Has such a glamorous screen debut ever taken place in such a resolutely downbeat movie? Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten, a film that won critical plaudits worldwide for the Iranian director on its release in 2002, opened with a long series of takes of a young boy, sitting in the passenger seat of a Tehran taxi, having an argument with his mother.
For several minutes, we see and hear only his side of the story; then the camera turns to his antagonist. His mother is the cab-driver.
She is beautiful, wears lipstick, statement rings and sunglasses, and a fashionable white headscarf. Through the course of the film, she will have nine more conversations, of varying degrees of intensity, with her passengers, all recorded with an unmoving dashboard camera.
Kiarostami’s film was a revelation, a stark chronicle of contemporary Iranian society, told with devastating simplicity and emotional frankness. But what was unforgettable was the woman, wise and worldly, behind the taxi’s steering-wheel.
Mania Akbari was still in her twenties when she played the starring role in that film, and it had a profound effect on her. Within a couple of years she was working on her own chronicle, writing, directing and starring in 20 Fingers, another series of conversations, shot in tight close-up, about the roles of men and women in her homeland. The film won her an award for digital cinema at the Venice Film Festival, and Akbari’s film-making career was up and running.
The body of work she has created since then, a riveting sequence of riffs on the relationship between the genders, is honoured on Sunday with the opening of a season at the British Film Institute.
The latest in the series is From Tehran to London, which starts as a Bergmanesque scrutiny of a bourgeois married couple, their servant and a relative, but finishes abruptly with Akbari’s own voiceover, informing us that she was unable to finish the film in Iran because of the political situation, and that she had to leave the country to live in London. We do not get to find out what happens to the film’s protagonists.
That fusion of fiction and real life is typical of Akbari’s work. She says she took the drastic step to protect some of the film’s cast and crew.
“Iran is such an unpredictable country,” she tells me, through an interpreter, over coffee at the BFI. “Had I remained in Iran, I might have been able to finish the film, following the recent elections [which surprisingly brought to power the relatively liberal Hassan Rohani]. I just don’t know. But I couldn’t take the risk.”
Akbari says that From Tehran to London, like all her films, was made without any licence or official permission from the government. “The problem with Iran, if you are a film-maker, is that you try your very best to keep away from politics. But the politics keep drawing you in.”
I ask her whether it was her intention that viewers leave her latest film pondering more on the issue of censorship in Iran than on what might have happened to the characters.
She doesn’t seem to see it as a problem. “In all my works, reality interacts with film. In Ten, what you saw on the screen was my real-life situation. I really did have those conflicts with my son. In 10 + 4 [Akbari’s follow-up to Kiarostami’s film] I was suffering from cancer. There is always this interplay between art and life. That is why the viewer comes out confused: what is reality? What is fiction?”
10 + 4, which followed the format of Ten, contained some harrowing, unflinching scenes – particularly those involving members of Akbari’s family, who seemed clearly shaken by the experience. Was it an easy decision for her to make a film about her illness?
“Many times in life, we go through stages when we have to make death come alive,” she says. “You have to see death in order to bring out your will to live. And cancer is very different from other ailments. Cancer is about the conflict between two cells. One is destructive, the other isn’t. They lie next to each other. And there is this conflict between life and death happening inside your own body.”
A scene with her sister, who breaks down in tears and says it has taken her three months to be able to pour out her emotions, seemed painfully real, I say. “It was scripted,” she replies. “Scripted and rehearsed, but all based on reality.”
Kiarostami, Akbari’s mentor, has moved away from his taut discussions of Iranian society and politics, into a more commercial form of cinema. His last two films, Certified Copy and Like Someone in Love, were made in France and Japan respectively. Was she tempted to follow his lead?
“You could call it commercial,” she says a little guardedly. “I have no problem about the direction that he, or anyone else, follows. But I don’t have the capability to follow that course. It takes a lot of ability to be able to do that. But I will continue to focus on my own worries and concerns in life. For example, my next project is about a group of Iranian expats who live in London.”
What is life as an exile like? Is it sad, or liberating?
“Deep down, an artist doesn’t belong to any country,” Akbari says disarmingly. “As long as an artist has creativity, and can work with peace of mind, it doesn’t matter which land he or she is in. Of course you find yourself in new circumstances, there are unknown fears, you don’t know what lies ahead.
“But every crisis you face can make you more creative. Personally, I am the kind of artist who creates crises for myself. It is the engine that drives me forward. My one fear about living in London is that my life becomes humdrum, mundane. That is very scary.”
Akbari has gone on record as not wishing to return to Iran unless she could detect “real change” in the country. Were this year’s elections a step in that direction?
“It would be very risky and difficult to return unless I felt that the situation had really changed,” she says. “It would be a terrible anticlimax to go back and repeat that same old life, with all its pressures and stresses, to find that nothing had changed.
“I was never given a permit to work freely in Iran, either under [former presidents Mohammad] Khatami or [Mahmoud] Ahmadi-Nejad, and I never knew the reason for that. Freedom for me is more than superficial changes of presidents, or showing your films on YouTube. Freedom has to be real before I make that decision to return.”
‘From Tehran with Love: The Cinema of Mania Akbari’, BFI, London, July 14-28