Jean-Luc Godard has said: “Film begins with DW Griffith and ends with Abbas Kiarostami.” According to Martin Scorsese, “Kiarostami represents the highest level of artistry in the cinema.” When these words are quoted at Kiarostami, he winces most charmingly. “This admiration is perhaps more appropriate after I am dead,” he says.
That’s from the April 16, 2005 Guardian. Since Kiarostami died on the fourth of July this year, it seems appropriate to now state one’s admiration—not that I would put myself in the same league as Jean-Luc Godard or Martin Scorsese.
For reasons I can’t quite pin down, my discovery of Kiarostami came fairly late in life. I have been a cinephile since 1961 and began writing film reviews as a member of New York Film Critics Online about 20 years ago but saw my first film by the Iranian director and screenwriter only two years ago when I reviewed “The Wind Will Carry Us” for CounterPunch. Jeff St. Clair titled the review “Is Abbas Kiarostami the World’s Most Talented Film-maker?” and the answer to that rhetorical question was answered positively in my article.
“The Wind Will Carry Us” had been shown in a revival of the 1999 film and I had attended a press screening. In my review I wrote:
The sense of wonderment does not come from characters and objects defying the natural order but from their own unique relationship to the natural order so at odds from the film’s major character, a sophisticated documentary filmmaker from Tehran who has come to a tiny mountainside village populated by Kurds. They live as they have lived for hundreds of years, tending their herds of cattle and goats, while he is tuned into the latest technologies including a cell phone. The running gag of this bone-dry comedy is his need to get into his Land Rover to scale a nearby hilltop to receive an in-coming call whenever his cell phone rings. By contrast, communications in the village are strictly from one windowsill to the next.
If most of my readers live outside of New York where such revivals are commonplace, I can reassure you that while the “latest technologies” might have thwarted the character in Kiarostami’s film, who was arguably a stand-in for himself, they fortunately make it possible for you to see “The Wind Will Carry Us” and just about every major work by the World’s Most Talented Film-maker as I have done over the past week. They can be seen either on commercial venues like Hulu and Amazon or on free outlets like Youtube and Daily Motion. The goal of the series of articles that follow this introduction will be to acquaint you with the art films of a deservedly acclaimed artist as if you were in a cyberspace equivalent of the art theaters that flourished in New York in the early 1960s when each week a new film by Godard, Fellini, Bergman, Kurosawa, Ray, Buñuel, Antonioni, Visconti or Truffaut premiered.
Part of the explanation for so much of Kiarostami’s work being available as VOD is his existence in a kind of limbo for most of his career. While never persecuted like his colleague Jafar Panahi, the Islamic Republic did not allow his films to be screened for a ten-year period. With no apparent interest in exploiting them commercially, Iran never stepped in to demand that the films be removed from Youtube.
Despite the restrictions he had to put up with in Iran, Kiarostami always felt rooted in the country and never made polemical films like Panahi. That being said, he was deeply concerned about social inequality and the clerical authoritarianism that helped to sustain it despite the “anti-imperialist” image the mullahs tried to cultivate.
This side of Kiarostami might not have been obvious in the films he directed but it was so in the screenplay he wrote for “Crimson Gold”, a film directed by Panahi. In my 2004 review, I referred to the main character Hussein, a pizza deliveryman who was a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war suffering from poverty and PTSD:
Although Hussein never articulates his feelings, we can see Teheran through his sorrowful eyes. One night on his way to a pizza delivery, he is accosted by cops and soldiers at the front door, who tell him to wait there until their operation is finished. They are lying in wait for affluent people going to a party on the third floor where alcohol is being served and where unmarried couples are dancing. This is against the law in the Islamic republic. The cops have no regard for Hussein, who will not be paid and who will have to wait until the early hours of the morning to leave the scene. He strikes up a conversation with a fifteen-year-old soldier from the countryside who has lied about his age in order to find a job in the army. The entire scene is a paradigm of the brutal class realities of contemporary Iran and practically a cry for sweeping change.
Like other directors operating outside the commercial dictates of Hollywood, Kiarostami can be seen as a link to the golden age of the art film on a number of levels. To start with, his works are imbued with a humanism that has virtually disappeared over the past 25 years. This is not just true of Hollywood but Western Europe as well, which has tended to compete with it on its own terms. For example, French directors have become enamored of Tarantino type violence even though its origins were in Hong Kong gangster films that he was recycling. By the time the gunplay conventions reached France, they had lost their initial impact and grown stale. In the 44 films made by Kiarostami, there is not a single act of violence and the closest we come to seeing one is a rock thrown through the window of an elderly professor by a young man who suspects him of sleeping with his fiancée, a call girl. It is so unexpected that you almost feel inclined to duck and cover like the professor.
