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On Abbas Kiarostami

Discussed in this essay:

The Films of Abbas Kiarostami, a nationally touring retrospective. Janus Films.

Still from Close-Up. Courtesy Janus Films

Still from Close-Up. Courtesy Janus Films

In 1994, to celebrate their four-hundredth issue, the editors of the French film magazine Positif asked dozens of directors for short essays about the movies that shaped them. Abbas Kiarostami began by dodging the question. “For a long time now I haven’t been watching films,” he wrote. “I’ve lost the habit.” The film he chose was neither one of the Iranian New Wave milestones he’d elsewhere cited among his few influences—Sohrab Shahid-Saless’s A Simple Event (1974), Parviz Kimiavi’s The Mongols (1973)—nor one of the Italian neorealist classics to which European critics often compared his own dense, tactile work. It was La Dolce Vita (1960). When he saw it at twenty-one, he remembered, he had lingered over “the spectacle of powerlessness and despair” in that acidic portrait of the Roman elite. What struck him was the way Fellini’s intellectuals and photographers seemed to burrow into their unhappiness, “spending their time in the most total passivity.” He considered it a cautionary tale. “I think the rest of us men,” he reflected (he took little note of the women at the center of the film), “don’t have the right either to live in that gloomy way or to have such a sinister view of the world.”

But he still seemed to have been marked by the movie’s vision of depleted people brought to a collective impasse. The films he made between 1970 and his death in 2016—nearly fifty stylistically varied shorts and features that glide nimbly between fiction and non-fiction—­often turn on scenes of inertia, powerlessness, and inaction. He was drawn to traffic jams like the ones that at various points bother the vain, abusive husband in The Report (1977), the traffic cop we follow at buzzing close range for the entirety of Fellow Citizen (1983), and the filmmaker who tries to navigate rubble-covered mountain highways in And Life Goes On (1992). His characters keep losing energy—the young boy in The Traveler (1974) sleeps through the Tehran soccer game he’s spent the film scheming to see—and getting stuck. “How strange that my best story would take place on a dead end,” an overconfident reporter in Close-Up (1990) exclaims as he and his entourage drive up to the cul-de-sac where his prospective subjects live. Then he realizes he’s forgotten his tape recorder.

Kiarostami was ambivalent about inaction. He disapproved of it in theory—it was the “gloomy” way of living to which he didn’t have a right—and counted on his fierce work ethic to stave it off in practice. (In one of his seminars, he praised a former student who “made three films in two days.”) But it preoccupied him. In his movies, he could spend minutes at a time dwelling on inanimate objects buffeted by forces outside their control: the aerosol can a bored taxi driver kicks down a road in Close-Up; the bone that floats down a stream at the end of The Wind Will Carry Us (1999); or the log tossed by the tide in the first of the long shoreline nature shots that make up Five Dedicated to Ozu (2003), one of his late experiments in nonnarrative film. His features moved with a kind of terse, unhurried poise, dispensing tonal changes and dramatic developments at a steady drip. Objects and people lurched, floated, ran, and drove through his impeccable compositions. But the camera tended to find the right spot—in the passenger’s seat of a car, atop a distant hillside, across a city street—and stay put.

By the mid-1990s, Kiarostami had become not only the best known among the numerous important Iranian directors of his generation but one of the most revered working filmmakers. He gave countless interviews, appeared in documentaries, taught workshops, and, in the non-­fiction feature 10 on Ten (2004), drove around giving filmmaking lessons to a dashboard camera. For critics in the United States, Britain, and France, his films were welcome counterpoints to “the fundamentalist stereotype” that swirled around post-revolutionary Iran (as Jonathan Rosenbaum has pointed out) or to “America’s violent, cynical, stupid cinema” (as A. S. Hamrah has argued persuasively). His patient, contemplative style helped single him out as a successor to the auteurs who had shaped film culture in the second half of the twentieth century. It was often noted that Jean-Luc Godard had said that cinema “starts with Griffith and ends with Kiarostami,” or that after Satyajit Ray died, Akira Kurosawa “thanked God for giving us just the right person to take his place.”

