Abbas Kiarostami (1940-2016):
At the beginning of the splendid documentary Abbas Kiarostami: The Art of Living (2003) by Fergus Daly and Pat Collins, the master Iranian director remarks:
For me the camera is exactly like a pen. It can be used by the common person, or it can be used by Baudelaire to create a great poem. We have an Iranian saying that if you want to become a good writer, you just keep writing and writing and writing. So in response to the question of how to develop a good aesthetic vision, I can say that you have to keep seeing and seeing and seeing.
But what exactly is this seeing in the work of Abbas Kiarostami? In January 2000, for a Film Comment poll, I unhesitatingly selected Kiarostami as the person who, for me (and, it turned out, for many others), best and most decisively defined cinema in the 1990s. I appended a few words: “The filmmaker who has used the humblest, most modest elements of life, landscape and cinema to generate the most profound, moving and radical artistic gestures of our time”. (1)
But the precise nature of the road from simplicity to complexity in Kiarostami’s cinema remains enigmatic, hard to get a focus on. There’s a problem in over-stressing the simplicity – as if he were a Franciscan child-innocent or a hyper-humanitarian Andy Warhol, just “finding reality” (where is that?) and letting the camera roll as he absents himself as demiurge. And there’s equally a problem in stressing the complexity, as if the only good movies today must pass through a filter of baroque artifices and convoluted deconstructive paradoxes. Between the reflexive games of Close-Up (1990) or Through the Olive Trees (1994) and the bone that just flows down a stream, saying everything in The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), something eludes us in this magnificent body of work – which is just as well, because that’s a sign of just how great an artist he is.
To my mind, there is a televisual side to Kiarostami’s work – even if, for a long time, he has had nothing literally to do with television production – and a cinema side. And I believe much critical discussion of Kiarostami privileges what I’m calling the TV side, or turns him into a kind of tele-artist, thus ignoring the cinema side. Maybe it’s a blind spot generated by the inescapable association and affinity of Kiarostami with Roberto Rossellini, who travelled from neo-realism to intimate cinema to television. But where Kiarostami is going – I hope – is not where Rossellini went.
Let me explain. If you take Kiarostami as essentially a transparent filmmaker – if what he is showing are modest facts of life in a simple, unostentatious way, however complex the final effect or vision – then it is easy to watch his films on TV and receive them whole (as it were). Because TV reduces aesthetics to mere information. Thus the idea of the film screen as a kind of static or mobile tele-window that informs so much writing on Kiarostami, even the sophisticated rumination of philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy (for whom Kiarostami, in a conceptual twist, is the mediator of an already mediatised world). (2)
The director himself has fallen prey to this slide into the merely televisual: ABC Africa (2001) – which I have to say is his worst film – is pure TV reportage. Like any TV crew, Kiarostami and his assistants are led around by the nose for a couple of days, pretty much just tourists on a guided, carefully prearranged stroll. They develop no insight into Africa, pursue no investigation: in that sense, it’s bad reportage, a bad documentary. And Kiarostami embraces there the worst temptation of digital filming – that is, to just walk into a place and instantly shoot whatever is there in front of you, thinking it is somehow going to be expressive or telling because it is a “virginal vision”, a first look at something. But a first look, in itself and in its spontaneity, guarantees nothing. Jonas Mekas frequently makes that categorical mistake, too.
We forget that Kiarostami (at his best) makes cinema. While I have experienced a number of his films only on video or disc, I had the enormous fortune of seeing Where is the Friend’s Home? (1987) at the Singapore Film Festival in the early 1990s, and Taste of Cherry (1997), his greatest work, at the Melbourne Film Festival in the late ‘90s. These were the formative and essential Kiarostami experiences for me. And I realised at those sessions that there is a monumentality, not just a minimalism, to his work. It is for the same reason that we must always see (whenever possible) the films of Tsai Ming-liang and Hou Hsiao-hsien on a big screen.
