Review of Kiarostami's Ten

A couple of nights ago I watched Abbas Kiarostami's 2002 film, Ten. I was struck by how claustrophobic a space the interior of a car, the interior of this woman's life, was. But also by the kind of proximity that women can achieve, and can fail to achieve, in the face of alienating conditions. And by the depth of passion this woman exhibited, in the most ordinary and unremarkable of circumstances. Although the film is set in Tehran, Iran, I don't think it is reductive to say that its drama -- centred on this woman's intimate relations -- is transferable to other geopolitical locales, to other patriarchal cultures -- like mine. And this is the effect of Kiarostami's deep humanist intuition: to enable affective and political identifications with individuals who are normally constructed as our "Other"; whose experience, values, and desires are constructed as the very antithesis of our own.

I once had a conversation in passing with an Iranian acquaintance about Iranian film. He was very critical of the politics of importation of Iranian film by the west, claiming that although the Iranian film industry predominantly produces comedies, the west only imports its tragedies. Western audiences therefore only have access to Iranian films that support the prevailing, orientalist western construction of Iranian culture and politics, and especially its gender politics. But, to my mind, Kiarostami's Ten is an exception. For, while it has something of the heaviness that I, as a western cinemaphile, associate with Iranian film, Ten also is infused with the energy and humour and passion of a woman who refuses to be dominated, and who, to a certain extent, succeeds in eschewing normative gender ideology, embodied and transmitted by her young son. Ten acquaints us with a woman who tries to have ethical relations with strangers as well as intimate friends, and whom we often see struggling and failing to do so, with a woman who is trying to learn how to love herself. As a character, she is not unproblematic: but this too is instructive, from her paternalistic interaction with a sex-worker whose contempt for her bourgeois hypocrisy is palpable, to her unreflective stance on domestic labour.

In a non-didactic way, Ten shows us the mundane negotiation of feminist politics on the ground, by an ordinary, politicized woman. It arrests the orientalizing gaze, and controverts the western construction of Iranian women -- and Muslim women more generally -- as entirely divested of agency, and as lacking a sense of self independent of the projects, desires, and needs of others. It depicts an Iranian woman as mobile, both literally and metaphorically agentially engaging the world, encountering obstacles, to be sure, but obstacles much like those women encounter -- and have become accustomed to seeing as apolitical or normal aspects of their lives -- in the west. In fact, by occasioning the identification with its central character, who does regard the limitations society places on her freedom and her desires as political, Ten generates questions about the status of social roles in the western viewer: if the normative pressure to be a paragon of maternal love is political in Iran, is it not also political in Canada? Ultimately, viewed under the right lens, Ten can be seen to motivate the argument that we need a transnational feminist politics, precisely because women simultaneously share and don't share an experience of oppression, and so that women can flourish as subjects everywhere.


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