HONG KONG – Every three months, Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami would preside over a series of film-directing workshops in Tehran — a program that has kept the filmmaker in touch with his home country and a new generation yearning to, perhaps, assume his mantle one day.
The experience has been pleasant, he recalls, until the most recent session when he went to class to find none of his students submitting any new work for discussion.
“I warned them I would never ever come to the class again, because I was upset with them,” the 72-year-old told The Hollywood Reporter during a recent visit to Hong Kong, where he delivered a master class at the Hong Kong International Film Festival’s Cinefan program. “But when I left the classroom, the principal asked me to try and understand the situation.”
Things are pretty dire in Iran these days, Kiarostami said. Speaking through an interpreter (despite being fluent in English), he described how the spiraling economy has seen people struggling for survival, with some of his students unable to pay their tuition fees. Then there’s the political uncertainty, which looms over Iran as the country prepares for presidential elections next month. Memories still linger of the government’s clampdown on activists who disputed the results of the previous polls in 2008.
Without referring to specific political events or figures, Kiarostami said the situation in Iran has “never been this dark.” He added: “And we have huge question marks in front of us now — some miracles should happen in Iran to save the nation.” The director expressed hope that the upcoming presidential elections will bring about the miracle he is hoping for. “If I say [it won’t help], it would show I’m a pessimist,” he said.
Unlike some of his counterparts, such as Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Bahman Ghobadi, Kiarostami has steadfastly refused to make overt public statements about his political views. The only time he did so in recent years was in describing, at a Cannes press conference for his competition film Certified Copy, the Iranian authorities as enacting “an attack on art” by arresting and then jailing his one-time protege Jafar Panahi for planning to make a film about the tumultuous elections in 2008.
Kiarostami reiterated that he has deep qualms about fielding questions about politics, saying “I’m not a politician.” He also said he prefers not to discuss the work of his fellow Iranian filmmakers, whether it is that of Ashgar Farhadi (the A Separation director’s Paris-set film The Past premiered at Cannes a few days before the interview) or Mohammad Rassoulof (his scathing thriller about the state-sponsored murder of dissidents, Manuscripts Don’t Burn, took its bow at Cannes the day before Kiarostami’s meeting with THR).
And he wasn’t willing to speak about Panahi either. “I had promised myself not to comment on his films because I’m not free to give my candid comments,” said Kiarostami, adding he has not seen his former associate’s latest film, Closed Curtain, which won a best screenplay award at Berlin earlier this year, much to the chagrin of the Iranian government. (It is understood that Kiarostami has refused to discuss Panahi mainly because he is worried his remarks would cause further trouble for the filmmaker, who has been under house arrest.)
But Kiarostami has often been asked political questions because his own creative path has been much curtailed by the Iranian government throughout the years. Some of the films he made before the Islamic Revolution in 1979 were banned (and the master negatives of one, the 1978 marital drama The Report, were destroyed); some made after the establishment of the new government also ran into problems for tackling taboo subjects, such as suicide in the Palme d’Or-winning 1997 film Taste of Cherry, or the difficulties of women who wish to file for divorce as articulated by a protagonist in his 2002 film, Ten.
Kiarostami, therefore, has always taken a covert path in tackling political problems in his home country. Speaking of The Report — which shows the spiraling dynamics of a married couple — he said personal problems can sometimes be revealing of a wider social malaise.
“Once you are unable to solve your internal problems, they pour out into the streets,” he said. “I certainly believe these intra-family relationships and problems are social problems — as the partners [at home], a husband and a wife, leave home every morning and they become members of society.”
This penchant for metaphors has led many to interpret his decision to make films outside Iran as a gesture of disillusionment toward the constraints he is expected to face if working at home. But whether that is so, Kiarostami isn’t saying. The director said he wanted simply to “explore new experiences” through his overseas ventures, which began with a segment in the omnibus film Tickets (which also features entries from Ermanno Olmi and Ken Loach), followed by Certified Copy, and then finally last year’s Japanese-language, Tokyo-set Like Someone in Love, a story about a part-time escort’s growing bonds with an elderly professor.
“I faced more constraints in my past two movies,” he said, when asked whether his experience of working in Italy and Japan have freed him from some of the cultural constraints he might have to confront at home. He said the major challenge is in having to convey his views and emotions to his local cast and crew through interpreters. “I can neither praise them verbally nor show my emotions,” he said. “It is like a nightmare — it’s like you’re in a dream and your communication with the outside world has been turned off.”
Still, Kiaostami’s passion for these foreign forays is embodied in an oil painting shown and discussed in Like Someone in Love: Chiyoji Yazaki’s Training A Parrot (1900), which was the result of the Japanese artist’s experiences abroad — including a spell examining impressionism in Europe — and then returning to his home country to produce what the Iranian filmmaker described as “the first-ever traditional Japanese painting painted with Western techniques.” (Kiarostami himself is also a seasoned visual artist and photographer: He arrived in Hong Kong to launch a photographic exhibition in a local gallery and also take part in a panel discussion at Art Basel’s Hong Kong showcase.)
“The painting is a justification of my own position, and [a reminder] that my own roots should not be a limit for my passions — you should look around for other ways,” he said.
Kiarostami said he doesn’t have high hopes of making films in Iran in the near future because of the state of his nation, adding that Iranian cinema is now valued in ways he is not comfortable with.
“At the moment art in general has been intertwined with politics very closely, more than it is necessary,” he said. “Therefore it would make judgment [of a film’s quality] very difficult. But everyone knows it’s reality that some movie is applauded because of the social and political uniqueness of the movie — it’s not the work that’s applauded. The work is usually considered because of its origins or the position or situation of its director, so it would be very difficult to distinguish between the two.”
“And let me have the last word,” the Iranian filmmaker said as a publicist gestured to remind him that it was time to prepare for his keynote speech in the master class. “An Iranian-American psychiatrist interviewed Iranian women and published a book about her experiences with the Iranian women, and sent a copy of the book to a publisher in the U.S. And the publisher refused to publish it, saying ‘this isn’t the kind of book I can publish’ — the reason being it wouldn’t sell enough.”
Kiarostami added: “The publisher said I want to publish a book that will show the plight of Iranian women, not the positive things about them. Unfortunately, this is the truth: It’s as if all of our suffering at the moment is not quite enough.”