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Quarrels and lamentations of Iranian lovers
Sex, sexuality, and relationships in Mania Akbari's "Twenty Fingers"

January 28, 2005

The Rotterdam International Film Festival has always been committed to screening the best of Iranian cinema. This year is no different. The 2005 festival features six new Iranian films. Twenty Fingers (Mania Akbari, 2004) is one of these. It is nominated for the Amnesty International-DOEN Award.

Twenty Fingers is a very unique Iranian film in many ways. It is about sex, sexuality, and relationships. The characters in this film deal with these subjects very openly and in ways which have not been done before in an Iranian film since the 1979 revolution. It is truly a marvel how such a ground breaking film has passed the censors in Iran.

Twenty Fingers is made in seven segments, each of which revolves around a couple who are engaged in an intimate conversation or a disagreement about some aspect of their relationship. It is a sharp-edged portrait of the battle of the sexes. The film is shot with digital video camera which makes it in some way very intimate and gives the audience a fly on the wall experience of observing the couple who are the center of the film.

In the various segments, the role of the woman is played by Mania Akbari who also directed and wrote this film and the role of the man is played by Bijan Daneshmand who produced it. In some of the segments, Akbari and Daneshmand portray a married couple, and in others, they are a couple who are to be married in some future time.

The seven segments, which seem to be non-sequential, deal with a whole array of issues that surround the relationship between two people such as jealousy, lust, power, control, family planning, infidelity, divorce, and independence. In most of them, Mania is struggling against Bijan's attempts to control her life decisions and choices. She is continuingly trying to negotiate some space for herself free of Bijan's over-protectiveness and dominance.

Bijan does not appear to be a very traditional man, he is quiet modern and open-minded in some ways. For instance, he is open to having all sorts of conversations with his partner, he asks her about her opinions, and he is willing to listen to her views. But, nevertheless, he is rather rigid in his views about the sex roles of both man and woman, and these views seem to largely resonate with the traditional prejudices against women and female sexuality.

In one of the most stirring and intense segments, Bijan, Mania, and their daughter Zahra, are riding on a motorbike through some of the crowded streets of Tehran. Mania tells Bijan than she has made an appointment with a doctor for later in the week. At first, Bijan pretends as if he does not know what she is talking about and asks why she needs to see a doctor. Mania's demeanor changes and she becomes upset. She is unexpectedly pregnant and she wants to have an abortion. She also knows that Bijan wants to keep the baby.

Mania pleads with Bijan describing the hardship a second child would bring; a new baby would require all her attention, she has just stopped breast feeding Zahra who is now old enough to go to daycare and she has only just resumed her studies. But Bijan is not persuaded, he argues that most of the responsibility of a new child will fall on him. He wants to have a son. So Bijan wants her to reconsider having an abortion. Bijan seems to think that Mania should be happy and satisfied in her role as wife and mother. But Mania has her own ideas about what would make her happy, she has her own aspirations.

In another moving and raucous segment, Bijan gets mad at Mania because she had a male guest in their home while he was away. He happened to be a companion of her best friend Maryam and had come along with her. But this does not seem to matter to Bijan who insists on moralizing the situation and coming down hard on her.

Bijan then forbids Mania to have strange men visiting her without his prior knowledge. This in turn gets her very mad because he is implying that she has acted in an improper way and he is showing that he does not trust her judgment. She is shocked that he is treating her like a child and telling her who she can or cannot choose as her friends. Mania becomes so incensed that she tries to hurt him by revealing that she has had a lesbian affair.

This entire segment is shot in a moving train compartment. It is probably no accident that in most of the segments in this film, we see the couple on a journey together, in a car, on a motorbike, in a gondola, or on a boat. Akbari seems to see the relationship between a couple as a kind of a journey that they are on together and as something which is always changing and never remains the same.

I think that it is important to point out that Twenty Fingers is not simply a film about a bad and over-bearing villain man and the struggles of a strong and independent heroic woman against him. Akbari's film is far more complex than that.

In much of her film, Bijan is depicted in a sympathetic and charitable way. His concerns and worries, along with his desires, are sometimes not completely illegitimate. He is an intelligent person who often communicates his ideas and feelings well. Mania on the other hand is not also free of fault. She is very strong, open, and more mature than Bijan. But sometimes she pushes their relationship to its very limits, nor does she hesitate to play with Bijan's feelings when she feels like it.

These dynamics make Twenty Fingers a complex and engaging film about relationships. This film is uniquely Iranian because it explores and questions some of the most pre-dominate attitudes toward sex and sexuality in contemporary Iran. But it also has a universal appeal because it deals with relationships and the issues that all couples must negotiate.

Overall Akbari does not seem very much interested in fixing blame and finding Bijan at fault. Her primary aim seems to be to raise consciousness and to encourage a dialogue between men and women. Akbari does not attempt to give her audience any ready made answers on how to deal with the important issues that she raises. But her film will undoubtedly open up many discussions and encourage reflection and a closer look at them.

Both Akbari and Daneshmand give very fine performances. Akbari, in particular, deserves to be congratulated for a masterful directorial debut. The strong and realistic characters, intelligent writing, and exquisite performances make this a very thoughtful and powerful film. Those who seek a more complex cinematic experience than mainstream Hollywood films would probably find this film to be a nice alternative.

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