The earth just does not exist in Kiarostami; it trembles. It is that vibration – the imperceptible aftershocks, as it were, of the earthquake in Life, and Nothing More … (1991) – married to the stillness of the shot or the steady, gliding car movements, to the duration of the images and their rhythm, to the unstable exchanges between inward feeling and outward pose in his actors – which creates the monumental effect of cinema in Kiarostami.
And it is a sensation that finally explodes in Ten (2002), a film that surprised many of his followers and announced a new, radical turn in his career. Ten is, alongside everything else, electric in its form. Reducing cinema to the absolute essential of a two-point mise en scène and the most basic editing, he turns the car into a veritable cinematic apparatus: there is an angle of vision (so important to the art of driving!) and a cut cued by every opening or closing of the door, which is like a lightning bolt each time it articulates a scene.
We too easily forget or overlook the aura of menace, the fear of the unknown, the threat of death that animate Kiarostami’s work, like a subterranean stream. It is there in the boy’s journey in Where is the Friend’s Home, there in the fragile, collapsing earth in The Wind Will Carry Us. And it is above all there as Badii lies in his makeshift grave in Taste of Cherry, a scene that does not survive its TV/VHS/DVD transfer: with its flashes of lightning in the blackout of night, with its Sensurround/Dolby-type rumbling of thunder, with its unbearably poignant mystery of whether this man will live or die, the scene takes us close to an absolute (and absolutely cinematic) experience of existential negation, more powerfully than any horror movie. It’s almost Emil Cioran for the screen, on the heights of despair! And it is the breathtaking transition between this cinematic limit-experience, this intimation of a lonely apocalypse, through to the airy lightness of a video-in-progress that makes the ending of Taste of Cherry so radical – not just the comparison between (or continuum of) fiction and reality.
Without this infusion of cinema, Kiarostami’s films can pass over into banality, into United Nations-approved message pictures about world peace or individual compassion (again, the banality of ABC Africa). Kiarostami (his interviews make this abundantly clear) is not a specialist in cultural difference or cultural specificity or in much of anything that cultural intellectuals hold dear these days. It is a folly to overload his movies with that kind of baggage. He cares only about what it is to be present in the world – the world as a daily and as a philosophical entity – and how to register that consciousness, and then the interactions (the Kiarostamian “stories”) that proceed from this consciousness. He fashions tales of chance interactions, encounters, random conversations that subtly change the course of people’s destinies.
French critic Alain Bergala comments, in The Art of Living, that all Kiarostami’s films are about a strange arrangement: someone with a problem stumbles upon someone else who – usually unknowingly – holds the key that will unlock that problem. (3) In Ten, for the first time, this process of arrangement takes a bleak turn, because the film addresses the patriarchal conditions of Iranian culture. A woman (Mania Akbari) drives to the spot where she will pick up her garrulous son, Amin (Amin Maher). When she parks, we see through her car door a van from which Amin emerges to cross the road. There is a tense, shouted exchange, through the passing traffic, between the woman and her ex-husband concerning how many hours she can have the child and when and where she must return him. The woman drives off. A moment later, the van pulls up alongside the car; more heated words are exchanged in motion, and the van zooms away.
This scene is perfectly in keeping with the peculiar, formal constraints that Kiarostami chose for making Ten: not a single scene in it takes place outside the woman’s car. But it also speaks volumes about modern life, and the role of the car as the ultimate private space – more of a functioning home than anything that has four, solid walls. And Kiarostami’s digital cameras mounted on the dashboard not only capture of the intimacy of life in cars, but also suggest the cold eye of the surveillance camera – in other words, the convergence of what sociologists call the private and public spheres.
It is a curious coincidence that both Kiarostami and Claire Denis in Friday Night (2003) should, at the same moment, alight on the car as the central subject of a film. It is another curious coincidence that they happen to be the only filmmakers whom Jean-Luc Nancy has written on at length. Nancy is a commentator whose work obsessively addresses the themes of encountering “the stranger”, and of the difficulties of forming a workable community in a fragmented world – themes that resonate deeply for countries like Australia grappling with a so-called refugee crisis.
