Mania Akbar’s 2004 film, 20 Fingers, is obsessed with motion. In only 72 minutes, viewers are transported along with the main characters via car, boat, train, gondola-style ski lift, moped and yet another car, for good measure.
But while everything surrounding the film’s two characters (an unnamed, generic couple played by Akbar herself and Bijan Daneshmand) is in constant motion, the couple is engaged in one of the most intimate, personal conversations imaginable.
Our protagonists converse over the low hum of transit, and the setting allows the film’s dialogue to feel completely natural and organic, despite its heavy subject matter: male-female relations and the independence (or lack thereof) of contemporary Iranian women.
20 Fingers will screen this Saturday as part of the Iranian Women Film Series, presented by PSU’s Middle East Studies Center and the Persian Program in the Department of World Language and Literatures. The series, hosted by 5th Avenue Cinema, is presented with funding from the Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute, whose mission is to “support and preserve the transmission and instruction of Persian language and culture.”
The series was primarily conceived by Anousha Sedighi, professor from the Persian Program in the Department of World Languages at PSU.
“[Dr. Sedighi] is trying to raise awareness of Persian culture and particularly about the lives of women in Iran,” said Elisheva Cohen, outreach coordinator for the Middle East Studies Center. “Americans have such a narrow view of Iran as a mysterious and repressive culture, and these films show some of the intricacies of Iranian life and challenge some of our stereotypes.”
Sedighi was unavailable for comment.
20 Fingers confronts these repressive stereotypes head-on, which is, in part, what made the film so controversial in Akbar’s native country. Although the film received much praise in the United States, Spain, Brazil and Italy, it has never been shown in Iran because of its frank discussion of such taboo topics as abortion and homosexuality.
For a banned film, 20 Fingers is remarkably quiet. Despite the couple’s constant motion, the underlying conflict generally simmers just beneath the surface. When it does finally boil over, the conflict’s crescendo feels credible and well-earned.
The film is organized into seven vignettes, and Akbar wastes no time in addressing her topics in full force.
In the first vignette, Akbar and Daneshmand are an engaged couple driving down snowy country roads in the dead of night on their way to visit her family. Although the conversation from the front seat is benign enough, Turaj Aslani’s jittery, backseat cinematography undercuts the calm does not portend well for our couple. Something is clearly amiss.
As the couple talks innocently about childhood games such as spin-the-bottle, there is a nearly imperceptible shift in the tenor of the conversation. The man pulls over, shuts off the car and the screen goes black. All we can hear is breathing and the distant howls of stray dogs. What happens next is brusque and jarring. We are confronted directly with the imbalance of power in the couple’s relationship, and we’re reminded just how quickly the seemingly innocent can turn ugly.
Each of the seven vignettes feature Akbar and Daneshmand, but each episode’s relationship dynamics vary in compelling ways.
Immediately following the car-ride vignette, we find the couple riding up a mountain in a gondola. There is nothing visual signaling a shift in the two characters—no overt signifiers that delineate this couple from the previous one—but as soon as the conversation begins, their dynamic is clearly different: He is more deferential; she is more outspoken. Even though he wants to her to be free, he is hurt that she danced with a different man at a party. “I’m happy that it upset you,” she replies with a smile.
Akbar’s film works because of the subtle way the actors alter their characters, showing a true range of the incredibly complex dynamics of these relationships, all the while underlining the film’s central message. The power of 20 Fingers lies in its ability to take an apparently innocuous conversation in an ordinary setting and transform it, slowly and organically, into a fight over what it means to be free, what it means to be a man or a woman and, most importantly, what it means to be human.
The Iranian Women Film Series:20 Fingers (2004)
Saturday, Feb. 11, 7 p.m.
5th Avenue Cinema
Free and open to the public