Art, Iran and Abbas Kiarostami: An Interview with Mania Akbari

Mania Akbari on Abbas Kiarostami, Iran and the nomadic nature of the artist.

Nico Marzano and Maya Caspari

25 Jul 2016

Ahead of a special season of films in memory of filmmaker, poet and artist Abbas Kiarostami, Nico Marzano and Maya Caspari spoke to actor and filmmaker Mania Akbari about the experience of working with Abbas Kiarostami, politics and Iran, and the statelessness of the artist.

How and when did you meet Abbas Kiarostami for the first time? What was your first impression of him?
Iran’s art world at that time was rather small. It was like an island on which everybody knew each other by name or face. I was a painter and my world was a world of paint, frames, the smell of turpentine, and the screams of my three sons, Amin, Nima, and Sina. Nima and Sina were from my husband’s previous marriage and Amin was mine. I was a mother to three boys, running between bedrooms, kitchen and a studio piled up with drawings, canvases and the colors of wonder and restlessness.

I had a big opening at the Barg Gallery. It wasn’t like now, where there is a gallery on every street corner of Tehran and the number of artists exceeds that of doctors. In those days there were four art galleries operating and that was it.

"I got to know Abbas not through cinema, but through his different vision and his sensible and sensitive view of life."

Barg was one of them with four huge rooms, located in Tehran’s Mirdamad Avenue. I filled those four rooms with huge 2 x 3 metre canvases, covered with colours, textures and forms. Abbas was one of the guests visiting the gallery. He arrived in his dark glasses and stood in front of the paintings, one by one.

Naturally, I recognised him by his glasses more than anything else. Keeping hold of my emotions, I approached him and started to tell him stories of my three sons and how we lived with roomfuls of paint and turpentine. After chatting for a while Abbas, looking surprised, asked me how old I was. "Physically, 21. Mentally, maybe 50," I replied with a smile. "The spirit of an old woman inside me has compressed the experience of life inside me." The day after, I was having tea in the basement of Abbas’s house, which was also his studio, and he was busy editing ABC Africa. Everything started from that moment, as he listened with surprise and marvel to my real and fictional stories and I listened to his stories with equal amazement.

Ten is a film that sits between documentary and fiction. Do you recall how Abbas got the idea for the film and what motivated this use of form?

I don’t know what a true work of cinema is. Ten is the product of reality with a cinematic view. Unlike Kiarostami’s other films, in which a director attempts to say "this is not a film but it is reality," Ten is the complete opposite. It is a reality about which a director attempts to say "this is a film." It is all the secrets of a work embedded in this point that makes Ten outstanding.

Apparently Abbas left you and the other actors quite a lot of freedom during the filming of Ten. Could you describe the filmmaking practice embraced during the film? What did the film represent and change for you in your career as an artist?
When there’s a camera in front of you and you are aware that you’re being recorded, it means there is a play happening, therefore there’s cinema. When there’s a camera in front of you but you’re unaware of its recording, it is in that moment the camera becomes like a thief stealing your reality and records those moments that cinema avoids to show. Being aware and unaware of the camera’s recording made Ten. And I was completely aware of the camera’s recording.

I got to know Abbas not through cinema, but through his different vision and his sensible and sensitive view of life. A big question stayed with me always and occupied my mind all day and night: what is reality? Where is the line between fiction and reality?

How have your experiences of filmmaking and acting in Iran shaped your work, and your understanding of the political importance of cinema? What has been the impact of leaving your home in Iran to come to London?
Because I believe politics needs its own language that is beyond my capability, I was not a political activist and I am not. I’m an Iranian woman and a product of a feminine history of that land with all its beauties, contrasts and limitations. I’ve tried constantly to depict my feelings, experiences and thoughts through images and stories, and these experiences not only belong to me but to thousands of women in history.

"A real artist is born somewhere and influenced by that place and space, but her or his existence is stateless and without nationality."

Your country makes you who you are. I am a product of the awareness of the past generations of my country. I never left Iran. Iran is with me in my memories and it is impossible to leave your memories. And I believe a real artist is born somewhere and influenced by that place and space, but her or his existence is stateless and without nationality.

The word vatan [country/homeland] is limited. We belong to a virtual revolution and the country for each person is the planet earth, not contained by the borders that states defined for their own profits and benefits.

What is the most important aspect of Abbas Kiarostami’s legacy in your opinion?

I think Abbas Kiarostami depicted a new meaning to the secrets and mysteries of life and created a different language of simplicity. This simplicity wasn’t raised out of mediocrity, but rather the kind of simplicity one achieves after passing through a thousand labyrinths. ■

Our Abbas Kiarostami Focus season runs 27-31 July.

Ten is screened on 30 July, followed by a panel discussion with Mania Akbari and Saeed Kamali Dehghan, Iran correspondent for The Guardian, hosted by The Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw.

We are always looking to hear from potential contributors. If you would like to pitch a feature for the ICA Bulletin email blog@ica.org.uk.