Indeed, as the Australian cultural theorist Meaghan Morris once argued, the car is, in cultural terms, a curious kind of uncertain border-space: it seals the passengers in their rigidly circumscribed, social roles (Ten evolved from a project about a psychoanalyst and her patients), but it also cannot help but let in the multifarious influences of the outside world and its changing history. (4)
This is partly what Ten – the most aggressively urban film that Kiarostami has so far made – is about. Everyday day life is portrayed as a small-scale but ceaseless war (each of the ten scenes is introduced with the sound of a boxing-match bell) in which traditional and progressive values duke it out, especially around the role of women in present-day Iranian society. And while there is a heavy pull toward the dour triumph of patriarchy, the bustling world that constantly forces its presence on the characters and us through the car windows suggests other possibilities. Kiarostami finds a simple but brilliant way to express this dynamic: making his actors actually contend with real streets, traffic and strangers takes them out of the interiority of their little lives and stories, and puts them in a constantly surprising relation to the real world.
In light of all this, we can re-read the statement made by Kiarostami about his time in Africa, a statement that is every bit as poetic as his best films, poems or photographs:
I don't think that either I or anyone else who was in that strange atmosphere could remember that he was a filmmaker. They didn't know me and I didn't know myself. We were witnessing scenes that made a deep impression on us. It was something like the Day of Judgment. On that Judgment Day, who can remember what he does for a living? (5)
We forget the tension that constitutes Kiarostami’s cinema, and indeed the films of others who have been inspired or influenced by him. An unbelievable tension, arising from that subtle trembling, which always builds to an apparition, a vision, in the final moments of his films. What we see in those moments, those final shots, is never quite what we expected to see, and it suspends what we may have thought to see resolved – this is Kiarostami’s immense, and immensely sly, storytelling skill at work. Kiarostami’s persona can evoke the modest teller of folk tales or a reciter of poems, but in cinematic terms he is a creator of gestures as powerful as those in Pedro Almodóvar, Bertrand Bonello or David Lynch.
I don’t mean the physical gestures of his performers, but the sense of an epiphanic moment that is slowly arrived at, carefully nurtured, and delivered as if with the clarity of an Eastern mystic finally pointing a finger at the appearance in the world of something that has been prepared in the spectator’s mind: something amazing and thrilling to behold, a revelation, like those plaintive figures walking and wrangling (undecidably) far into the distance at the conclusion of Through the Olive Trees. (6)
This final shot is a point-of-view shot (from the director’s alter ego) “maybe not literally, but in effect … because what is not possible in real life becomes possible in film”, as Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa has commented. (7) Isn’t this a way of saying that a matter-of-fact (“humble”) point-of-view shot can metamorphose, magically and dramatically, into a visionary moment – overflowing with all the constitutive tension of the lived, immanent world but also allowing a glimpse or an intuition (as it at last takes leave of the spectator) of a transcendental void?
2. The Wind Will Carry Him (2010)
Ten marked a break in the career of Abbas Kiarostami. And it is a break that many – some of his most fervent admirers and champions included – have had a hard time coming to terms with, even a decade later.
A measure of the discomfort generated by Kiarostami’s surprising Knight’s Move can be gauged from the negative capsule review of Shirin (2008) that appeared in an issue of Cahiers du cinéma early 2010. Patrice Blouin – himself no stranger to the analysis of video art and digital culture – recalls the director’s “audacious gesture” in Ten of simply attaching cameras to the left and right sides of a car and letting his cast members drive off to improvise their conversations, ten times over. With this gesture, according to Blouin, Kiarostami sought to “do away with mise en scène” – meaning, all traditional procedures of scripting, staging, dressing the décor and setting the lights, choreographing the moves, guiding the actors … in place of which Ten instituted what the French call a dispositif, a fixed, rule-bound system for generating a work, a game which (in Kiarostami’s case) allowed for an “automatic recording”.
