The relationship between cinema and reality.
The camera shows a young boy named Amin getting into a car, where he proceeds to argue loudly and vociferously with the driver, his mother. It's the first scene in Ten (2002), directed by Abbas Kiarostami, one of the most acclaimed Iranian films of all time; it was named among the 10 best films of the 00s (not just Iranian films, but films in general) by legendary French magazine Cahiers du Cinema. There are (yes) 10 scenes in Ten, all of them taking place in the car. The passengers keep changing (they include a devout old woman and a prostitute, as well as young Amin and his auntie), the female driver being the only constant. That driver -- mother, sister, friend -- is Mania Akbari.
Ten was made 12 years ago, and a lot has changed since then. Amin, who is Mania's real-life son as well as her son in the movie, is now in his early 20s; he's at film school in Malaysia, and will shortly be going to London to continue his education. Mania herself is also based in London, having recently fled Iran when crew members on her latest film were arrested for 'filming without official permission'. That film -- called From Tehran to London -- chronicles her move, Mania's films as director being at least partly about herself. One more thing has changed: though only 39, she's now a cancer survivor, having been diagnosed with breast cancer at 30 and lived with the disease for four years.
That's a lot to talk about, as we sit in the foyer of the Zena Palace Cinema in Nicosia where her films are being screened in the Cyprus Film Days festival. The only trouble is that Mania is elusive; not hard to approach (she's friendly enough), but hard to pin down.
For a start, she doesn't speak English. She tries valiantly a couple of times, but barely gets beyond a dozen words before lapsing back into Farsi. Nader Taghizadeh, an Iranian living in Cyprus, makes heroic efforts to translate -- but it must be said that she doesn't make it easy for him. Her answers are long and convoluted, chatting to Nader as if she's forgotten that he has to retain every word she's saying; she'll often talk for a solid minute, unable to hold herself back till the point has been made. It's clear, just from her body language, that a good deal gets lost in translation. Mania gestures as she talks, doing complicated things with her hands. She'll hold the fingers of one hand in a circle, and point to it with the other. At one point, she caresses the arm of the leather couch next to her. Her replies are high-flown, poetic. Translated into English, however, stripped of the nuance she brings to them, they too often seem opaque and puzzling.
One example: I ask about Ten, and how far the woman she plays corresponds to the real Mania. She replies (through Nader) that there is a "philosophical way of looking at the cinema and reality" -- and gives me the example of an "Eastern philosopher" who was sitting by his fireplace, asking himself 'Do I exist or not?'. The philosopher couldn't prove that he existed, says Mania -- but then he started to think about his existence and realised that, since he was thinking, he must also exist. "The relationship between cinema and reality," she concludes, "is something similar to that."
Yes, but how? The philosopher she cites is presumably Rene Descartes, of 'I think, therefore I am' fame (not an Eastern philosopher, but whatever) -- but then how exactly is the relationship between cinema and reality similar to 'I think, therefore I am'? Does the actor think about her character, and therefore will her into being? Is it the audience which does the thinking? Above all, if cinema 'exists' does it exist in the same way as reality? Is she saying that cinema is stronger than we think, or that reality is weaker?
If I spoke Farsi, I'd have tried to press her on the point (I do ask a follow-up question, which goes nowhere). But I actually suspect it wouldn't matter -- because I suspect she's elusive in her native language too. Mania Akbari seems to be one of those people who thrive on big, nebulous concepts, not the banal nuts and bolts holding them together. One might compare it to the difference between falling in love and holding down a relationship; "Life is so vast," sighs her character in Ten -- based, she asserts, on Mania herself -- "you can't sum it up in just one person". She's been married and divorced three times, and also had several very open relationships which, "as a Muslim woman, were very difficult for society [in Iran] to accept... I was the first person in that traditional society who got pregnant from my boyfriend and kept my child from that pregnancy, which is my son that you saw in Ten". (Given the approximate ages of mother and child in the film, Mania must've had Amin in her late teens.) Even sending additional questions via email -- without the problems of instant translation -- fails to pin her down. For instance:
Q: "What do you miss most about Iran?"
A: "Nostalgia for the past is very futile, however the pain and agony of humanity is the harvest of past memories. Nostalgia is sometimes painful and sometimes joyful."
