Mania Akbari is an internationally acclaimed filmmaker, artist, writer, and actress. Her provocative, revolutionary and radical films were recently the subject of retrospectives at the BFI, London (2013), the DFI, Denmark (2014), Oldenburg International Film Festival, Germany (2014) and Cyprus Film Festival (2014).
Her films have screened at festivals around the world and have received numerous awards including German Independence Honorary Award, Oldenberg (2014), Best Film, Digital Section, Venice Film Festival (2004), Nantes Special Public Award Best Film (2007) and Best Director and Best film at Kerala Film Festival (2007), Best Film and Best Actress, Barcelona Film Festival (2007). She also had numerous exhibits around the world in galleries such as Tate Modern in London.
Akbari was exiled from Iran and currently lives and works in London, a theme addressed in her latest film, Life May Be (2014), co-directed with Mark Cousins. This film was released at Karlovy Vary Film Festival and was nominated for Best Documentary at Edinburgh International Film Festival (2014) and Asia Pacific Film Festival (2014).
If I try to forget being a mother during making a film, it is as if I have ignored an important part of myself.
You are a photographer, a painter, an actor and a filmmaker. Why did you start to make films, given how difficult it is in terms of time and money to make them and get them seen?
I started out as a painter, but to be a successful painter one needs solitude and a strong bond between the self, the brush, and the canvas. I was too restless a soul to maintain all my energies within that space. So in a sense it was painting that rejected me, forced me to move to a medium which could handle my energies and my inner world. I chose the camera. The camera became the brush with which I documented my stories on the canvas of my life.
Cinema, as cinema, is not my main concern. I chose this medium to be empowered to tell my stories. I make my films with very little money and this low-budget cinema is not tied to the film industry’s rules and concerns over revenue as it has its own special audience. However, almost always, whether during the production or post-production, I face countless financial obstacles that slow down the project, delay it and sometimes permanently abort its progress. But there’s a madness in me which prevents me from giving up. The journey is far more important than the destination.
You make your films according to your own rules and process: how does this process affect the content of the work? Is it important for you to devise your own way of making films, and how does that affect the stories you tell and the images you create?
I’m the storyteller of my own stories. My body, too, is a storyteller, full of memories, and constantly challenging the outer world with its inner world.
I mostly stand in the front of the camera rather than behind. I’m a front-of-the-camera director, not behind-the-camera one. The camera is more of a witness, or the eye of the spectator to whom I’m telling my story. The camera chases me and I chase her. I’m a good thief, stealing bits and moments of life, and offering it back to life with an added meaning.
In your documentary 30 MINUTES TO 6 AM, you raise a series of pressing questions about violence, justice, and the family. Why were you particularly moved by Behnoud Shojaee’s case? What did you discover while making the film? And why a documentary rather than a drama?
Basically, all my films wander in and out of uneven worlds: fiction and documentary, fact and story, dream and reality.
In the Behnoud Shojaee documentary about ghasas (capital punishment according to sharia law) I had a very young man who was condemned to death because he had killed someone in a fight when he was still under 18. It wasn’t a case of premeditated murder. It was just a tragic mistake. In the film, I was asking why people should accept ghasas and why they don’t forgive.
For this film, in carefully framed shots with backdrops suggesting the many contradictions of the society I was living in, I posed questions about forgiveness and revenge but I was not looking for any answer. I was more interested in facing my audience with a bigger question- that while many laws can be against humanity, why do we continue to stick to them? Is it because we’ve taken for granted that we are human beings? Perhaps these laws serve the pleasures and powers of the dictator inside us, and we choose them over our capacity for beauty of forgiveness and humanity.
I’m a good thief, stealing bits and moments of life, and offering it back to life with an added meaning.
In one of the scenes in your first feature, 20 FINGERS, you play a woman with a small child, arguing with her husband about whether or not he will allow her to have an abortion as they ride around Tehran. It’s a very dynamic presentation of the debate, and a call for women’s rights to their own bodies. Why was it important for you to include this scene in the film? What were the reactions to it?
