The Arts

Where is Ten Going?

Scene from the movie Ten
At the Wheel in Ten: Mania Akbari plays a woman who drives around Tehran with different passengers.The entire film was shot inside a car (Photo courtesy New York Film Festival).

“I try to disturb the viewer,” the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami reminds us, as he talks about his radical new film, shot inside a car.

A poet, a photographer, a furniture maker in his leisure time (like David Lynch), an artist brought to light at the Venice Biennale last year, the filmmaker, born in Tehran in 1940, has unceasingly multiplied the opportunities to escape his destiny as a master of cinematography. As a respected recipient of the Palme d’Or [the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival for Taste of Cherry, 1997], he is invited to festivals all over world to show his films and to chair panels of judges.
Much copied, if not plagiarized (by filmmakers such as Jafar Panahi and Samira Makhmalbaf), he is the leader of a new Iranian cinema, which owes everything to him for what he has done over the past 15 years.

With Ten, he is continuing the work he began in Uganda with ABC Africa (2001): He has discarded beautiful images in favor of capturing the basics on video, full of accidents and static. He has moved away from a landscape painter’s obsessions by shutting himself inside an automobile, putting an end to the refinements of film within film in favor of dryness to the first degree, scraped down to the bone.

The dialogues are no longer loaded down with metaphors: “Poor fool, you’re an idiot!” “I’m at the end of my rope; I am cracking up!” “That’s a pain in the ass.” “Sex, sex, sex.” 

Kiarostami filmed the 10 dialogues of Ten by himself, without a cameraman or a sound technician, with two fixed video cameras, two cars, six women, a kid, and no screenplay.

Isolated and scorned in his own country, he did not even bother to file an application with the Islamic censorship commission for authorization to make a film.

He intended this film as a tool to critique the overbearing and omniscient position occupied by the director. As is usually the case with him, you should not take him fully at his word. He is never engaged in anything more than an on-the-spot method to move forward in his filmmaking and to confront the viewer with something that remains thoroughly enigmatic.

Neither fiction nor documentary, neither written nor spontaneous, neither engaged nor disengaged, this place where he keeps himself and from which he runs away is an ideally wobbly non-place, i.e., a utopia. You must hurry if you are to find him there.

Ten conspires to do away with directing, at least in the sense it is usually understood. For what purpose?

I did not make a decision in advance to do away with the director. But it was my observation that sometimes the director gets in the way of life as it unfolds, especially with the word “cut!” I have seen the actors’ sensations become transformed when they come in contact with moviemaking technique. Every single detail of existence is scripted—“move your hand like this, express yourself this way,” and so on. Yet, the emotions should be what guides the gestures, not the other way around.

I am refuting the role of the director as a god reigning over his handiwork. The god has to be brought down to earth, to be a technician god and not a creator god, to see the project as work pure and simple. If you set up a fixed camera, the actors are more at ease and you get an image that corresponds to our gaze.

I watched The Kid by Charlie Chaplin again, and I felt the respect accorded to me as the viewer in the way it was filmed. In many contemporary films, I have the impression of being hitched onto a movement without knowing where it is leading me. More and more, the viewer is going where he shouldn’t be, behind stage and on the stage. That is not the viewer’s place. What happens in Ten is nothing new for my films; I have always sought out the best place for the viewer.

You work without a screenplay and the whole film rests on a long process of preparation. With the little boy who is a main character in the film, how did you proceed?

I was frequently with him, with his family; I knew what he liked and didn’t like, what irritated him. He recounted to me some of his memories and I did things in such a way that he would keep those memories vividly in mind, because I knew I was going to use them for the film. There are days where something happens that has to be kept in reserve for the day of the filming. The coach of a soccer team knows the individual capabilities of each player and then draws up a game plan that will allow him to make the best use of them. I have just completed a seven-minute short in which the main actor is a piece of wood that has fallen onto a beach; it acted in an extraordinary manner; it did exactly what had to be done; you had only to wait for it and find it.

From children, to women, to the piece of wood, it’s basically a matter of finding the right material?

My goal was to say to the actors: “I’m here, but don’t rely on me! Go for it!”
I think that I am nowhere in the film, but if that were true, the film would not exist. Physically, I was present in the back seat, in the middle. In the long night sequence with the prostitute, which lasts 17 minutes without any cuts, I was in a black four-wheel drive, driving behind, or beside the other car. I created some lighting with a flashlight by aiming it at the rear-view mirror and making it blink. The woman driving had an earpiece and was repeating a text she had recorded earlier, facing another woman who was responding.

You have to provide the right sensations; after that, the actors themselves put the words to what they are feeling. In the same way, for the ending sequence with the girl in tears, I put myself at her disposal: “Any day you feel like crying, give me a call!” And the sequence that is in the film was filmed in one take.

What were you driving at by making a film with only women and no men, except for a small boy?

Quite honestly, I cannot help you out on this point, nor should I. I have no right to provide the directions along with the film. Besides, I am probably the
last one to understand what I have done, a little like those cooks who no longer know what their dishes taste like, precisely because they have prepared them.

It is really hard to imagine you getting up one morning and saying: “I’m going to make a feminist film!”

I do not make films that defend any “ism,” whatever it may be—heaven forbid! I try to disturb the viewer. I showed Ten on a television set to a couple who are friends. They had a very noisy argument afterward; the husband found the child in the film so unbearable that he was ready to run over him with his car at the first opportunity, while the wife saw him as a victim of adults. I was delighted.

This struggle with the film is absolutely necessary and I do not seek to avoid disagreements. Feminists are always sure of what they believe, and I can go along with them on many points, but I am unable to share their certainties or their assurance.