Kiarostami met those comparisons with modest demurrals. (When the two filmmakers met in Tokyo, he reportedly emphasized that “Kurosawa [was] far more famous.”) He had a way of refusing the parts his critics assigned him. In 1995, an interviewer asked him whether the “almost pointedly humanistic” strain in “the Iranian films we see in the ­U.S.” was a rebuke to “dogmatism and fanaticism” under the Islamic Republic. “I think that’s a fair conclusion to draw,” he said. “But it is yours. You can’t praise me and then ask me to endorse your praise.”

References to “humanism” saturate the writing Kiarostami inspired. It was as if that word had come to stand for his uncondescending curiosity about the lives of children or for the diligent attention he gave his characters as they tried to lose themselves in thought. But he was no less interested in the limits of human effort than in what it could do. His subjects kept finding that the constraints on their freedom were tighter than they’d hoped for and seeing their opportunities for contemplation shrink. The authorities who bullied them were at once almost generic types—the strict teacher, the unbending parent, the relentless suitor, the impassive judge—and mordant portraits of the sorts of figures on whom power settled in Kiarostami’s Iran. In Homework (1989), his documentary about an elementary school during the Iran–Iraq War, he interwove scenes of the students learning bellicose chants (“Saddam’s followers are doomed!”) with testimonies about the discipline their teachers and parents imposed on them.

For his characters, inaction was less often a symptom of “the decline of contemporary civilization”—as Kiarostami thought it had been for Fellini—than an intimate kind of resistance, a way of defying the restrictions on their movements and minds. His movies deepened as he seemed to realize that this sort of defiant passivity could, as a filmmaking practice, become the basis for a new way of organizing time and perception onscreen. If it protected his characters from having to bring their thoughts to a point it had a similar effect on the form of his movies, giving the camera permission to study its surroundings more indulgently, acclimating it to different timetables, widening its tolerance for inconclusiveness and disorder so that viewers would need to piece together “answers to [their] own questions.” The inertia that gave his characters a defense against power could at the same time enable a cinematic style that trained a more attentive, active audience.

Janus’s ambitious new traveling retrospective of Kiarostami’s films—including long-unavailable early work, and a number of new restorations from mk2 and the Criterion Collection—is a rare chance to watch that style evolve. Children are a constant presence. The young boys in First Graders (1984) and Where Is the Friend’s House? (1987) dig in their heels against authority figures who issue pointless orders and brandish threats. In the first of the two thought experiments that make up Case No. 1, Case No. 2 (1979), a group of schoolboys sits through a weeklong suspension for refusing to tell on one of their disruptive classmates.

Some of the more acute pressures Kiarostami’s characters resisted came from getting filmed. The children in Homework answer questions from Kiarostami’s crew—Do their parents beat them? When do they get rewarded? What cartoons do they like?—between shots of the camera itself whirring at them with bullying intensity. They squirm under its stare. Twenty years later, he made a short film in which an Italian casting director asks a grinning young girl during her screen test if she’d be willing to cut off “practically all” her hair for the role. Her face falls, she shakes her head again and again, and Kiarostami cuts to a montage of other candidates making the same sad gesture of rejection. He called the movie No.

Still from Bread and Alley Kiarostami

Still from Bread and Alley. Courtesy Janus Films

Muteness, refusal, and a kind of defiant isolation dominate his accounts of his early life. He was born in Tehran in 1940. “I remember silence at home,” he told the Guardian. In a set of autobiographical notes he called himself a “solitary, taciturn” child. “Between kindergarten and the sixth grade I didn’t talk to anybody,” he wrote. “Not a single word.”

