aka Ten : Iran/France 2002 : Abbas Kiarostami : 94 mins

As the 1990s closed Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami revealed that he would no longer work on film, and instead use only Digital Video. Perhaps he felt that he’d taken conventional celluloid as far as it could go – after all, he was voted the decade’s most important director in a poll of US critics after such successes as Palme d’Or winner The Taste of Cherry (1997) and The Wind Will Carry Us (1999).

10 is the first feature-film to result from this DV decision, and it’s clearly the work of someone commendably eager to stretch himself, and the medium in which he’s operating, in new directions. The director imposes severe restrictions on the film-making process that make the dogme vow of chastity seem positively lax: he tells his story using only two small cameras, fixed in position on the dashboard of a car, facing inwards. The whole story – with the exception of one brief shot – is made up of static shots of either the driver or her various passengers.

The unnamed driver is an attractive divorcee in her thirties, played by Mania Akbari. The film is divided into ten sections of unequal length, each heralded by a ‘countdown’ image and the sound of a bell, each following a single journey. The passenger is often the driver’s argumentative young son (Amin Maher). At other times, she’s accompanied by a slightly younger relative (perhaps her sister?), by an elderly woman on her way to pray at a mausoleum, and by a drunken prostitute whom she gently but persistently interrogates for opinions on sexual issues.

The result is a ‘road movie’ unlike any other. It’s impossible to clearly delineate the border between the film – i.e. the written, directed, rehearsed and edited material under Kiarostami’s control – and the reality of the traffic-choked streets through which the driver expertly negotiates: are the other road-users with whom she interacts paid performers or actual Tehran residents? “Go, sister, go!” shouts a passer-by at one stage. 10 has a compellingly organic feel, capturing precisely the stresses and strains of modern city life, and the little grace-notes of human quirkiness that make the ordeal bearable.

But the real focus of the film is on the characters inside the car – simultaneously both ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, the vehicle’s confines allow these women and children (presumably used to being ‘seen and not heard’ in this male-dominated society) free rein to exchange their views and give glimpses of their ‘stories’. They hardly ever shut up, in fact, making 10 a somewhat wearing talk-fest for subtitle-reading ‘foreign’ audiences: as in real life, there’s an inevitable monotonousness to some of the conversations and arguments, especially those involving the querulous, ever-whingeing Amin. It’s presumably far from accidental that the bell signalling each new chapter sounds very much like the start of a new round in a boxing contest.

As well as setting himself a stern challenge, Kiarostami makes life very difficult for his cast – the first shot of the film, for instance, is an unbroken 15-minute close-up of Maher as he protests at his mother’s relentless questioning. It’s an amazing performance from such a young actor – quite unlike anything you’ll see in any American or European film this year. Akbari is even better as the driver, aware of her own limitations and mistakes but kept going by a solid inner core of self-reliant and independence.

There’s much to like about 10, but anyone encountering it ‘blind’ would probably be surprised to discover Kiarostami’s exalted status among critics. We do glean a vivid impression of modern Tehran life, but there’s a considerable amount that we aren’t told about subjects such as women’s rights: that, for instance, they aren’t allowed to have a man riding with them as an in-car passenger. 10 has the distinct feel of an artificial exercise, primarily intended as a self-built obstacle course for its director, cast and crew – the cinematic equivalent, perhaps of A Void, Georges Perec’s novel written without the letter E. Kiarostami is alert to the possibility that 10 may end up functioning primarily as a formal ‘game’ rather than as a satisfying, rounded, character-based drama: not once but twice, characters ask “Is this a dead end?” and are answered “No.” And for Kiarostami, perhaps it isn’t a dead end – perhaps it’s a liberating super-highway opening up new territory for cinema. Audiences, however, may not be quite so keen to go along for the ride.

24th August, 2002
(seen 18th, Filmhouse Edinburgh – Edinburgh Film Festival)

For all the reviews from the 2002 Edinburgh Film Festival click here.

by Neil Young
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