of others. Things just came together — there was forward motion.
When you refer to aspects of your own experience, do you mean to refer to the fact that you yourself are a mother?
Yes. The boy acting in the film [in Ten] is my own son. The relationship between the mother and son is one that I can feel in an almost tactile way. I understand their conflicts, their difficulties, their needs, their jealousies, their problems. I have also experienced divorce and can understand that, too. Once a person has experienced something, they can truly represent it, articulate it, and understand it. At first it is an internal experience, then it becomes external. Naturally, once it is apparent on the outside, once it’s externalized, it also affects what is on the inside. That is what happened.
I think this is what is so interesting in this film — it’s also true of Ten, but more so here — there’s a feeling of penetrating a very private and interior space that is not often the one we see on a movie screen. What we most often see on a screen are the dramatic moments of a story. Whereas all the moments leading to that dramatic moment are so much more interesting. Usually we aren’t shown them. In this film we see those moments.
It’s like if you could open the window of a neighbor’s house and secretly watch and listen in on their relationship. I call this space “cinema therapy.” I have no objection to cinema as entertainment, cinema that presents the heights of excitement, action, or fear. That too is cinema. But for me art is something that acts as a mirror and that can help you grow and change, that creates a constant pondering in your mind. It is that that makes you see yourself and question things as they are. It is a question mark. A question is the greatest of all things. Somewhere in the film there is this question: “Can one really love two people?” The very question of what love is and where it’s used and whether someone can really in his or her mind nurture and nourish two different people? And whether he or she should? All this leads to debate. Or where the woman announces, “I’ve slept with a woman and it made me feel powerful. After playing at surrender all these years and having you hold the power in the game — I grew tired of that.” The whole film is about how much of a game relationships are and how people, for their own sake, for their own sense of security and their own satisfaction, are willing to lie so much to themselves just to preserve something — something that is really fear. My feeling is that today we need to delve a little deeper within, to see a little where we are. Everything outside us is moving by at high speed. Maybe soon, the easiest and most ordinary trip will be a trip to the moon. Who knows? But “so what?” What about on the inside? Where is this human with this mindset going inside? What is he or she experiencing within while everything outside changes? Inside people are still the same old people, worn down, old, and holding the same old beliefs and traditions. There is turmoil in our relationships today.
Do you really believe that all relationships are games? Certainly in the vignettes in your films it seems the relationships could fall into your definition of games, but do you believe that a relationship can be something more?
There is not just one remedy for every ailment. The doctor prescribes different medicines for different ailments. There are many ailments and many medicines. My prescription may only work for me and not for others. But with regards to myself I think there exist two sorts of people. Those who decide only to live with their strengths, who discover their strengths and also know and embrace their weaknesses. Then there are those who choose to live only with their weaknesses. People today must become aware, and that awareness consists of recognizing both one’s weaknesses and one’s strengths and even questioning strength is to be defined. This will allow one to establish the greatest relationship with one’s surroundings. Problems arise in relationships when people hide. People have so many fears and they hide to protect themselves. I believe this happens more with women than with men in relationships.
I feel that it happens this way everywhere.
Can you tell me a little about yourself, where you were born, raised, your childhood?
I was born in Tehran. My father is a physics professor and my mother is a chemistry professor. Two very specialized fields. Our bookshelves at home there were full of books about the structure of the atom, Einstein, Marie Curie, chemistry, this or that molecule, x to the power of y and so on and so forth. There was nothing but nothing about cinema. There were perhaps some classics of Persian literature like Hafiz or Rumi. But the life I began in from childhood was a highly science-based specialized home. But our home life was highly specialized in the sciences. The papers we received at home were science journals. My father called me “Mania,” which he believed to be Marie Curie’s nickname as a child. He hoped one day I would become another Marie Curie, that is to say that I would go into labs and make a significant discovery of some sort.
The other thing I remember is that for our birthdays we always received mini-labs, test tubes, strange creatures floating in alcohol. We began writing compositions in school when I was 11 or 12. I always received the highest grade for my essays. When I was 14, I wrote a book that received a prize in the school and then in the whole school district and in the province. My father and my family were not very pleased. They said, “Yes, well, this is fine. But why are you getting C’s and D’s in your science subjects?” As a well-known physics teacher, my father was shocked and disappointed when his daughter received poor grades in physics. Anyway, parents really always wish their children to be a repetition of themselves, to be what they want, not what they are meant to be.