Art was both a family business—his father was a painter—and a venue for self-communion. “When everyone was sleeping and I couldn’t,” he remembered, “I would slip out of bed, go out on the balcony to avoid making noise, and draw.” He failed his first entrance exam at Tehran University’s Faculty of Fine Arts, and, once he got in, needed to find other jobs to support himself. He worked as a traffic cop and a surveyor for the roads department, painting during the day and directing cars by night. It took him thirteen years to graduate.

By that time he had left painting behind. He had been designing posters and book covers when, at twenty, he sent a local advertising firm a poem about “a certain type of bathroom water heater.” Three days later, he saw it on cable. He became a prolific director of ­TV commercials—he claimed to have made more than a hundred and fifty over the course of the 1960s—and in 1967 started designing film credit sequences, too. Two years later, a friend invited him to join the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults (Kanoon), an educational center supported by the shah’s wife that branched into film production just as the Iranian New Wave was taking shape.

In his earliest shorts and his first three features, lonely young boys scurried through spaces that threatened and dwarfed them: the narrow street guarded by an aggressive dog in Bread and Alley (1970), for instance, or the photography studio presided over by a stern, violent boss in The Experience (1973). They kept their heads down, planned little rebellions against their teachers and employers, and slipped away in search of forbidden entertainments: a moment to show off for an older girl, a soccer game, a magic act. The camera tended to hug them, picking up their glimmers of cocky self-assurance and their moments of abject fear. But from time to time it took a bird’s-eye view. In A Wedding Suit (1976), it hovers over the balcony of the second-story tailor’s shop where a browbeaten young apprentice hurries to cover up a theft into which his friends pressured him.

These films worried over surveillance and exposure. They came out during the shah’s last decade in power, when the secret police were rounding up and torturing Marxist and Islamic dissidents and opposition members were giving forced public confessions. As Hamid Naficy showed in his monumental A Social History of Iranian Cinema (2011–2012), the generation of filmmakers who emerged in these years—among them Shahid-Saless, Kimiavi, Dariush Mehrjui, and Parviz Sayyad—both depended on state institutions for sponsorship and found an encrypted cinematic language to subvert them. What Naficy calls “a dissident cinema” had to become a self-reflexive one, skeptical about the realities it claimed to show. Mehrjui, whose rural fable The Cow (1969) helped inaugurate this sensibility, studied philosophy at ­U.C.L.A. and, in 1987, translated Herbert Marcuse’s The Aesthetic Dimension. “Art does not aim to overthrow or destroy reality,” he wrote in his introduction. “On the contrary, it negates and critiques it from affection, or in the words of Marcuse, from love for it.”

As early as the mid-1970s, Kiarostami seemed to have been impressed by a version of that thought. It was as if he had come to see the camera as an unstable source of authority, imposing a flimsy sense of order on the hectic bodies and landscapes it recorded. It relied on false promises like the one the young protagonist of The Traveler makes when he gets ahold of an old camera with no film in the chamber, lines up his classmates at recess, and pretends to take their portraits for a fee. For the late film theorist Gilberto Perez, it was precisely by emphasizing the camera’s place in “the reality [it] represented” that Kiarostami could capture grim facts such as the way the children in Homework “cower” under interrogation or brief moments of exhilaration like the prayer for “happiness and joy” a boy recites, at Kiarostami’s prompting, in that movie’s last scene.

The Islamic Revolution came during Kiarostami’s tenth year at Kanoon, when he was working on Case No. 1, Case No. 2. His biographer Alberto Elena reports that he had “to rethink the film to a great extent.” In the finished movie, a varied group of interview subjects—writers, educators, politicians, lawyers, filmmakers—comment from a screening room on two scenes of classroom punishment and defiance. Sadegh Khalkhali, a judge soon to become notorious for giving summary death sentences, thought it was “repulsive” to “want the students to betray one another.”

