Mania Akbari and Bijan Daneshmand in a still from 20 FINGERS
There is a scene in the film ONE.TWO.ONE which is so brilliant in its conception and execution that it takes my breath away. I wish that every film student would carefully examine its construction and try to understand how an apparently simple static camera shot can be so richly textured, so simple yet full of elegance and poetry.
Mark Cousins describes it in his essay which accompanies the Second Run DVD and which takes the form of a letter addressed to the Iranian director:-
The second scene in your film, the locked off shot in the bank…reminds me of Italian Renaisance art. As you know, in your scene we are in a waiting area in a bank. We’re staring at three chairs, behind which is an automatic door which opens and closes as people come and go. Your camera doesn’t move but the actors do, our eyes do, our minds do. People leave the seats and others come along. The woman on the left talks about alligators and snakes. The guy on the right thinks she’s a bit odd and makes phone calls. There are constant references to the spaces behind and beside and beyond the camera. Conversations and people slalom around each other and, as they do, they set up story points and characters that will recur. The scene is like a chess game…It most resembles a Christian triptych altarpiece. Your shot is divided rigorously in three. People look ahead, as they do in Catholic art, but they also sometimes glance at each other, engage for a moment, or gesture inwards, as in the tradition of the sacra conversazione. Your film is a sacra conversazione…: interaction within a formal grid. What a grid.
This scene is a masterclass in story-telling and scene development: where the off-screen action contributes to what’s on screen; where the eye is cleverly directed to different parts of the scene as it unfolds; where the narrative is constantly shifting in unexpected directions. It’s also funny, poignant, and absolutely riveting.
Mark Cousins compares the style to that of other directors who favour long takes and says:-
Shots of five or ten minutes are central to your filmmaking… As seconds turn to into minutes and then more minutes in the films of Jansco, Tarr and Feher, we start to feel dread, fear, power, as if a balloon is being blown bigger and bigger and will, at any moment, burst. I feel this tension in your films, …a sense that anything could happen at any moment, that good times are a respite, especially for women.
The director he is talking about is Mania Akbari.
On 25-27 April 2016, she is coming to the Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge to show three of her feature films: LIFE MAY BE (co-directed with Mark Cousins), 20 FINGERS, and ONE.TWO.ONE. This mini season is presented by community cinema Screen St Ives and film collective Reel Women.
Who is Mania Akbari?
She first came to prominence as the lead actress in Abbas Kiarostami’s masterpiece TEN. She subsequently became a highly regarded filmmaker, artist, and writer in her own right with her films being screened at festivals around the world and receiving numerous awards.
In a 2013 piece, when Mania had a major season of her work shown at the BFI Southbank, Tom Seymour said:-
Entirely self-taught, she has made five feature-length movies – each made in near secrecy, on tiny budgets – in 10 years, while also working as a photographer and painter.
During production of her … film, From Tehran to London (originally titled Women Do Not Have Breasts), members of her crew were arrested by Iranian authorities for supposedly filming without official permission. Scared she too might be imprisoned, Akbari fled Tehran for London. “I left the country of my birth with grief, fear and frustration,” she says in her native Farsi. “But I was alienated and isolated. I could not get permission to make my films, or to get my films seen. I still love Iran. I am still fascinated by it. It gave me my creativity. But I had to leave.”
Her beautifully crafted cinema is:-
…rivetingly human: pitiless, potent studies of domestic strife, and of the fight for happiness – and domination – in sexual relationships. Take off their headscarves and Akbari’s women could be social workers in Sheffield or hairdressers in south London, talking wearily about the struggle of working motherhood and love eroded by intimacy.
Her first feature, 20 FINGERS, is a fine demonstration of how her formalism of approach allows for a subtle yet powerful examination of the complexities of relationships. Mark Cousins writes:-
20 Fingers was a revelation. Some of its long takes were as complex as the Copacabana scene in Goodfellas.
Dorna Khazeni, writing in Bright Lights says:-
It is composed of seven vignettes, shot in video and transferred to film, in which the same two actors … represent seven different couples engaged in intimate conversation…For the most part, the frame is close and tight, and it is only the audio track, with its ambient noises of what lies outside the frame, that lets us see the greater world, the public context in which the couples’ private life is unraveling…
The film’s strong suit is its ability to turn the relationships inside out in the course of one parenthetical conversation. 20 Fingers presents its characters stripped bare of all their masks and defenses and in moments of extreme intimacy. The picture here is complex and worrisome, the struggle for dominance within a couple universal, the Iranian setting and characters notwithstanding. At the second screening, more than half of the twenty-odd questions were asked by non-Iranians who saw the film as relevant to their own experience of intimacy…
In each conversation, we watch the relationship head into uncharted waters. There is an innate reticence. It’s easier to just stay on the surface. But there is also a sense of danger that grows with each line of dialogue. Swirling somewhere inside the maelstrom of conflicting motivations and desires revealed by the dialogue, the question that hangs, as if it had been asked and the film were the answer to it, is “What is love?”
