20 Fingers a film, in seven episodes, written and directed by Iranian actress and filmmaker, Mania Akbari made the kind of noise at this years Venice film festival that Sex, Lies, and Video Tape made at Cannes some years back. We witness in seven different settings, seven different conversations between a woman and a man (played by Mania Akbari and Bijan Daneshmand).
Each episode, except one, is set in a moving vehicle taking the couple from point A to point B mirroring the journeys, sometimes bumpy, that couples take. The conversations or, in some cases, quarrels, while expressing problems facing Iranian men and women, depict the universal struggle between modernity and tradition, between liberalism and conservatism.
Given the second-class status of women in Islamic and Iranian society it follows that the voice of tradition belongs to the man and that of progress to the woman. For women change in this society is imperative. The man, in this movie, acts as the breaks to the vehicle that is taking the couple on the road to growth. He is the masculine and perpetually paranoid voice of traditional morality. Forever jealous of anything that might threaten his manhood.
Several elements make this film one that will no doubt make a great impact. To begin with, the film is powerful because of the candid and naked nature of the conversations. Never before has the subject of sexual relations been so openly expressed, on the screen, in Farsi.
In a society that veils women it is both shocking and refreshing to see a woman speak boldly of love, lust and infidelity. The use of different episodes is an effective device for exposing the fragmented nature of both individual psyches and joint lives in a society that stifles freedom, difference and personal growth.
Technically the film is impressive. The acting is natural and powerful. The cinematography is superb. The use of long, hand-held takes adds tension and documentary flavor. The viewer feels like she is a witness to a live action, eavesdropping on a conversation.
The film begins with a close-up of Mania’s face, a white shawl on her hair, moving up and down in seesaw fashion. The shot lingers long enough for the movement to acquire a sexual rhythm. We hear her mother’s voice-over telling her to stop playing and come inside, “you are a big girl now”, she says. The film goes on to show that big girls and boys continue to play games.
We find her next sitting in a jeep with Bijan, driving up a snowy path, talking about the games they played when they were children. Mania talks about playing doctor with her cousin when she was little and Bijan immediately questions her in such a way that reveals envy and jealousy and the need to know, to control.
This pattern of candid revelations on her part and constant jealousy and need for control on his then becomes the rhythm that informs their conversational dance in all the episodes. This jealousy however is more complicated than a man’s need to control his woman. While it is always stifling it is sometimes provocative and erotic, sought by the woman and not always controlled by the man.
The first episode ends with a scene shot in darkness, in which the man forcibly takes the woman’s virginity because he says he “had to be sure.” With this unseen act, that takes place against a backdrop of barking dogs, we are thrown, with one violent and abrupt push, into the muddy waters of sexual tensions in a society that separates men from women in almost apartheid fashion.
As she mentions earlier in the episode Mania and her cousins were prohibited from playing doctor from the age of nine — that arbitrary age of adulthood for Muslim women, which, the prophet himself conceived. Thus separated boys and girls are thrown on either sides of the ring doomed to a lifetime of mutual confusion. Sex becomes a battle, a point of misunderstanding and paranoia rather than a pleasure sought equally by both genders. In a society where virginity matters so much, men are condemned to fear its absence, women its loss. Both man and woman are victims.
In the second episode, set high above the mountains of Tehran, Bijan and Mania talk over the creaking telecabin noise about her dancing with a male friend at a party. Dancing between men and women is officially prohibited in Iran. But here we have a jealousy of a more universal kind. Bijan does not believe that dancing is wrong. However, he does not believe in dancing provocatively with anyone other than a boyfriend or husband.
Again what appears as simple jealousy or need for control reveals a multi-layered nature. Mania admits that she likes to make him jealous and that this may have been her motive for dancing with her friend in such a manner. Even with this admission on Mania’s part, Bijan continues to press his point, wanting to make sure that she understands and accepts his logic. Mania is suppressed just as she begins to open up. The price of her honesty is censorship.
The other episodes treat different problems and questions, regarding men and women, sex and life, with different degrees of tension in varying octaves. Whether she wants an abortion, or probes the possibility of love for two men at the same time, or explains her mother’s need to have a son, she is always confronted by Bijan, who is trapped by a jealousy and paranoia that makes him seem, in the end, more a victim than Mania.
In episode five she says, “I like my limitations.” Because, she reasons, they keep her from a life of empty sexual pursuit. Her limitations do more, they make her see beyond social norms in a way that Bijan can never hope to. These personal and societal constructs are imposed on her so blatantly that seeing them and overcoming them is easy: it is a matter of survival. For Bijan the construct s are indigenous, he owns them, they affirm his manhood, they give him meaning and he can therefore part with them less easily.
The fictive segment of the film ends with an abrupt admission on Mania’s part in episode six (episode seven is a ‘behind the scenes’ film about film segment, which, takes the male/female dialogue to the subject of the film itself.) She tells a shocked Bijan that she has slept with her female friend, Maryam – no doubt a first in Iranian cinema. Bijan, disgusted and dejected, slaps her and throws her out of their train compartment shutting the door on her and perhaps the side of him that may have developed into a more tolerant man.
The man and woman are once again separated by the limitations imposed on them. The game of life is interrupted; the door to mutual understanding is violently shut. Mania, despite all the mistreatment she suffers or perhaps even because of it, is freed from the small and suffocating compartment that is their relationship while Bijan remains, shutting the doors of change on himself. The man, in the end, is the true victim. He is a prisoner of his own inhibitions propped and pumped up by a male-dominated society that shares and nurtures his insecurity.
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