Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten has been a highlight of my ongoing and extremely rewarding mini-Iranian film fest. For the uninitiated, in Ten, Kiarostami films ten conversations, each of which takes place in the front seat of a single car over an undefined period of days or weeks. The driver of the car, a woman, appears in every scene. She converses with her son, her sister, a friend, and even a couple of strangers. Kiarostami films the action by placing two digital cameras on the dash, one facing the driver’s seat, the other the passenger’s. The film’s formal conceits and socio-political commentary provide ample opportunities for discussion.
With the film located entirely within the front seat of a single automobile driven by a woman, the director creates a space to relate with those “lesser” or “forgotten” members of Middle Eastern society: women and children. This gives viewers a unique opportunity to enter into the world of Middle Eastern women, so often covered up by patriarchal society. Kiarostami presents them as a diverse group, with differing views and reactions to any number of societal issues: sex, marriage, divorce, prayer, parenting, and beauty.
Yet while their diversity is apparent, the formal constraints of the single camera placement go beyond opportunities for interesting and occasionally mundane conversation. The single camera placement presents a confined and constricted space, mirrored in a way through the traditional head scarves the women wear. Of interest here is not simply that the car proves restrictive in some sense, but that by its very nature, it allows greater freedom through the ability to travel greater distances. No doubt these women travel to a variety of places quickly, but in the context of the film, we only ever see them inside or connected with this moving metal box. Such a move on Kiarostami’s part offers a unique portrait of contemporary Iranian society: greater freedom, albeit with continued and constant restraint.
Playing off this idea, when the driver picks up two different strangers, one a devout worshipper, the other a prostitute, Kiarostami appears to notice the peculiarity of the two women, both of whom appear on camera only as they are outside the car. In this way they avoid the constraints the vehicle provides. One is devoted to religion, the other to sex, one to the spiritual life, the other to the fleshly. Yet at each of these extremes, these women find a kind of freedom from the social restrictions that bind most middle-of-the-road women. This is further solidified in a dramatic scene near the end when the driver’s friend and fellow worshipper reveals her own extreme reaction to a loss in her life. At least for these women, it appears freedom comes only at the fringes of society.