Under Ayatollah Khomeini, filmmaking was both a tool of state power and an object of severe suspicion. Naficy relates that Kiarostami and his colleagues in the New Wave were spared the worst of the industry’s brutal postrevolutionary “purification”—­during which numerous film professionals were imprisoned, exiled, or executed—because of “their history of dissident moviemaking” under the shah, but nonetheless had to refute suspicions “of secularism, communism, or agnosticism.” They needed to be “rehabilitated.” The censors banned Case No. 1, Case No. 2; a decade later, according to Elena, they cut a sly scene from Homework in which that movie’s schoolboys garble a group prayer so badly that Kiarostami intervenes in a voiceover to say he’s dropped the sound “as a gesture of respect.”

During the first six years after the revolution, Kiarostami concentrated on documentaries. Many of them turned on scenes of order and discipline. Fellow Citizen and First Graders both follow harried officials—a traffic cop, an elementary school principal—who spend the movies fielding excuses, giving out rebukes, and exhausting themselves trying to regulate and manage the slippery movements of the people they’ve been assigned to control. The short Orderly or Disorderly (1981) contrasts anarchic scenes of kids mobbing a water fountain and piling onto a school bus with vignettes in which they go about the same business with brisk efficiency. Before long, it breaks down. The filmmakers keep having to redo the last example, an intersection at rush hour, when the traffic won’t cooperate. Perez argued that it was Kiarostami’s mischievous way of asking how a director could impose order “on unruly life.”

That question seemed to haunt Kiarostami after he returned to fictional feature filmmaking with Where Is the Friend’s House?, the vision of a schoolboy on the move that made his international reputation. He liked the thought that the camera could be a receptive, recumbent presence in a scene rather than a coercive or domineering one. Still, he knew what he was looking for, and one way or another he needed reality to furnish it. For a year before he shot Through the Olive Trees (1994), he kept meeting with that film’s nonprofessional lead actor, feeding him brief lines of dialogue and convincing him after the fact that the young man had come up with them himself. (“It’s like giving someone hair implants,” Kiarostami said. “You have to add just one or two strands at a time.”) In a 1998 conversation that appears in Jonathan Rosenbaum and Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa’s invaluable, recently expanded monograph on his work, he used “a verse from the poet Rumi” to describe how he directed the people he filmed:

You are my polo ball,

Running before the stick of my command

I am always running after you,

Though it is I who make you move.

Filming these sorts of efforts to give “unruly life” a script became one of Kiarostami’s signature gestures. In 1989, he came across a report about an out-of-work bookbinder, Hossein Sabzian, who’d incorporated himself into the life of a middle-class Tehran family by convincing them that he was the revered filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. To make Close-Up, Kiarostami persuaded both the family and Sabzian to reenact the scam on camera, got permission to film the trial, and, according to the critic Godfrey Cheshire, wrote most of the defendant’s riveting speeches himself, “though he based them on things Sabzian had actually said.”

Those trial testimonies both multiplied the film’s layers of reenactment and seemed to pierce through them. At a certain point, Kiarostami admitted years later, the judge had already left for the day; the crew kept filming Sabzian on their own “for another nine hours.” In the footage they took, he enthuses over Makhmalbaf’s films because “they show the evil faces of those who play with the lives of others, the rich who pay no attention to the simple material needs of the poor.” Sabzian had been hoping to make a movie of his own, he told the reporter who interviewed him after his arrest. “I wanted to call it The Atrocity.

The Wind Will Carry Us Kiarostami

Still from The Wind Will Carry Us. © Collection Christophel/Alamy

The year Kiarostami finished Close-Up, an earthquake killed tens of thousands of people in the part of northern Iran where he had shot Where Is the Friend’s House? In And Life Goes On, he showed a fictionalized filmmaker (Farhad Kheradmand) driving with his son through that traumatized landscape, looking for the earlier film’s young stars. What seem like tender portraits of the people they meet—a woman who lost sixteen family members, a couple who married the day after the disaster—jostle against moments that belie the movie’s pretense to faithful reportage. One man offers to put them up, then admits that the house he’s been told to stop at isn’t really his. He lives in a tent “like the ones you saw by the road,” he mutters. “This film is a pack of lies.” The young couple isn’t a couple at all. In the movie’s sequel, Through the Olive Trees, yet another onscreen director figure (Mohammad-Ali Kesh­avarz) makes them run through their scene with Kheradmand again and again because Hossein, the young man, keeps mixing up how many family members his character lost in the earthquake with how many he lost himself.