For the better part of a decade, Kiarostami’s work then went the way of the dispositif. This much is clear even from the titles, when Ten announces its structure of ten dialogue scenes and Five Dedicated to Ozu (2003) flags its five, static, long takes. Blouin, while sympathetic to the initial audacity of the director’s gesture in Ten, finds this career-reorientation a case of diminishing returns: once you, as a viewer, “get” the game played in Shirin – the fact that you will only hear the soundtrack of an epic movie off-screen, and will only see a procession of women in close-up seemingly in the process of watching and reacting to it – there is nothing more to experience or explore. An endgame typical, we might say, of much contemporary art in the galleries: to know it is not to love it.
But Kiarostami is an artist who refuses to be contained by the categories we – particularly in the West – erect to comprehend him. The origin of his current evolution is perfectly clear: Kiarostami has long been an inhabitant of the international art world – as photographer, installation artist and “videaste” – and he has evidently been exposed to much on that circuit that has inspired and excited him. Presumably, he has found that work more inspiring and exciting than what he has seen lately on cinema screens. And who can blame him?
For me personally, a disconcerting rack-focus in my fervent appreciation of Kiarostami came when I attended, in Melbourne in 2008, the remarkable Correspondences exhibition that twinned him with Spain’s Víctor Erice. I came in with the loaded question: how would two such Great Men of Cinema react to, fight against and transform the constraints of the art institution? But there was a big difference between Erice’s response to this situation and Kiarostami’s. Erice, as he has unequivocally declared, is uneasy about the idea of “cinema in the museum”; all his ingenious efforts in the exhibition were geared to retaining the presence and effect of his favourite, chosen medium of film: the power of its imagery, its play with light and dark, its special mid-way point between fictional artifice and everyday reality.
Kiarostami, on the other hand, seemed altogether more relaxed about this gallery commission. No Death of Cinema crisis for him! There were his superb photographs, edited clips on LED display screens, the video-letters exchanged (in another kind of playful dispositif) with Erice … and, most strikingly, right there almost under foot on the floor, a filmic segment that didn’t make it into the Ten Minutes Older set of anthology films from 2002: ten minutes of a child sleeping, a perfectly Warholian spectacle which was prime material for infinite video-looping in the gallery space. That was already a self-quotation of sorts for Kiarostami: Sleepers in 2001 had developed the idea at one-shot feature-length.
But is this all really such a revelation? Kiarostami’s links to contemporary art should always have been obvious to his commentators, right from the early works. Instead, many of us, throughout the ‘90s and beyond, were busy boxing him into a certain definition – or straitjacket – of cinema. And this happened precisely at the historic moment when we cinephiles felt our precious, beloved medium of film slipping away from us, or mutating into something unrecognisable. We were clinging to the past.
So perhaps it is our problem, not Kiarostami’s, if we find Shirin or Ten inferior to The Wind Will Carry Us or Taste of Cherry. Perhaps we were looking askew all along at his work, projecting our own fantasy of what we needed his cinema to be. No wonder so many of us are caught short by the dispositif of Shirin, at once spectacular and minimal, absorbing and frustrating – a kind of elegy to an old-fashioned ideal of grand cinema (and our experience of this cinema) which is already, literally, out of view and up for grabs in a DIY digital age. It takes no small amount of courage for Kiarostami, in his 70s, to be embracing these kinds of challenges and paradoxes.
There are many possible explanations as to why Kiarostami’s films of the ‘90s – especially the so-called Koker Trilogy comprising Where is the Friend’s Home?, Life, and Nothing More … and Through the Olive Trees – wielded the enormous impact they did on film festival culture and arthouse cinemas beyond Iran. Yes, the films were, in themselves, novel, striking, deeply moving, sometimes profound – as many top-line critics, from Laura Mulvey and Gilberto Perez to Mehrnaz Saaed-Vafa, have ably demonstrated.
