Critic's Notebook: Abbas Kiarostami, the Iranian Artist Who Led the Way for Young Filmmakers

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Abbas Kiarostami

The Cannes Palme d’Or winner for ‘Taste of Cherry’ was an inspiring filmmaker for young directors around the world and a multi-talented artist.

With the death of Abbas Kiarostami, Iran’s leading director, world cinema loses one of its true guiding lights.

His work in the 1980s, beginning with the utterly simple tale of anguished childhood Where Is the Friend’s Home?, earned him international recognition, while the purity of its documentary, no-budget style and compassionate humanism was much imitated by young directors from emerging countries.

As he evolved as a filmmaker with award-winning features like Close Up, Taste of Cherry (Palme d’Or, 1997) and The Wind Will Carry Us (Grand Jury Prize in Venice, 1999), his creativity simultaneously blossomed in other media. A sophisticated photographer, theater director, painter, editor, screenwriter, poet and modern artist, he explored life and death through nature and Persian culture.

Attesting to the esteem in which he was held, Jean-Luc Godard once said, "Film begins with D. W. Griffith and ends with Abbas Kiarostami." He had been battling cancer for months before he went to Paris to undergo further treatment. He died there on July 4, survived by two talented sons, Bahman and Ahmad Kiarostami.

A revered cultural and public figure in his native Iran, he was one of the only directors who seemed impervious to the Byzantine censorship system that froze the talents of many of his contemporaries. He caused the biggest outcry accidentally after Catherine Deneuve gave him a kiss on stage following the announcement that Taste of Cherry had won the Palme d’Or. It’s no surprise, then, that he avoided contact with officialdom and spent much of his time traveling abroad.

Although the censors gave him wide berth while he was shooting, his films were often banned in Iran when they were finished. As he philosophically reflected, "I think they don't understand my films and so prevent them being shown just in case there is a message they don't want to get out."

He was known to festival audiences around the world for his deeply thoughtful master classes that illuminated the ability of cinema to go beyond storytelling and reveal the human soul. His long-time collaboration with producer Marin Karmitz’s MK2 Productions in France continued all the way to Certified Copy (2010), though his final feature Like Someone in Love, released in 2012, was produced and shot in Japan.

Born in Tehran in 1940 at the time of the Shahs, he studied painting and graphic design at the University of Tehran and lived through the Islamic Revolution of 1979 that brought the Ayatollah Khomeini to power. It was a transformative experience for Kiarostami, who once remarked that he couldn’t stand to witness another revolution with blood running through the streets. After working in advertising as a designer, illustrator and director of TV commercials, he made his filmmaking debut in 1970 with a 12-minute short called Bread and Alley, depicting the close encounter between a small boy and an aggressive dog.

It was the beginning of the Iranian New Wave and Kiarostami co-founded what was to become one of the most important centers for its progressive filmmaking, disarmingly called The Institute for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults. Its focus on children and its copious use of poetry and allegory perhaps helped throw the ever-vigilant government censors off the scent of some very groundbreaking films, like Amir Naderi’s The Runner and Bahram Beyzai’s Bashu, the Little Stranger

Kiarostami quickly developed a reputation for his poetic, unconventional approach. Anticipating the famous scenes of driving around Tehran in a big SUV, which became a well known trope in his later Iranian films, his early child protagonists were always on their way somewhere  to a football game, to a wedding, to friends’ homes. These are actually moral and spiritual journeys and the seeming simplicity of his realist style (often compared to Italian neorealism) hides an inner stylistic complexity that would become a hallmark of his life’s work.

The 1977, Report, about a tax collector accused of taking bribes, was his first feature film, followed by his breakthrough feature Where Is the Friend’s Home? and its 1989 companion piece, Homework. Filmed in outlying villages in a highly realistic documentary style, both films use a young boy’s point of view to bring out the anxieties of children whose inner needs are ignored by adults and trampled by an overly severe educational system. This is the closest he came to straight documentary features until his remarkable 2001 ABC Africa took him and his cameraman and friend Seifollah Samadian to Uganda to film the country’s orphans for a U.N. program.

In 1990, he embarked on a new phase with the totally unexpected and delightful mind-bender Close Up, a meta-cinematic tale about a publicity-seeker who impersonates the famous director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Adding to the film’s layers is the fact that this incident really happened and at his trial for identity theft, the real-life impersonator argued he was no thief and that his motives were far more complicated. Kiarostami’s adroit mixing of documentary and staged scenes earned the film international accolades and release, along with a place in the BFI’s list of the top 50 films of all time.

