Friday, March 17, 2023

Kiarostami’s Dah: Ten Snapshots of a Social Movement with the Iranian Society in Motion

Veiled woman with shades at the steering wheel
We often say make the best out of what you got. When it comes to cinema, this comes down to predominantly questions, decisions, and limitations around budget and financing. It may be the budding filmmaker who is full of passion and drive and wants to impress the cinematic world with little resources at hand or the renowned indie filmmaker who is not driven by money and dollar signs and forgoes big budgets to make personal and artful films on a shoestring. And in the case of the acclaimed and world-renowned Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, it was sometimes not enough to limit himself in terms of financing but also intentionally restricting and voluntarily reducing the canvas of filmmaking.

His 2002 film Ten (Dah) is shot entirely in and within the confines of a car with (mostly) stationary cameras and limited angles. This type of personal restriction has been done in cinema with Hitchcock’s brilliant Rope in which he would film in one take (though he did cheat a little), or more recently, the outstanding Locke with Tom Hardy who is for the most part seen driving in a car and talking on the phone or even the French sci-fic movie Oxygen in which the majority of the film is French actress Mélanie Laurent lying down in a cryogenic chamber communicating with her AI assistant and the local police!

The latter movies are in fact action films that somehow despite their apparent limitations in space make the most out of the confinement to create suspense and tension and this underscores not only confidence but also skill and expertise vis-à-vis the art of filmmaking. I still wonder how they managed to pull it off because, by all accounts and purposes, it should have turned out to be as eventful as watching paint dry. Then again, I am also aware of movies shot with massive budgets that are simply a bore and a snooze fest all in one.

Nonetheless, Kiarostami’s film has no action to speak of and his purpose here is not to entertain or dazzle but rather to move and awaken us to social conditions in his country while also pondering about and reevaluating our own lives wherever we may be living and however privileged or unprivileged we may consider ourselves to be. At the same time, the film Ten exposes politics and questionable policies as well as social inequality and injustice in his native country and in many ways, the filmmaker foresaw, if not predicted, the current movement initiated and led by brave women who have suffered (more than enough) from the current system and are now demanding and clamoring for equal rights and a more just and equitable society.

Despite the film’s voluntary restrictions in terms of the scope and canvas of its narrative and filmmaking technique, it provides a wide panorama not merely of Iranian society but also delves into philosophical quandaries around questions on love, marriage, fidelity, and gender differences. In other words, Kiarostami is not solely focused on and does not limit himself to politics, but he wants to spark a light within our consciousness to let us re-think how we live our lives and how we view our relationships as spouses and parents, and what we consider and (mis)take for our priorities in life, for better or for worse.

As mentioned earlier, there is no action to speak of but there is an abundance of colorful and well-drawn characters. It is akin to drawing a detailed vibrant painting with only a few crayons at hand. The whole film is set in a car that is for the most part in motion, an apt symbol for both restlessness as well as a potential for movement and change, and the driver and driving force is an unnamed but fiery and spirited woman. Her pre-adolescent son considers her a bad and selfish mother because she lectures him constantly, does not listen to him, and fails to consider his needs, and, most of all, he resents her getting re-married after the divorce from his biological father.

Later, this same woman gives rides to various other people, ranging from friends and family members to strangers that include an old religious woman as well as a working prostitute. The accusations of her son may be correct as we can see in her interactions, but we can also note a free-spirited curious open-minded woman who accepts everyone and wants to understand others to better understand herself. She is also not afraid of lying in court to get a divorce by falsely accusing her ex-husband of being a junkie. Yet she justifies herself to her son by underscoring the inequalities that exist in the judicial system around rights for women and that she would not have been granted a divorce otherwise.

Daily frustrations and suffering of women are highlighted through various interactions in the car. The old pious selfless woman has very little to her name and she spends all her time constantly praying for others and wishing them well. On the other hand, a young mild-mannered woman who has her hopes up for a man to propose to her only sees that dream shattered to pieces and realizes that her prayers have remained unanswered. As a result, she shaves her head, which can be interpreted as a resignation but at the same time as a sign of revolt. Yet, the driver insists that she looks good and that the new haircut suits her.

The most rebellious and provocative character of them all is the prostitute. She questions the idea of love and even matrimony. She says that married men have sex with her and then receive phone calls from their wives and how these husbands lie to them about being in the office while shamelessly adding that they love them. Why should women restrict themselves to a single man when men do not do so themselves? The prostitute exposes this double standard that exists in various societies around the world and she also deplores and decries the overall lack of female pleasure and stimulation.

In all these depictions, Kiarostami not only draws his characters very well and life-like, but he has enormous sympathy and empathy for them. These people feel real because they are not flawless themselves. Ten begins with the son and ends with him and even though it is about women, the film is essentially framed around this sad and confused boy. I believe that the boy’s view is an important one to consider here but it is also a plight that is often underrepresented and ignored in societies around the world, namely the effects and consequences that adult actions and decisions have on children and more specifically one’s own sons and daughters.

Many considerations come into play, and happiness alongside love is a many-splendored thing with many necessary building blocks, and it is not merely a black-or-white issue nor is it a simple process. Kiarostami understands this, has empathy for all these struggling and yearning characters, and gives us glimpses into human nature with their universal pain, suffering, and frustrations regardless of social class and position. The prostitute herself had been jilted in her younger years, and she has given up any hope for a family and for children and lets the driver know that she has undergone various abortions. Although she plays the role of a strong independent woman, deep down she is also looking for love and affection like all the other women in this film.

It is impressive and often overlooked or downplayed how these women manage and work around the number of limitations and restrictions within their lives that are deeply embedded in the codes of conduct and the discriminating laws of their society. Despite it all, they not only make ends meet but they make the best and most out of it all through their creativity, spirit, inventiveness, and resourcefulness. And they have done so for various decades, if not longer.

However, that should not be and should not remain the status quo. For these questions to be dealt with and addressed, they need a society that is just and fair to all its citizens and that does not discriminate against them. Here we can see the failings of a society that not only overlooks the needs and desires of large swaths of its denizens but actually squashes and tramples them and in the words of the early feminist Sarah Moore Grimké that they ought to take their feet from off women's necks. We see this social movement asking for change, and it is not merely about veils and dress codes around hiding hair but goes much deeper and further than that.

In fact, and perhaps more than ever in today’s world, medieval as well as authoritarian systems will have to face resistance as they do not respect or represent the rights and will of their people. And in this case, it is not merely about making the best out of what you got but asking for immediate and much-needed changes in the fabric of repressive and oppressive societies and political systems everywhere across the world.