A great part of the battles I had to fight as a woman raised in an Islamic society was about the contradictions surrounding the body and sex. The mutual impacts of my body and religion, my body and politics, my body and the city in which I grew up, and my body and the traditions made me realise that a body — the house of our souls — is filled with memory. It is us and it won’t abandon us.
In the film 20 Fingers there’s an episode of a woman riding on the back of a motorcycle, holding a baby, while being pregnant with another baby. She’s considering an abortion while the motorcycle restlessly whirls through the city. During the ride, again, we see paradoxes of being a mother, becoming a mother, and the issue of pregnancy against the backdrop of the city of Tehran whose mosques, shops and houses are seen as the conversation unfolds. The woman, played by me, could be the representative of thousands of women in the world. She is fighting for her beliefs, not only with her husband but also with the baby inside her.
I think we should differentiate between becoming a mother via a conscious decision and becoming a mother in other circumstances. In the former, one can say I became pregnant; in the latter, I was impregnated. In my country the definitions of consent are more blurred. Many women are the victims of rape and sexual violence within marriages and relationships, and believe that they have to accept this. This was something I touched upon in the opening scene of 20 Fingers. I think a pregnancy that arrives out of love is very different to one that arrives out of violence.
Having said that, every pregnancy brings a strange, inner evolution to a woman’s body which is one of the most essential feelings a woman experiences in life.
In Abbas Kiarostami’s film 10, you acted with your son Amin, in very powerful scenes that tell a semi-autobiographical story. What was it like working together – for you and him? You revisit it as the starting point to your film 10+4: how did it influence your relationship after the film?
My son is an important part of me and I’m an important part of him. We can’t distance or forget each other in the process of creating art. If I try to forget being a mother during making a film, it is as if I have ignored an important part of myself.
He is an ever-present experience, complementary to my existence like an artwork. He has undoubtedly given me two feelings by his birth: pain and then pleasure. And he himself too has felt both. So we have mutual feelings. But being an artist and a mother is tougher. My son has always thought that art was his rival and his mother first likes art and then him. I have had the same misunderstanding with not only my son, but almost all men in my life when they began to see art as a rival with which they should always compete.
It took time for my son to realise that he was indeed part of an artistic path and life and art are not only inseparable, but in need of each other for survival.
In the film 10, the contradictions between a mother and an artist were what I brutally depicted. Even now, after all these years, it’s still painful to watch the film: I can’t separate my motherhood from my role in the film in the scene with my son. I can’t separate the real mother-son relationship from the screen one, and it poses a strong question about my identity as a woman and a mother.
Four years later, when I made 10+4, there was another character in the equation– that of cancer. I had a new body, new challenge, new opinion of life. Everything had changed. My son had already lost the mother he knew from his childhood. He was trying to work out who I was now. Many times he looked at me and asked me – who are you? Are you my mom? My mum was strong and beautiful. What happened to her? I think it was a very hard experience for him. And of course I had the same questions of myself- who am I? What happened to that other Mania?
My son has always thought that art was his rival and his mother first likes art and then him. I have had the same misunderstanding with not only my son, but almost all men in my life.
In a cultural moment when people are documenting themselves so much, what does it mean to be really seen – not just as a flat image, but as a whole person? Is it possible? Is it important to you?
In my opinion, each human being represents the culture of one particular part of society. Over time, our habits grow into our culture, so there is a direct link between the personal culture and the collective one. Some of our habits come from our ancestors and some from our contemporary society, both demanding certain things from us. Therefore, when one is making a film about her or his “realities”, no doubt that the filmmaker is depicting a part of that culture to which she or he belongs. However, any generalisation and the belief that each film fully and unconditionally represents the whole of a culture is a great mistake. Such expectations from cinema – be it documentary or fiction – are false. The images have power, but not to the extent to express the whole of a culture.
