Ten (Kiarostami, 2002) could be seen as an archetypal modern Iranian art house film. It follows a woman who rejects the ruling regime’s notion of acceptable femininity (French, 2002). It blurs the lines between documentary and fiction (Ebert, 2003). It delves into place and non-place, being set entirely in a car (a location which is non-place for the passengers, but very definitely a place of meaning for its driver). And finally, the director himself, Abbas Kiarostami, is an exemplar of the Iranian auteur culture, which has become one of the most celebrated facets of Iranian art house cinema by Western audiences (Armstrong, 2002). Yet, for all that, Ten is an original and innovative film which defies narrative conventions.
Kiarostami’s concept is deceptively simple. For the majority of the film we see the action from the viewpoint of a camera fixed to the dashboard of a car, which points alternately at the female driver and the passengers who join her. The simplicity of the camera work together with the apparent spontaneity and naturalism of the dialogue lends the film a documentary aesthetic. This seems to be no accident, Kiarostami chose to brief his actors on their characters and dialogue then set them free to drive around without him. He eventually filmed 23 hours of footage this way, from which he cut the final film (Ebert, 2003).
I wondered if this documentary technique and aesthetic was a necessity, forced by a low budget and a need to fly under the radar of Iranian cultural regulation, or whether it was there by design from the outset? Kiarostami seems to want to fuzz the line between reality and fiction, because despite the documentary style the dialogue is clearly planned to highlight and probe different aspects of the female experience in Iran, whether it’s marriage and divorce, motherhood and family, sex and prostitution, religion and clothing or art and work. And Kiarostami seems to reference the fiction in the story by prefacing each segment of his portmanteau with a film leader-esque countdown.
Kiarostami’s questions about the role and treatment of women in Iranian society centre around the female driver of the car which is the film’s only location. Over the course of the film, through conversations with her passengers, she is revealed to be a divorced mother of one, who is remarried to a man whom her son hates. She seems to be a rebellious figure who has no time for housework or cooking, instead working as a photographer and artist. She rails to her son against the treatment of women in Iran when he questions her motives for divorcing his father, shouting her complaint that in Iran “A woman has no right to live!” (Kiarostami, 2002).
But Kiarostami doesn’t focus solely on the seemingly rebellious driver. Through her passengers he presents other facets of Iranian womanhood: the driver’s seemingly more traditional sister, a pious elderly widow who has sold or given away everything that she owns to go on pilgrimages, a prostitute who sells sex so that she can feel free of belonging to any one man, and a young woman who is heartbroken to be spurned by her fiancé.
The theme of freedom and belonging only to oneself comes up again and again throughout the film. It reminded me of the parallel in Offside between women and filmmakers. I wondered if Kiarostami was, consciously or not, making a point about the restrictions placed on Iranian filmmakers by their government and the expectation weighted on them by Western audiences.
This led me to consider the auteur culture which seems to dominate Iranian art house cinema. I wonder if Iran has been raised as an paragon of this culture by Western audiences without any investigation into why it seems so prevalent. It seems inevitable that this culture would emerge in a society which experiences such powerful censorship. Large scale productions without government approval seem impossible, and the restrictions on filmmakers are so great that smaller, artisan films need immense commitment and a singular vision from the filmmaker; only films which have a passionate auteur driving them forward have a chance of being made and distributed. Kiarostami seems to reference this in the dialogue spoken by the young woman who revels her shaven head at the end of the film. Speaking about being abandoned by her fiancé for another woman she says “The hardest part is admitting that it’s hard. I imagined that everything I like would happen. I never thought that it would be impossible” (Kiarostami, 2002).
Kiarostami subtly directs the audience’s attention by choosing which side of the driver-passenger conversation to present to us. In the very first journey with her son, the camera avoids the driver completely, cutting to her only at the very end of the scene, after her son has left the car. But other journeys are inverted, focusing solely on the driver. And in some we alternate between the driver and passenger as the conversation progresses. It seems that Kiarostami is probing the power balance between different aspects of Iranian society through this editing. When the passenger is of equal standing to the driver (her sister, the young woman whose fiancé leaves her) we’re presented with both characters in equal measure. But when the driver is of higher standing than her passenger, we only see her and the passenger remains unseen (the prostitute and the poor, elderly widow on her way to the mausoleum). What I found most interesting was the scene when the driver isn’t shown, the first journey with her son. Kiarostami seems to imply that in this relationship, at this time, her son has all the power. And his constant, aggressive questioning of her motives for divorce reflect this; he rejects everything that she says and shouts “You drive me mad with your words!” (Kiarostami, 2002). The relationship between the driver and her son is as fraught with the male/female dynamic as much as that of the parent/child. His complaints are not about her as a parent, but about her as a woman. Even at the end of the film when they seem more relaxed in each other’s presence he still talks about his father marrying a “better” woman, one who will cook and clean and stay in the home.
Yet the driver may be more traditional than she seems. She picks up the prostitute because she’s curious about sex, peppering her with questions about the men who pay her. And she begins to visit the mausoleum after her journey with the elderly pilgrim, finding a kind of peace in the prayer. By revealing these layers in the driver’s character through the exchange of emotional knowledge with her passengers, Kiarostami highlights how deep the patriarchal values of Iranian society are embedded even in those who reject them. And in using the car as his only set, Kiarostami keeps his production simple and under the radar. But it also serves an artistic purpose as a claustrophobic space which reflects the confines and restrictions placed on Iranian women (and filmmakers). This feeling of claustrophobia is exaggerated by the glimpses of Tehran that we see through the car’s windows: street after street bordered with impregnable walls, walls which keep the outside out and the inside in.
The car also plays with ideas of place and non-place. To many of the passengers, especially the boy, it’s initially no more than a form of transit, an in-between space. But it becomes a place of respite and confession, a place where memories are exchanged. And even the driver’s son becomes enamoured of it, asking about its gears and how it works. The car has become more than its physical attributes, it becomes a space loaded with meaning and context.
Armstrong, R., (2002) Close Up: Iranian Cinema Past Present and Future, Bright Lights, Available from: http://brightlightsfilm.com/35/iraniancinema.php#.UxyPK_l_uSo [Accessed on 4 April 2016]
Ebert, R., (2003) Ten, Chicago: RogerEbert.com , Available from: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/ten-2003 [Accessed on 4 April 2016]
French, P., (2002) Drive, she said, The Guardian, Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2002/sep/29/philipfrench [Accessed on 4 April 2016]
Kiarostami, A., (2002) Ten, Abbas Kiarostami Productions
Panahi, J., (2006) Offside, Jafar Panahi Film Productions