The director characters slouch through these movies. The people they cast can’t be called to order; the roads they drive along dead-end or fill with rubble; they drift around with a kind of melancholy helplessness. In that respect, they became a template for the middle-aged men at the center of Kiarostami’s later films from the 1990s. The mysterious, suicidal loner in Taste of Cherry (1997), and the predatory journalist in The Wind Will Carry Us court conversation with strangers but keep a distance from the social spaces they pass through. What comfort these characters have comes from solitary communion with landscapes that strand even as they beguile and soothe: the clay the hero of Taste of Cherry watches a construction crew churn, or the green, rolling hills the survivors in Through the Olive Trees abandoned because, an old man explains, “help couldn’t reach them” when the earthquake came.

The driver in Taste of Cherry spends the film picking up passersby—a nervous Kurdish soldier on his way back to base, a reserved Afghan religion student, and an elderly Turkish taxidermist—and offering them a generous fee to bury his body in a remote roadside grave. They all resist his direction, either by running off or insisting on giving him advice. Off-camera, meanwhile, Kiarostami too was trying to master them. He sat in the driver’s seat as he filmed their reaction shots. “I actually made him believe I was planning to kill myself,” he told Rosenbaum about the actor who played the young soldier. “At another point, I placed a gun in the glove compartment and asked him to open it for a chocolate, when I wanted him to look afraid.”

These power plays produced a film that for its own part seemed strikingly averse to manipulation or force. Taste of Cherry was a tribute to powerlessness and its bitter consolations. It leaves its protagonist lying in the grave he’s dug for himself and watching the night sky cloud over with a gathering storm. The walls of earth enclose his face as flashes of lightning illuminate it. Then a cut takes us to his perspective, aligning the grave’s frame with that of the screen. His resignation makes him a filmmaker.

Kiarostami was drawn to the idea that a film could turn on observer figures who declined or failed to act on the world. Their powerlessness was the price they paid for their relative mobility—their freedom to orbit from town to town, come and go from schools or courtrooms, or drive from one scene of quiet despair to another. He claimed a similar persona for himself. In public he acted the part of the isolated spectator, translating everything he saw into framed compositions. “I wish I was born with rectangular bars attached to my pupils,” he told an interviewer. Since shortly after the revolution, he had been taking landscape photographs: majestic color images of mountains shadowed by clouds or covered in snow. None of the seventy-eight he collected in a 1999 book has any human subjects. The still pictures into which he digitally inserted moving animals, pluming smoke, and drifting snowflakes in 24 Frames (2017), a nonnarrative film his son Ahmad completed after his death, often position us behind windows or observation rails that add another layer of distance to the movie’s snow-globe animations.

The fabric of communal, collective life in his movies tends to be threadbare. Parents are threatening (Homework); husbands are tyrannical (The Report); friendships become excuses for characters to set out on adventures alone (Where Is the Friend’s House?). The warmest shared moments are often improvised encounters between people with few prior ties, of which Kiarostami gave a template in his first book of poetry: “A stranger / asks directions / from a newcomer, / also a stranger.”

Strangers respected each other’s aloneness, a mechanism for self-protection that elsewhere came under threat. Hossein, in Through the Olive Trees, spends that movie relentlessly urging his co-star Tahereh to marry him. Because he takes any gesture on her part as a sign of encouragement, she’s forced to play the sort of passive, inactive character other Kiarostami protagonists got to choose to become. “If you don’t dare say yes,” he tells her when she ignores him and tries to read a book, “just turn the page. That will be my reply.” She doesn’t turn it.