But films – particularly successful ones – are never just aesthetic objects “in themselves”; they are also social events in circulation, and their destiny is subject to factors and forces beyond them. And Kiarostami, if anything, has actively welcomed such loss of control over his art – it is, as he has repeatedly said, whatever you wish to make of it. He is just the catalyst of the dispositif, not its master. The wind will carry him …
But this wind sometimes blows ill. To put it bluntly, Kiarostami in the ‘90s was fixed in a seemingly benign but actually vicious film-culture pincer, caught in a two-step between the Neo-Real and the Modern. When he filmed the daily problems of schoolchildren in Where is the Friend’s Home?, drove through the post-earthquake ruins of Koker in Life, and Nothing More …, or gazed at the peasants at work in the fields in Through the Olive Trees, Kiarostami was hailed as Vittorio De Sica or Roberto Rossellini reborn – in fact, maybe closer to the soul of neo-realism than even those Italian filmmakers (who were not above a little, or a lot, of narrative and stylistic contrivance) ever were.
This is a familiar spectacle in international film culture: pick a nation or region that we suppose (however erroneously) to be “underdeveloped”. Then attribute to its New Wave of filmmakers previously unnoticed in the West (however long they may already have been practising their craft at home) a primitive charm – an almost naïve closeness to the daily conditions of real life. The film festival circuit loves its speedy, cosmopolitan, border-crossing dandies – its Olivier Assayas or Wong Kar-wai types – but it craves the counter-balance of a little Third World, unsophisticated innocence. Even the critic’s gesture of branding a Trilogy for Kiarostami – a label he has rejected for these three films – speaks of a desperate need to keep him stuck in one, largely rural, location, a “poet of place” like the Dardennes or, for a long time, Hou Hsiao-hsien. All in all, chalk it up as another “Criterion Effect”! (8)
In this context, Kiarostami became, especially after the first two instalments of the so-called Trilogy, a particularly attractive figurehead of the Neo-Real: he was taken as, above all, a storyteller issuing from some ancient tradition, a fountainhead of folk wisdom. Here, we managed to trap him not only in space but also in time: we liked Kiarostami best when he kept away from the big cities (hence the rudeness of Ten), and immersed himself in the timeless (read: pre-industrial) ways of the peasantry and the countryside.
But then, almost magically, something starkly different began to stir in Kiarostami’s creativity – and, for a while, we liked it. He started to go Modern on us. There was the insistence on frames-within-frames, like the views through the car doors and windscreen in Life, and Nothing More … – putting his work into dialogue with, say, that of Michael Haneke. There were the reflexive games, like the re-staged filming in Through the Olive Trees of a scene from Life, and Nothing More …, done over and over again for our close inspection – echoes of Jacques Rivette or Jean-Luc Godard. And there was the ever more insistent presence of a severely reduced, minimal aesthetic – long takes, static camera, direct sound – that brought the comparison with Ozu, as well as with contemporaries like Hou. Slow Cinema, and all that. And yet all this seemed to come – to Western eyes and ears – naturally, unselfconsciously. He had spontaneously reinvented Neo-Realism for us, and now he was doing the same for Modernism.
Many of the critical paeans to the “birth of the Modernist impulse” in Kiarostami by the close of the branded Koker Trilogy, when re-read today, remind me of how critics of an earlier generation in the West greeted the “discovery” of Sergei Parajanov – as yet another zany and inscrutable folk primitive (from Georgia, on that occasion) who, seemingly by accident or sheer untutored intuition, had stumbled upon the devices and tropes of modern cinema. “He wants to breathe the air of the Moderns”, one such critic wrote in the mid ‘80s – as if Parajanov had not fully imbibed and researched art movements from the world over, long before his belated appropriation by the West. Kiarostami, too, has been breathing the air of the Moderns for quite some time now.
