(Dir. Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 2002)
The anti-narrative of Abbas Kiarostami’s docufiction Ten moves along as a countdown. But, a countdown, as would happen in a Kiarostami film, that leads to no spectacular, climactic end. For the filmmaker has always been concerned with the minutia of everyday life, people over dramatic storytelling, and the thin line between illusion and reality on screen over flashy camera tricks or groundbreaking filmic techniques. And thus, Ten stands as perhaps his most bare bones film yet – at least, on the surface. In his first foray into digital, he places two cameras on the hood of a car simulating hidden “dash-cams” and alternates between two static angles over the course of the film’s runtime (with one notable exception). If Taste of Cherry found the director stretching the use of a vehicle in motion for a viable set, Ten is the culmination of his vehicular-obsessed cinema, never once capturing footage from outside the car. So, what could Kiarostami possibly achieve within the confines of the front seat of an automobile driving through the streets of Tehran? As typical of the works of this Iranian master, there’s much more going on in the film than what simply appears in the frame.
Comprised of ten separate episodes, the film follows one woman (Mania Akbari) as she drives around conversing with the various people – mostly women – who populate the passenger seat of her car. In the first segment, we’re introduced to the unnamed woman’s son Amin (played by Akbari’s real-life son) first as he climbs into the front seat of the car. For nearly fifteen minutes, the pair argues and shouts over each other, insulting and name-calling the other. We learn Amin disapproves of his mother’s decision to divorce his father, and he thus holds a very low opinion of her. Akbari understandably defends herself, but Amin won’t have it. Eventually, when the car slows, he opens the door and jumps out in anger. Only once he’s gotten out does the frame switch to the camera resting on Akbari and we see our primary character for the first time.
The following nine episodes play out like this with casual and believably natural discussions between the driver and her passengers. Over the course of the film we meet her sister, two friends with similar relationship issues, an elderly woman she picks up and takes to mosque, a prostitute who she picks up by mistake, and her son a few more times. Slowly, a portrait of the state of women in Iran forms as topics of sexuality, marriage, careers, and societal expectations regarding roles realistically surface during these several conversations. There are no men in the film – save for Akbari’s preteen son who stands in for traditional male dominance – so the film’s voice decidedly belongs to women. It’s a welcome change of perspective for the director who hasn’t dealt explicitly with the role of women in his native country or female protagonists in his work in general despite the daring efforts of his former protégé Jafar Panahi to do just that with his The Circle only two years prior.
And while Ten appears somewhat limited in comparison to the filmmaker’s greatest works due to its confined structure, it still remains an impressive effort from one of cinema’s finest directors, and an important pioneering work of digital photography. Certainly, Ten’s dashboard confessional set-up wouldn’t have been possible prior to the advent of such digital technology. It even calls into question the role of a director as film enters its second century as a major narrative art form. Kiarostami himself was rarely present on “set” during the shoot, subsequently creating the film from hours of footage in the editing room. In this way, it reveals its carefully planned structure as well as the director’s insistence on obliterating the barrier between reality and fiction. Akbari starring alongside her real son brings her own sense of what it means to be a woman to the film as a real-life activist and director herself. She’s not, however, an archetype, and it’s crucial to note there was a fair amount of (loosely) scripted material for these actors to perform. She changes her opinions throughout, has good and bad days with her volatile son, at once questions a prostitute’s profession and then later echoes her advice when consoling a friend whose husband will leave her – in essence, through narrative fiction, Kiarostami captures a slice of real life. It’s especially refreshing from a group of people who aren’t often given a voice so freely in their own country. Ten may make no grand political or feminist statements, but its strength lies in this simplicity. Women are people too – with feelings, fears, opinions, goals, dreams – and with his signature automobile setting, Kiarostami provides them a safe place to freely express who they are.