In your new film A MOON FOR MY FATHER (with sculptor Douglas White), you are looking at how memory is written into our bodies: the title suggests that this might particularly be true for family memories. Does being a daughter as well as a mother (and a sister, working with your sister Roya) play a strong role in your filmmaking? Have your family supported your filmmaking?
Our memories are a pen, constantly inscribing on our body. Sometimes we tend to erase more painful memories, and sometimes to reread the memories in a new light. The attempt to erase or reread helps us to survive. We are also living as the continuation of the memories of people before us. Each form, shape, colour, sound, volume contains words which can connect with memories of our bodies. In an artistic encounter, a static sculpture or some such form can bring a lived and dynamic experience which revives the words and colours from the past.
When I saw Douglas White’s sculptures for the first time, they brought back to life those buried stories in me. I felt the sculptures were story-tellers and contained certain historic and narrative elements that awakened a hidden feeling in me, a flowing one which immediately linked my body and soul in London to a past memory in Tehran. This was art connecting two geographies and two cultures through the means of shared memory.
For instance, when I saw sculptures by Douglas that had used clay in such a way to give the textural impression of the skin of an elephant, I immediately connected and realised that I have seen the same sort of “skin” in the ravaged part of my body – my breasts – with the same texture and feeling, as if I have had a secret elephant skin on my damaged breasts. From the skin of the elephant I arrived at my own body, my skin and the ravages of cancer which had ruined my body. That piece of skin initiated a conversation with beauty – the relation between destruction, aesthetic, and beauty.
We all both get hurt and protected by our families and society, simultaneously receiving protection and insecurity from it. My personal relationship with my sister Roya was enriched and deepened when the more common language was substituted for the language of art. In my view, a deep conversation can’t take place unless it starts from the deepest and most personal parts of the self.
Undoubtedly, any female artist has affiliations which could be with a mother, a sister, a husband or with a fellow artist. Being an artist can’t be separated from any of these affiliations as there is no separation between art and life.
We all both get hurt and protected by our families and society, simultaneously receiving protection and insecurity from it. My personal relationship with my sister Roya was enriched and deepened when the more common language was substituted for the language of art.
Your video installation I SLEPT WITH MY MOTHER, FATHER, BROTHER AND SISTER IN THE COUNTRY CALLED IRAN is an astonishing reflection of the relationship between family and nation, between tenderness and terror. Projected on a single bed, the video looks at parents looking at their children under a soundtrack of a song preparing young people to go to war. What led you to make this piece?
For me, a portion of my creativity lies in the pains and suffering I’ve endured as a human being. This doesn’t mean that any pain can lead to creativity, but in my view, creativity is inseparable from human suffering.
In each human being, pain and energy are closely connected like the links of a chain. Nature follows the same pattern and an artist, being so receptive, is no exception. My body is part of this agony, and as a woman it serves like a metaphor for me, a metaphor for the philosophy of life.
In the context of war and destruction, the body can be something of a protestor which can display both destruction and rehabilitation. Firmly believing in this, I’ve made two video artworks whose origins are in this concept. I believe that each body has a political existence, hence each individual, because of the body, is a political emblem.
You have made films in Iran and in the UK: what are the different challenges and opportunities? Have you encountered any resistance to your work in film because of your gender or because of being a parent?
When one’s environment changes, it affects the way the body and mind interact with the situations, cropping up new challenges which itself could be the beginning of a new self-exploration – the dialogue between the language of body and mind with that of space, architecture and the colours and texture and the history of the place. When the old conceptions start to crumble, one searches anew in herself and her surrounding for something she can rely on.
Being a woman and a mother has put me in a drastically different situation than men. First of all, I come from an Islamic society in which being a woman equates to deprivation and condemnation, and being a mother imposes ideas of self-sacrifice and absolute devotion. Therefore, it was extremely difficult to break the mould inside of me and walk on a new path of my own choice. For doing so, I lost a great deal of energy and saw innumerable obstacles but I imagine, eventually, this hardship gave me a new voice and I was transformed, if not metamorphosed.