Dir. Mania Akbari, 2004, Iran, 72 mins
Cast: Mania Akbari, Bijan Daneshmand
There are only two roles for the Iranian woman to play - the good mother and the good wife." Mania Akbari might have included in that list the role of good filmmaker. Her controversial film, 20 Fingers, selected as winner in the inaugural Digitale competition at this year's Venice International Film Festival, is a brave exploration of female role-playing in contemporary Iran.
Iranian society may regard women as second-class citizens but, in recent years, it has produced a flurry of first-class female filmmakers. It is striking not only how many recent Iranian exports have been directed by women (At Five In The Afternoon, Blackboards, The Day I Became A Woman, The May Lady) but that a huge majority of the Iranian films shown in the West are about women and feature strong, central female performances (The Circle, Ten, Secret Ballot, Kandahar). At Venice this year both Iranian entries (Marzieyeh Meshkini's Stray Dogs and Mania Akbari's 20 Fingers ) are written and directed by women. Iranian women have found a powerful cinematic voice, a voice that is still denied to them outside the cinema.
It is this voice that drives 20 Fingers, an unflinchingly honest study of gender games in contemporary Tehran. In a series of intimate dialogues, a man and a woman (played by Akbari and Daneshmand) find the established boundaries of their relationship being pushed further than ever before. In each scene the couple (who may not be the same couple in every scene) confront different aspects of contemporary life - abortion, homosexuality, infidelity - the woman's modern idealism clashing with her husband's more traditional attitude. In one scene, the man is angered by the woman's dancing with another man; in another, she cannot tolerate her husband's refusal to allow her an abortion. The couples play a succession of psychological games - the jealousy game, the betrayal game, the independence game - in which the female is consistently the stronger player, albeit sometimes a morally questionable one. Each scene occurs in a confined space - a ski-lift, a moving car, a train compartment, a table in the corner of a Tehran café. The hand-held digital photography literally confines the audience to narrow camera angles just as the couple's relationship is metaphorically confined by the husband's restricted points of view.
It seems appropriate that a film about boundaries and confinement should be a film in which those boundaries are resolutely pushed forward and even broken. In Iran, just as women are restricted by certain strict codes of modest dress and behaviour, so cinema is also bound by strict rules governing what may be shown on screen. The open-minded discussion in 20 Fingers of lesbianism and adultery cannot have endeared the censors. The strong female challenge to the supposed superiority of the male must surely be seen as a direct criticism of a society whose values are inherently male-oriented. The censors, who objected to several specific moments in the film, have not allowed a screening in Iran. Though disappointing, this comes as no surprise to Akbari who also played the lead in Abbas Kiarostami's Ten, another ground-breaking, taboo-busting film that also remains banned in its country of origin.
One scene in particular, in which a man takes his future wife's virginity because he "had to find out for himself", remains one of the most shocking I have seen in any film, Iranian or otherwise. Under Iranian religious law, a woman who has lost her virginity cannot marry; an unmarried woman has no place in Iranian society. Mainstream western cinema tends to treat storylines involving loss of virginity in unreal terms: it is either washed over or dealt with in a manner that is smutty and comic (as in the American Pie-style movies) or lushly romanticised (as in Stealing Beauty or The Dreamers). 20 Fingers depicts the reality of this rite of passage for an Islamic woman and Akbari treats this subject with the candour and veracity it deserves.
Akbari tells me that "most women in Iran are afraid of freedom.because with freedom comes more responsibility". I ask her whether she would like to see western-style freedom brought to Iran. Her answer is ambiguous. On the one hand, she is repulsed by the treatment of women at the hands of the Disciplinary Forces, the Iranian government's own Moral Police, who arrest women who break dress codes or who in severe cases of misconduct (adultery, for example) are punished by stoning. On the other hand, she suggests, it is not so much the Islamic law that restricts the freedom of Iranian women but the women themselves. "Freedom," she says, "is a state of mind. A prisoner, in spite of his physical constraints, can still be spiritually free." She uses the metaphor of the truck driver and the taxi driver: the truck driver is free to travel long distances and see the world but his load is heavy and slows him down; the taxi driver's load however is light, though he is not free to go where he chooses - he must travel the same routes all day at the beck and call of his passengers. The metaphor is somehow appropriate to a film set mostly in moving vehicles in which the woman is the passenger and the man is the driver; and yet it is the man who is going nowhere.
The extended car-dialogue, a driver and passenger conversing on their way to somewhere else, is a peculiarly Iranian metaphor, most richly mined by Kiarostami in whose masterpieces A Taste of Cherry, Through The Olive Trees and Ten the car becomes a microcosm of society - a space in which the tiniest details of the tiniest lives symbolise a whole panorama of human interaction. Akbari's film is clearly indebted to her celebrated mentor - and yet there is a directness and an openness here, and, despite their differences, a healthy warmth between man and woman that marks a new departure for Iranian cinema. I do not recall having seen an Iranian film in which a relationship between an Iranian man and a woman is allowed to flourish to such an extent.
20 Fingers is a deeply human work - far from being feminist propaganda, the audience is torn between sympathy for both sides in the gender game. The film does not seek to make a villain of the man; far from it - it is clear he is no tyrant, merely an accomplice in the institutionalised degradation of women. This careful balance is a result of the absorbing, sometimes highly volatile, but always truthful, performances. And although this is a naturalistic film in design, at heart the games proceed with such poetry and shape - ebbing and flowing, swinging back and forth, climaxing and tailing off - that they play like music, like universal rituals enacted by couples for many years gone and for many to come.