For the most part, a Kiarostami film consists of people talking to each other, and frequently inside a car. By daring to keep a conversation going on for ten minutes or longer, he defies the conventions of Hollywood and most independent films as well where dialog is limited to two or three minutes and functions mainly as exposition. A classic example would be a scene from a Scorsese film in which the characters argue with each other about one thing or another. The tension of the dialog is designed to set up the physical confrontation that is almost inevitable.
In a Kiarostami film, the conversations are often about the universal questions of life and death and that have no other purpose except to get us thinking about how they relate to our own existence. In “A Taste of Cherry”, a depressed Tehran upper-class man drives around the outskirts of the city trying to find a man willing to help him kill himself—or more exactly to throw dirt in the hole in the ground where he will take an overdose of tranquilizers the night before. The film consists nearly entirely of conversations in the main character’s car as he tries to persuade various men he picks up to serve as his assistant with a sizable payment. One, a clerical student from Afghanistan, refuses insistently even though he is impoverished. They argue about how the Quran views suicide and fail to agree.
The humanism of Kiarostami’s films can obviously be traced to the work of Akira Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray who had compassion for the lives of ordinary people like the peasants in “Seven Samurai” or in the Apu trilogy. Kiarostami preferred to work with nonprofessional actors who he claimed kept him honest, especially when they were cast as the kind of characters they were in real life. He stated that they would stubbornly resist saying things that were not likely to come out of their mouths. In “Through the Olive Trees”, a film within a film, a character based on Kiarostami himself is making a film about the impact of the 1990 earthquake on the lives of rural Iranians. He has a bit actor named Hossein (actually a rural Iranian working class man) being filmed repeatedly in one take after another because he keeps screwing up. He is supposed to say that he lost 65 relatives in the earthquake but it always comes out as 25. The director, driven to distraction, asks him why keeps refusing to say 65. The answer: “Sir, I only lost 25 relatives.”
As I watched one Kiarostami film after another this week, it became clear to me that not only was he the greatest director of our generation but a major influence on other important directors in the region, including one who I consider as on the same level—Turkey’s Bilge Nuri Ceylan. Ceylan and Kiarostami’s films tend to have the same venues, the various film festivals in places like Cannes or New York and the art houses with their limited distribution. Like Kiarostami, Ceylan has uncompromising artistic integrity and an affinity for the common people of his country. The influence can also be seen in the work of Jano Rosebiani, a Kurdish director whose “Jiyan” (Life) echoes “The Wind Will Carry Us” through its interaction between an educated and urbane Kurd (like the director) who visits Halabja with the intention of building an orphanage. Is there a common thread that unites Iranian, Turkish and Kurdish films such as these? I would argue that it has a lot to do with the dislocations of traditional societies under the impact of globalization that is common to the three nations.
I must introduce a note of caution in watching a Kiarostami film. If you are expecting a plot that has a logical ending that conveys some eternal verity, you will be disappointed. As a screenwriter who directs his own work, he avoids pat narratives that operate off audience reflexes built up by a lifetime of watching genre films. He even shuns film scores since they are meant to stroke one’s emotions during the course of a film in a manipulative fashion. He will have none of that. For Kiarostami, watching a film is a kind of interactive process in which you are practically challenged to supply your own conclusion.
For example, in the conclusion to “Through the Olive Trees”, when the aforementioned Hossein is trailing after the woman of his dreams through a grove of olive trees to persuade her to marry him, we watch them becoming smaller and smaller as they move out of the range of the camera toward the horizon. At the last minute, Hossein bolts away from the object of his affection and begins running toward the camera at full tilt. Is he running away from her because he is crushed by her refusal or is he ecstatic because she has said yes? That is up to you to figure out.
It is not just the conclusion to his films that is open to interrogation. There is an ambiguity that prevails through almost his entire work that prevents you from settling into preconceived ideas about how the characters are expected to act. It is often the case that the characters are not clear themselves about their innermost feelings. This gives the films a kind of contradictory momentum that keeps you off-balance and unsure about what will happen next.
The complexity of a Kiarostami film is related to the modernist sensibility that was general throughout the New Wave of the 1950s and 60s that came relatively late to Iran. It is akin to Godard but filtered through the sensibility of Iran’s religious and artistic environment. Over the next few weeks, I will expand on this in an attempt to pay homage to one of the greatest filmmakers of the past half-century.