She was one of the first women of any prominence in a Kiarostami film since TheReport. In interviews he insisted that he wouldn’t make, for instance, a film “directly about a young woman” because the censorship codes forbade showing actresses unveiled. (This cannot quite be the full story; as the critic Tina Hassannia has noted, he had been “making films centered around young men for years before the Islamic Revolution.”) Female characters drifted along the margins of his movies and made fleeting appearances: washing laundry in a courtyard; passing an actor a prop; requesting a picture with a man whose face we can’t see. In 2008, the scholar Negar Mottahedeh suggested that populating these “minor scenes” with spectral, veiled female onlookers and passersby had been Kiarostami’s way of calling attention to the “disquieting absence of women” in major ones.

It was an absence he eventually claimed to regret. “Leaving women out of my films wasn’t a very intelligent decision,” he said in a 2002 interview. “Now I feel as if I’m getting into a boxing ring with one fist tied behind my back.” His three later narrative films—Ten (2002), Certified Copy (2010), and Like Someone in Love (2012)—all center on women who resist the encroachments of marriage on their range of mobility or their powers of observation. He shot these movies on digital video, a format he first used in 2001 to make a documentary in Uganda and thrilled over, he said in 10 on Ten with poker-faced hyperbole, because it seemed to show “truth from every angle.”

We spend Ten watching a divorced taxi driver ferry around her hectoring young son and strike up candid conversations with friends and fares from a fixed dashboard camera. It was as if shooting digitally had freed Kiarostami to lengthen his shots, simplify his intricate visual syntax, and catch people talking with a new frankness about politics, marriage, and sex. In his subsequent nonnarrative features, he started deepening the texture of his digital images, playing with extremes of light and shadow such as the ones in the long sequence of a stormy nocturnal lagoon that concludes Five Dedicated to Ozu, or with the play of light on faces like those of the moviegoers, all women, who fill Shirin (2008). The last two fictional movies he finished—he shot Certified Copy in Tuscany and Like Someone in Love in Tokyo—were as shimmering and elaborate as Ten had been unfussy. He crowded them with reflective surfaces, tucked frames inside frames, and put the camera behind windows or in front of car windshields to layer the movements of his actors under flowing patterns of buildings and sky.

These two late films depend on cases of mistaken identity. When Juliette Binoche’s French antiques dealer in Certified Copy gets taken for the wife of a British author she’s apparently just met, the two of them go with the story until they seem to become the couple they resembled. Akiko (Rin Takanashi), the young woman at the center of Like Someone in Love, does sex work to fund her college tuition and has to play along when her abusive and controlling boyfriend mistakes her latest client—a kindly, retired professor—for her grandfather. He asks the elderly man for permission to marry her and, like Hossein in Through the Olive Trees, won’t be dissuaded. He bullies her, hounds her, and, in the movie’s last scene, besieges the apartment in which she’s hidden.

Inaction becomes a shield against his threats. When her grandmother visits Tokyo for the day, Akiko ignores all her calls and voicemails. That night, in a cab to the professor’s apartment, she watches the city roll by, listens to her grandmother’s poignant messages, and asks her driver to pass by the station so she can glimpse the old woman waiting for the late train home. Then she falls asleep.

The cab encases her—Rosenbaum thought Kiarostami had captured how “cars constitute a kind of personal armor”—and frees her to sink into the part of a passive, gliding observer. Kiarostami loved shooting in moving vehicles, he told an interviewer after Taste of Cherry came out, because they were like benches “where two people could sit down next to one another and look at the same landscape” without feeling the need to wrench each other out of their respective solitudes or interrupt each other’s thoughts. They imposed little obligation, made few demands. “You can sit someone down in your car without needing to be or become their friend,” he went on. “And then, at some point, that person gets out and leaves.”

‘s writing has appeared in The New York Review of Books, n+1, and Film Comment.

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