That makes her sound like an out-and-out dreamer -- which is probably not the whole story. There's something quite alert and hands-on about Mania, sitting in the foyer of the Zena Palace with her lively face and short, orange-dyed hair. She's not passive; she doesn't just pose for photos but also checks my camera, looking to see what I've got. There's a strong sense of self, as with any artist. I still haven't watched the films she's made as director (they all screened too early at Cyprus Film Days), but it's no surprise to learn that she draws heavily on her real-life experiences of society and politics -- in effect, that she uses film like an artist, for self-expression. "When I'm making a film, I'm not actually trying to make a film," she explains. "The camera is an instrument I use to follow me, and everything I want to say to people and to myself."
She doesn't even like films very much, says Mania. Being on the jury at a film festival (as at Cyprus Film Days) is a nightmare for her, "because you're forced to sit and watch all these films" (though the films at CFD have so far been great, she adds diplomatically). Usually, "when I see a film, I really hate it and just switch it off, I don't watch it. If I watch something accidentally -- if I sit in a chair and watch a film -- usually I get bored in two minutes and leave". She seems to have a low boredom threshold, which might also explain her creative zeal and rebellious nature. As our heroine says in Ten: "I have to take photos, paint or travel. I have more important things to do than wash dishes or vacuum the carpets."
Driving in Ten
In a word, she's unconventional. After all, she doesn't hate all films, just the ones that follow a "conventional route"; when she finds a film "which is itself", she explains somewhat cryptically -- a film that "goes somewhere which is itself" -- then she'll stay and watch to the end. Exile in London has allowed her to commune with creative types like the critic Mark Cousins (with whom she's exchanged "cinematic letters") and British artist Douglas White; these, you sense, are her people -- not fusty old Iranian traditionalists. "In my whole family, we didn't have any artists," she recalls when I ask about her background. Most of her loved ones are teachers and academics, sensible people with their nose in a useful book -- but Mania herself always "hated laws", hated conformity, and despised the oppressive boredom of sitting behind a desk at school. "I was always trying to escape from laws… My family always had this concern about their child, me. They thought 'this kid is abnormal. This kid is not a normal person'."
Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to cancer. "I will explain cancer from a philosophical point of view," Mania tells me. A cell normally operates in a certain way -- from left to right, let's say -- but sometimes it happens, from one moment to the next, that it goes from right to left. "And no-one knows why it happens, why this moment, what is this moment and what happens in this moment [when] performance changes from right to left". It's a kind of black magic, a miracle in reverse -- and of course the mutant cell then attacks other cells, and suddenly you're a 30-year-old woman with a young son who hears "the voice of death", as she puts it. "I could touch death," she tells me in English. When you get close to death, "your view of the world changes completely".
It's a strange irony, though, I point out. She'd always been so unconventional -- and now suddenly her body too was being unconventional, deciding to go from right to left instead of left to right.
Mania waits for Nader to translate, then nods happily. "Mm, mm!" she agrees, obviously delighted. For the first time, we seem to have connected -- because I've stopped asking boring questions about her life and met her, for the first time, in her realm of poetic analogies. Cancer as a kind of perverse artwork, the body's own rebellion against convention! -- and of course Art was part of the solution as well. Mania directed her first film, 20 Fingers, in the year of her cancer diagnosis, and later made another film, 10 + 4, about her battle with the disease. "In that situation, Art helped me. Next to chemotherapy you do cinema-therapy as well. It gives you power. To make yourself powerful from your weaknesses," she adds with feeling, "that's very beautiful."
Like all artists, she can't be easy to live with. All that restlessness, the prickly sense of self and refusal to be pinned down, must be tough sometimes. "You've only ever loved yourself," says little Amin in Ten, calling her selfish. "No-one belongs to anyone," retorts Mania in the film, standing up for women's rights in Iran and the right to be independent in general. If Ten was really (as she says) "a documentary about my personal life and my relationship with my son", then it must be said it's quite a volatile relationship; that's one angry little boy. Is their relationship better now? The relationship between mother and son is "a difficult relationship always," she replies blandly, enlisting Freud in her defence.
'How much longer do you plan to stay in London?' was another of the questions I sent Mania by email -- thinking, in part, of the fact that Iran is slightly easier now, with Rouhani having replaced Ahmadinejad. "Future is not predictable," was her reply. "The geography of my life is decided by the possibility of making films and having creativity". She could be back in Cyprus in the summer; she'd like to make a film here. I assume there are lots of other projects for this combative, creative, unpredictable woman. "I haven't found peace of mind yet," admits the woman in Ten, the onscreen Mania who's like a more lucid, explicable version of the real Mania. "One day, maybe. Who knows..." Maybe.
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