An Iranian Artist Who Takes the Path of Most Resistance

Iranian artist and director Mania Akbari is a provocateur whose work ultimately forced her to flee her homeland. On a visit to Israel, she explains the importance of being a rebel with a cause.

Eliyahu Hershkovitz

A film in which the protagonist has a lesbian affair with her maid; sex scenes between a man and a woman in which the screen is dark but the soundtrack leaves no doubt as to what is happening; a scene in which a woman dances freely and sensually in front of the camera. An exhibition of still photographs that are honest, forthright and explicit in their portrayal of the wounded, scarred and twisted female body after a mastectomy. The Iranian artist and film director Mania Akbari is not afraid to defy every prohibition and convention of her homeland that she finds unacceptable. Censorship does not seem to bother her, either.

Over the years, many Iranian directors have chosen to make films criticizing the dictatorial regime in their country. But Akbari, who was born in Tehran in 1974, has taken the criticism and rebellion a great deal further. She refuses to let fear dictate her activities and insists on maintaining her artistic and personal liberty. As part of that crusade, she visited Israel last week as a guest of honor at Sderot’s Cinema South Festival, where one of her films was screened.

Akbari’s feature films, video art and stills photography remind us that women are also partners in Iran’s exciting cinematic work, proving that even if they operate under more restrictions, they can definitely insist on their freedom. Still, the screening of her film and discussion with her at the Sderot Cinematheque make clear that her insistence on artistic freedom often requires frighteningly high levels of courage and daring.

“As a girl, I always looked for ways to oppose, to be different, to be special,” Akbari says during our interview. “I feel that it comes from the days when the Islamic Revolution broke out in Iran. I was 5 years old at the time, and suddenly everything became hidden and forbidden, but I was very curious about discovering things. Of course the dictatorship that arose had laws that had to be obeyed and we had to do as we were told, but that always aroused opposition within me, and my opposition always caused problems. Almost everything people did as a flock would make me ask why it had to be that way, why everybody had to be the same.”

The interview with Akbari takes place with the assistance of Israeli musician Hanna Jahanforooz, who came to Israel at the age of 12 and volunteered her services as an interpreter. “It’s more comfortable for me this way,” Akbari, who has lived in London for the past two years, says with a smile. “On the festival’s opening night, a teenage girl with an innocent face, wearing an army uniform, approached me,” she recalls. “She told me she was from the Army Radio station and asked to interview me, but in my eyes there was no connection between her beautiful face and the army uniform she was wearing. So I told her I felt like I had to speak with a uniform, and that was inconceivable – particularly since I came here with a different message, a message of unity, of togetherness.

“So I told her that if she wanted to interview me, she would have to change her uniform for different clothing. And then, an hour later, when we were in the theater for the opening ceremony, suddenly a beautiful young woman wearing a dress waved at me. It took me some time to realize that this was the same woman who had approached me before. When she began to interview me, she told me she had no choice because that was the law here. I told her that if everyone in the world did exactly as they were told, nothing would change in our world. I believe that change begins with people refusing to do as they are told.

“For example,” she continues, “I have become who I am precisely because I refused to do everything people tried to dictate to me. All my art and cinematic work start with a refusal to do as I am told, not to obey dictates, and to do what is unconventional. The thing that informs my art is the attempt to find the opening – dig a hole and create a space in the conventional, and make it unconventional. In my eyes, that is one of the purposes of art.”

Akbari’s father was a lecturer in physics. Her mother lectures in science. During her teen years, she began painting, but says that when she realized she was not talented enough in that field, she switched to cinema. In 2002, she starred in Abbas Kiarostami’s documentary film “Ten,” playing a woman who drives through the streets of Tehran with various passengers. The film, in which Akbari’s son and sister also appeared, competed at the Cannes Film Festival, paving the way for Akbari to develop her own independent film career.