The next three films, shot in the stark mountains of northern Iran near the village of Koker where Kiarostami made Where Is the Friend’s Home?, are generally viewed as a trilogy that soberly reflects on the impermanence of life and the inevitability of death and change. In Life, and Nothing More… (a.k.a. And Life Goes On, 1992), set in the aftermath of a 1990 earthquake that left 30,000 dead, a film director and his son return to the area to find out what happened to the people who appeared in a film he made. The famous allegorical final shot of the director trying to negotiate a steep hill in his car, a sort of modern pilgrim’s progress, returns as a landscape of the soul in Through the Olive Trees (1994, released in the U.S by Miramax) and Taste of Cherry (1997). These films are like nested Chinese boxes whose stories and characters refer back and forth to each other, while being so peppered with documentary elements that the viewer is forced to constantly evaluate the status of what is on screen. Taste of Cherry is the most moving of the three, starring Homayoun Ershadi as a potential suicide who drives through Tehran’s suburbs, looking for someone willing to bury him after he’s dead. The long aerial shots of his car driving through the hills place him, too, in the context of a natural landscape.

The success of the trilogy in France and abroad only reflected part of Kiarostami’s expanding influence. Throughout the world’s poorest countries, from the Middle East to Asia to Latin America, young filmmakers were watching how compassionate, complex filmmaking could be based on the strength of their feelings and ideas, not money. A wave of realistic first features began flooding festivals that clearly came out of an appreciation of the Iranian director’s work, as the filmmakers themselves noted.

While Kiarostami considered his next move, he wrote screenplays for directors like his former assistant Jafar Panahi, notably the charming The White Balloon. Then his 1999 feature The Wind Will Carry Us took his work up another notch, leaving behind the films-within-films concept for a straight, if mysterious, story about an engineer traveling through Iranian Kurdistan in search of a dying woman. Openly humorous, it also introduces Kiarostami’s love of classical (read non-Islamic) poetry as characters recite verses from Omar Khayyam and the modern poets Sohrab Sepehri and Forough Farrokhzad, inviting the viewer to turn away from death and stop to enjoy "the strawberry fields."

Kiarostami was anything but a stagnant artist and as his career continued, it became enriched with new themes and styles, pushing the envelope of contemporary filmmaking. Always the non-conformist, he abandoned screenwriting conventions at the same time as his films focused more and more on women, practically a taboo subject to explore in any depth in Iran.  In films like the fiction film Ten, he followed an attractive divorcee around town in her big new car, capturing various points of view and social problems as she picks up and chats with ten passengers. It consecrated the car as the place where Iranians could interact freely – where they were in fact forced by close confines to talk to each other. 10 on Ten, a documentary about filmmaking, demonstrated how to mount a stationary video camera inside a car, which has been imitated in many films like Panahi’s Taxi.

As though unable to contain his creativity within cinema alone, Kiarostami began dedicating more and more time to work in other media. He would often rise early to photograph dogs and trees in the snowy hills around his home in the north of Tehran, resulting in books and exhibits. Work like the experimental five-shot Five (2003) and The Roads of Kiarostami (2005) are closely related to his interest in nature photography and its ability to arouse emotion in the viewer.

Not only Persian poetry but religious mythology captured his imagination, and he mounted a striking theatrical performance of the romance Khosrow and Shirin, in which giant mirrors projected an Iranian audience’s tearful reactions to the play on stage. He expanded on this idea in his experimental 2008 film Shirin, in which the play itself is never seen, only the reactions of noted actresses and other women as they watch it projected on a screen.

In his final films, we feel Kiarostami reaching out still further to foreign cultures and people. His first steps in Italy have their charm, but are largely puzzling in where they are going, like his episode set on a train in the 2005 Italian omnibus film Tickets, to which Ken Loach and Ermanno Olmi also contributed.

The same goes for his Tuscany-set Juliette Binoche salute Certified Copy (2010), too elliptical and mystifying to be considered a major work.

It was in his last feature, Like Someone in Love, a game of misfired passions and mistaken identities in the encounter between a retired professor and a stunning young call girl, that a new way forward seemed to be emerging, far from the prudish restraints of Iranian bureaucracy. Kiarostami leaves us with the sad awareness that he had many more inventions up his sleeve and much more to teach.

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