ONE.TWO.ONE. takes a more linear approach to its narrative while still retaining a carefully structured, stylised, and intimate approach. The film was included in Little White Lies’ “100 Great Movies By Female Directors“, where David Jenkins says:-
The sub-theme of female empowerment in that film [Abbas Kiarostami’s TEN] is carried over to Akbari’s own remarkable 2011 directorial project, One. Two. One., which charts the slow but steady reintegration of a woman back into society following an acid attack to her face. Playing out in a series of careful, doleful, conversational vignettes, Akbari refuses to make this a film which accepts women as second class citizens, instead placing the focus on femininity, beauty and body image.
Once again, the framing, camera movements, and use of space in the film are as important to the narrative as the excellent performances. In an interview with Josh Slater-Williams, Mania says:-
The architecture and mise-en-scène within a space is very important to me. When I’m creating my frame, I really want it so that when each frame is seen the audience can imagine the space surrounding it themselves. The way that I’m creating the mise-en-scène within each frame, I’m trying to, every second, break the theatrical boundaries that people are seeing. In my view, I actually feel that it’s more like performance art than a theatrical performance. It’s as if I create a space for every single character and they come and perform within that space and share something with their audience, and then they leave.
Her most recent feature, and the first to be shown in the Arts Picturehouse mini season, is LIFE MAY BE. This film marks a change for Mania because she co-directs with Mark Cousins. Andrew Pulver writes in the Guardian that:-
Life May Be is an enterprising double film, couched in the form of a series of video letters – the letter being another favourite Cousins device – between him and Iranian actor-director-artist Mania Akbari. Commissioned to write the sleeve notes for a DVD release of Akbari’s directorial debut 20 Fingers, Cousins’ contribution (in the form of a letter, unsurprisingly) triggered the dialogue between them…
You also get a clear sense of how Akbari works her life experiences into her creative work.
Interestingly, in an interview she gave to publicise the season (an audio extract of which can be found on the Bums on Seats radio programme site, while a full written transcript is available on the Take One site) she says:-
I noticed a giant leap forward when I started my film correspondences with Mark Cousins for LIFE MAY BE. When I was watched the film, I realised my voice has changed…Now I realise that I hear different things, and am curious to know what has changed in me. And then I realise that this is a voice which has found freedom of expression, but is sadder, is lonelier. It’s a voice which is carrying memories and dreams. These memories are not easy ones…
This film is a fascinating creative and philosophical dialogue between the filmmakers and for Mania, a poignant personal exploration of her experiences as a woman, both in Iran and here. Harriet Warman captures the essence of the film well in her review for Cine Vue:-
Akbari reveals her vast knowledge and precise narrative technique by making the combination of poetry, personal recollection, documentation and journalistic curiosity seem both effortless and deeply moving…
Both filmmakers therefore combine the personal and the political, demonstrating that each perspective is essential to the other in the work of an artist, and it’s the ways in which Akbari is inspired by Cousins’ enthusiasm and ideas that is so exciting in Life May Be. Having read Cousins’ pronouncement that she is to Iran what Virginia Woolf was to England, Akbari’s first pilgrimage to Woolf’s home proves to be the spark that ignites a much deeper personal reflection on her own body and representations generally, of the flesh – can Akbari, who was told her body was a “nuisance” all her life – discover the joy of unveiling that Cousins’ has, and what will this tell us about exposure generally, both physical, and as Life May Be attests, between two creative souls?
In his review of LIFE MAY BE in Take One, Jack Toye says:-
We transcend into the hearts and minds of two filmmakers representing their thoughts on love and the visible/invisible parts of the body, and become privy to an intimate correspondence between two greats of contemporary world cinema.
The same could be said of the three films being presented in the Arts Picturehouse season: they are an ‘intimate correspondence’ between themselves, over time, in different forms, a creative discourse which is playful, insightful, and beautifully expressed, and all created by a ‘great’ director of ‘contemporary world cinema’.
Don’t miss your chance to see these films on the big screen.