In 2003, Akbari directed a documentary film, “Crystal,” and a year later wrote and directed her first full-length feature, “20 Fingers.” The film tells the story of a married couple who hold long conversations about their relationship. In one scene they have sexual relations (the screen is dark, but their voices are audible), and at other points they speak about various subjects. Some of these, such as homosexuality and divorce, were unacceptable to the Iranian censor, so consequently Akbari – who also starred in the film – was forbidden to show the full version in Iran. However, it won the prize for best film in the Venice Film Festival’s Digital Cinema competition.

She began making her documentary film “10 + 4” in 2007, after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. In the film, an homage to Kiarostami’s “Ten,” Akbari spends most of her time behind the wheel of a car, but this time she is bald as a result of chemotherapy. She speaks about the disease with various characters, and how she deals with it, and at the film’s end documents herself in the hospital as she goes through the treatment.

In her video art from 2012, entitled “In My Country Men Have Breasts,” Akbari juxtaposed nude photos of herself after her double mastectomy. In our interview, she says that to avoid getting into trouble with the authorities, she did not admit that the body she had photographed was her own, and she directed the video art that followed outside Iran.

When Akbari began working on her next full-length feature, “Women Do Not Have Breasts,” she never guessed what would happen next. As far as she was concerned, everything was normal. She wrote a film about a married couple, each of whom was having an affair with the pretty young maid who worked in their home. She began filming in 2012, as she had planned – and then everything began to go wrong. “At that time, they started arresting many directors in Iran,” she recalls. “My distributor was arrested, and right after we started working on making the film, a law was passed stating that every film that went into production without a permit would get into trouble.”

Akbari was unable to obtain a permit for the film. When she felt her life was in danger, she decided to leave Iran. “When I did not receive a permit for the film, I started to get scared,” she admits. “Then I decided I should go away until the danger passed. I left Iran three months after filming began, but I did it knowing it was only temporary and that I would soon come back. But then they started bombarding the Internet with announcements and messages that Mania Akbari had left Iran because she was a lesbian and had AIDS, and informed me that I had nothing to come back for,” she says. “So in the end, I decided not to go back, and I stayed in London.”

Her departure from Iran interrupted shooting for the film, whose title she changed to “From Tehran to London.” When people view the film today, the film is abruptly cut off after about 40 minutes, and, against a backdrop of several still photographs, Akbari, in her own voice, briefly tells the story of the rest of the film. Immediately afterward, she explains to viewers that she made all her films without a permit, but tried to get a permit for this particular film and failed. She says that after several of the people involved in the production were arrested, she feared for her own safety and that of her partners in the work, and decided to stop production.

This text lends the film a great deal of power, but the section that Akbari managed to shoot also contains fascinating, thoughtful moments that deal with the status of women, the institution of marriage, love and sexual identity. Particularly captivating is the scene in which the protagonist (played by Neda Amiri), who throughout the film is busy preening – putting on makeup, tweezing hair and cleaning her home – dances in front of the camera to an English-language song. Her dance is free, liberated and, at times, erotic. She dances dressed in a black garment that covers her from head to toe, and only after some time stops dancing to prepare coffee for her husband.

“This is the first time since the Islamic Revolution that a woman is seen dancing in an Iranian film,” Akbari says. “Women in Iran are not allowed to dance in public places, so they dance only at home, in private. One of the most important things in my work is the link between the body and the environment. For me, this is a body with politics, with cruelty, with softness and with tenderness. I observe the body and movement, body and space, and the dance here is an expression of the body. It is a message that the movement wants to convey but cannot, because the body is hidden by the garment and the skin is stifled.”

Akbari distances herself from the suggestion that the film, and that scene in particular, refer to the oppression of women and the attempt to break through it. “I don’t know what women want and think. My art has no gender,” she says. “The problems of women in Iran are problems of women all over the world. The moment you think you are a woman, that’s where the problem starts.

“I don’t think of myself as a woman or a man,” she adds. “I don’t know what I am, and it doesn’t really matter. In my eyes, the power is understanding that you have some of both the woman and the man inside you. The problem of women in Iran is that they insist they are women. The moment they leave the matter of gender behind, I believe that all their problems will be solved.”