Written & Directed by Abbas Kiarostami
One aspect of Iranian society that Westerners seem to not fully understand is the rights of women inside that country. If you read up about contemporary Iran, there is an ongoing dialogue about extending the rights of women and activists pushing this. Once again, our myopic American viewpoint continues to judge others as a hivemind conglomeration of thought. Cue Abbas Kiarostami, who always seeks to blur the lines between reality and fiction, making his films strange narrative documentaries. We also have the dawn of digital video, which allows filmmakers to make movies fast and find ways to place the camera where film cameras could not go.
Ten is a film composed of ten vignettes of conversations between a woman who is driving and various passengers. The woman is played by Mania Akbari, and much of the film crosses lines into her own personal life, which, as Kiarostami loves, helps to keep the audience questioning what is real and what is false. Akbari is now considered one of the most controversial filmmakers in Iran and has gone on since this picture to make eight movies that explore sexuality and gender. Her take on these issues is not what the status quo of Iran is comfortable with, but it’s an essential perspective.
Much of the film Ten is about the woman’s divorce and her struggle to get her young son to respect her position. We learn that to divorce in Iran, the wife must cite abuse or neglect. These weren’t going on, but the woman wanted out of a marriage with a person she wasn’t in love with. Her son is old enough to realize this and shows his mother no respect as a result. Anytime the woman picks him up for her days of custody, he insists on staying at his grandmother’s rather than be around his step-father.
Another common theme in Ten is how at the whim of men women’s lives are in Iran. The woman offers rides to other women throughout the film and has conversations about their experiences. One passenger is a sex worker who gets offended by the woman’s questioning about her lifestyle. She flips the table and begins telling the woman about how many clients she has who talk to their wives on the phone while they are in bed with her. Another woman has lost her husband and only child, she sold all her possessions and plans a pilgrimage to Syria. Some women confess substantial doubts about God and religion. Some women so depend on the decisions of men their lives they cannot begin their own.
Like in all his work, Kiarostami wants to remind us this is a film, an artifice. He does this by showing the film countdown image between each segment. The countdown on a reel of film typically means we are about to begin, so what starts when Ten ends? Much like Taste of Cherry, the movie-watching experience is only the first step for Kiarostami. He wants the film to live in our minds, for the audience to go out of the theater and begin the other movies the imagine.
I think the relationship between the woman and her son could easily be misread as him being an extension of the patriarchal system women are trapped within. A more nuanced reading sees how similar mother and child are to each other. They are both incredibly stubborn and sure of themselves, which means when the two are forced into a small space, there are explosive fights. The woman seeks to lecture her son every time he visits, which drives the boy wild. He is adept at pointing out inconsistencies in her arguments, and she ignores this. I think a generational reading of the relationship illuminates many more things than a gendered one.
Ten exists as a technical experiment in realist filmmaking, a continuation of the themes Kiarostami has been developing for decades now implementing new technology. It’s also another movie that is both clear in what it presents yet challenges the audience to determine what it means. Ten opens and closes with near-identical scenes, implying possibly that for as many conflicts as we have in a week or month, our lives seem to always settle back into a familiar shape.