The Neo-Real and the Modern: what is striking about both designations, when used on any currently working filmmaker, is that they are fatally nostalgic. When Kiarostami stopped being our substitute neo-realist guy from the 1940s and ‘50s, he graduated to being a perfectly comforting ‘60s art-cinema radical – like Werner Herzog, Atom Egoyan and so many others have ended up becoming on the current arthouse circuit, no matter their ages, backgrounds or personal intentions; ultimately, like Kiarostami, they have no say in it. And this tendency precisely delimits the types of cinema that so many cinephiles (especially of older generations) believe they need to defend or redeem or resurrect, the rapidly disappearing ideals and pleasures of their youth: Bicycle Thieves (1948) and the Nouvelle Vague, Satyajit Ray and 8 and a Half (1963) …
There was hardly ever the possibility, amidst this circus of deathly nostalgia, of hailing Kiarostami as Post-Modern, or as being part of the latest wave in international, conceptual art. And this is not just a question of getting up to speed with the novel and demanding pleasures of Ten, Five or Shirin in his 21st century career, or looking more widely at his achievement across all the diverse media and art forms – from photography to poetry, cinema to theatre – that he has worked in by now. It is also an urgent matter of revisiting the canonical works of the “Koker Trilogy” with fresh eyes, on the lookout not for what is profoundly and universally human in them (we saw that already), but for all the cagey dispositifs of looking and acting, of events and their framing, that quietly reformulate the relationship between film and spectator. And this will mean more than that Kiarostami plays (‘60s style) on film-and-reality (big deal) or that he occasionally points up the artifice of his means.
Abbas Kiarostami was prolific without every really trying to be. He practised an advanced form of laziness, and I do not say that at all in a critical or derogatory way: for him, art came easy, or it didn’t come at all. This was an attitude, a practice, a way of being in the world that he carefully cultivated and developed.
Kiarostami never stuck to one path, whether in the film industry (nationally or globally), or in the art world. He claimed the freedom to wander from short films to feature films, from photographs to poems, from theatrical productions to conceptual gallery installations, from the big cinema screen to the small computer screen via the TV set. As I have heard from frustrated producers, he often entertained but then nimbly walked away from projects in their early planning stages, the moment that conditions did not feel to him entirely right or free …
After being acclaimed, by the time of The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), as the great cinema humanist on the prestigious festival trail of Cannes-Venice-Toronto-etc, he headed off, unconcerned with this reputation, into more hermetic and abstract investigations, for almost a full decade. (9) Finding himself always described as the neo-neo-realist of our time probably pushed him into making Certified Copy, a deliriously fictive fancy with a big European star, Juliette Binoche. He wanted to show his “professional” hand, directing actors and constructing a true mise en scène to die for. It is among the great films of the 2010s.
He deliberately ended his final completed feature film production, Like Someone in Love (2012) shot in Japan, with an abrupt cut, still in the middle of the story-events: even more brutally than in the sublime Taste of Cherry, he announced to us, in this fashion, that the film was simply over, and that we needed to find our own transition between its artificial construction and our daily, lived reality. The links were always there for each of us to discover, as he himself never ceased searching for and discovering them. (A posthumous, somewhat patched-up work followed in 2017: 24 Frames, another conceptual piece in a digital format, disappointingly uneven in its execution and inspiration.)
In a sense, many of Kiarostami’s works, in whichever medium he alighted upon (poetry, photography, film), had an off-hand, impulsive, seemingly unworked quality. He liked to remove himself as much as possible from his creations, making himself just another spectator, not the privileged artist-controller-master, simply a discoverer of the result on par with any other viewer: the dashboard-mounted digital camera on the driver and passengers in Ten marked the height of this tendency. Whenever a critic presented him with a reading of his work, however fanciful or removed from his own thoughts and intentions, he was delighted (as very few filmmakers are, I assure you): the piece didn’t belong to him any longer, and it was the task, the pleasure, of all of us to use the fragments he offered in order to spin our own stories, forge our own perceptions of the world.
Of course, there is work, profound work, underneath Kiarostami’s productions in all media. But the exercise of his capacity for art-making came, as he once described it, from practising the act of seeing – with his eyes, firstly, and only then through some representational apparatus such as a camera. Kiarostami’s laziness – tales abound, not only of his ability to casually walk away from projects in which he quickly lost interest before the first contracts were signed, but also the “squandering” of his best ideas by simply speaking and not writing them down, musing to his friends, assistants and colleagues as he travelled from one location to another – is a kind of openness, an availability to the world.
What he learned to see, to notice, could then be immortalised, swiftly and effortlessly, in the framing of a photo or the composition of a poem. That was the gesture he trained himself to perform. Aesthetic time was, for Kiarostami, a matter of captured moments. And what marvellous moments, dispersed across the globe, he has left us with!