My choice of pursuing art was heavily challenged. It began with the family and extended to society, to my husband… the whole of society. At the time I began pursuing a career in art, Islamic law was so strict — these were the days when the use of the color red was forbidden in paintings in Iran. The use of black was banned. It was wartime. We had to go to school wearing the maqna’eh, the veil that is closed around the chin leaving only the circle of the face open. My adolescent years, when I was 13 and 14, were extremely difficult years. This was a period when a poetic sentence could be interpreted as an expression of love and could have dire consequences. I was expelled from school several times. I stood up against their rules, against tradition, against customs. I found the school’s restrictions unbearable.
Did you have any brothers or sisters?
And were they like you?
No. They were quite happy to follow the family’s rules. Although my youngest sister is now a photographer in Canada. She’s an artist. I influenced her. Because the world of art is a world of healing and a world of life. Once someone enters it, there is no going back. The pleasure is so great, there is nothing else a person can prefer or choose over it.
The period of my adolescence was the height of war [the Iran/Iraq war], and when you turned on the TV there were war scenes on every channel. The only images were of war, of bombings and rockets. There was nothing called art. Art had been demolished. Art was silent in Iran. Art was asleep. There were no exhibitions or art galleries. There were no paintings, no movies. There were things being written, but in hiding; inside homes many were following these pursuits, including myself. That was when I began to paint — I remember how hard that period was. At the time you first had to go and find a woman — as a girl I could not train in a man’s studio — you had to find a woman art professor. Then once you’d learned the technique there was nowhere to show your work. Then there were permits to be obtained, so many permits. It was so, so complicated. After all these difficulties and the turbulence, things settled down to some extent. What was interesting was that after that silence we had a wave of art. There was a wave of younger painters who entered the scene with some very strong work. There was a whole slew of new literature, new films. There was an almost 20-year period of silence in Iran, though. It’s as if art that had been disconnected was reconnecting.
It’s hard for me to imagine that environment.
I believe everything I am today is the product of the limitations and restrictions and pressures of tradition and culture. I believe that certain beliefs and traditions harm and hamper people more than anything else, and the traditions that rule Iran are doing so in spite of the fact that the world has evolved and grown and moved well beyond them.
But do you also see these traditions as having a positive role of any kind?
I believe today they must be renewed. They must evolve. Because with the old traditions and beliefs you cannot live in the new world today. Everything inside has moved on at high speed, and on the inside many people are clinging to the old beliefs and patterns. Today we no longer live in homes with large yards and gardens; people live in apartments. In the old days, people’s doors were open and people went and visited one another just like that. Today no one drops in on someone without calling first. If you knocked unannounced at someone’s door in Tehran today, I don’t think anyone would open the door. These are little things that have changed. But there is a huge collection of these little external changes. The change is immense. As children we played games in the yard, on the streets. Today, my son plays in front of the computer screen. I don’t know “the computer,” I didn’t grow up with it. When I talk to my son of the games we used to play, he laughs. He says, “I have no idea what these games are, Mom.” So then I ask him what his favorite games are and he tell me the names of these games, and I don’t know them. On the outside things have changed so much. How can the inside stay the same?
I think nonetheless that your film has a distinct Iranian character in part because you succeeded in at once referring to these things, like childhood games, that were so fundamentally Iranian and a part of our personal history, part of our childhood memories and our personal cultural history. The reference contains in it both the past and the present in the same filmic time. It encapsulates the way the film is the product of the conflicts in Iranian society today between the past and the present.
What I like about the film is the absence of slogans in the relationship these people have to one other and in their discussions. There is simply life. And to my way of thinking life is much more real than the talking. It’s true that the axes on which communication occurs in this film is that of dialogue, but it is dialogue built upon the experience of life. It isn’t “the law and its relationship to women must be reformed, must be changed.” This message may be and is given in many films, directly or indirectly. I believe what is much more real is what takes place all around us: a man’s jealousy, a woman’s jealousy, a man or woman’s sense of ownership toward a partner. Or the feelings of a woman who cannot want to experience motherhood for a second or third time, because she knows she is not equipped to handle it. This is a reality. When a woman becomes pregnant, her stomach swells and grows. It is a physical reality that her body is deformed by pregnancy. Yes, it’s beautiful to be pregnant, it is attractive. It’s lovely that a child is growing inside you. All that is wonderful. But it’s also true that a woman’s looks and beauty matter to her. So when the child is born and the woman sees her stomach covered in stretch marks, her skin no longer smooth, even though she’s young, she feels she has lost the beauty of her stomach. She can lose some of her self-confidence based on this alone. Starting to exercise is a way of remedying this. Then the man comes along and wants a second child after a year or two. But, you see, it’s the woman that bears the difficulties of the pregnancy. It is true that we must accept our physical transformation, our aging, out motherhood and our womanhood. But I believe there has to be a place where you have the right to say, “I am not ready for this.” Or even “I don’t want it.”