Mania Akbari’s second feature 10+4 reproduces the situation and, at least initially, the form – a blurring of the line between documentary and fiction – of Abbas Kiarostami’s 2002 feature Ten, in which Akbari played the protagonist. It opens on the same set-up as Ten, in which Akbari and her then ten-year-old son Amin Maher bicker in the car. Cut to the present; both mother and son are in the same position in the car continuing their argument, but with a twist – Akbari is now directing herself as lead, and engaged in a fight against breast cancer that will end with her having a double mastectomy. She is thirty years old.
Where the entirety of Ten takes place within the confines of the car, in 10+4 Akbari switches from the driver’s seat to the back seat, to a hospital room, to her bed, a cable car and a café, each location determined by the debilitating consequences of the disease. She deals not only with the possibility of her own death and the physical toll that chemotherapy is visibly taking on her, but also with the pain caused to her family and close friends, and – hardest of all – the stigmatisation her condition also incites. For some, the illness is her punishment for not conforming; as she declares towards the end of the film: ‘Part of me knew this was a wrath, a punishment, a revenge’.
Akbari puts on what seems an unwaveringly brave face – ‘I have to power-play all the time to tell everyone I am fine’ – while conversations drift from the moving to the humorous and back. At one point, Akbari puts an aspiring singer in touch with a potential voice coach. As the three of them sit uncomfortably cramped together in the back seat on a tangibly hot day, Akbari asks the amateur to sing for them. Suddenly, the tense silence turns truly mesmerising, filled with the words of a poem/song by Iranian artist Bahareh that speaks about seizing the present, as the camera takes a 180 degree turn to look at a couple on a bike driving in front of the car, instantly returning the viewer to the recent past. From the back, the couple look uncannily similar to Akbari’s healthy self and the male protagonist in 20 Fingers, her previous film. Afterwards, the former voice coach puts the aspirant singer off with a blunt ‘for women, singing in this country is a dead art’, and they all share a banana.
As Akbari’s condition deteriorates, the mood changes, captured in a defining moment that takes place in a cable car, a location that recurs throughout the filmmaker’s work. Here, Akbari is accompanied by actress Behnaz Jafari who – with her head shaved – literally acts as a double or mirror (a bar divides the screen in two), confronting Akbari with the other side of the coin. Full of admiration for Akbari yet unable to be as strong as her, Behnaz – presumably also suffering from cancer – breaks down after the filmmaker recounts the pain she felt the first time she saw a reflection of her body in the mirror after the operation: ‘I couldn’t recognise myself’ she declares.
The themes of representation and identity that also structure 20 Fingers (and to some extent underpin the ‘unnamed version’ of herself Akbari played in Kiarostami’s Ten) are key in the final scene of 10 + 4. In the course of a conversation between a visibly healthy Akbari and a woman who’s fought cancer twice, the latter imparts some advice: if the illness is used to create something good, you are tempting the cancer to come back, and it’s always like a ‘Russian roulette. There are 7 holes, you could win or you could lose each time’. Yet this is the very premise on which the artist’s work – be it art, video, photography, or film – rests.
In fact, this conversation could just as easily have taken place before rather than after the filming of 10+4. As such, the main purpose of Akbari’s film would be not so much to bear witness to the filmmaker’s proximity to death, but rather to embalm in time her own self-rediscovery, as well as related concepts such as beauty, pain, death, family, society. Seen this way, Akbari’s testimony wins out against cancer, as she transforms its ravaging power into the defining prism through which the artist looks at the world.