Abbas Kiarostami The Truth Behind Reality

by Fergus Daly


Abbas Kiarostami was already 50 back in 1990 when French critics encountered his work for the first time. Given that he'd made his first feature The Passenger in 1974, it was a comparatively unprecedented late discovery mainly due to the censorious climate in his native Iran under both the Shah and the post revolutionary leadership. Despite this, it was still several more years before English speaking critics began to take notice and even now there is far from consensual support for the idea of Kiarostami as one of the great modern masters of world cinema (strangely enough, Tarantino is one his best known Anglo-American admirers). This lack of consensus, particularly on behalf of film writers, is not restricted to Kiarostami and seems to be quite a contemporary phenomenon. There seems to have been far greater unanimity back in, say, the 60's regarding the high modernist canon of Bergman, Bresson, Antonioni and Bunuel than there is today vis-a-vis Lars Von Trier, Alexander Sokurov, Sharunas Bartas or even Atom Egoyan. To take Sokurov as an example, the wide showing of his Mother and Son has been due more to the intervention of celebrities such as Schrader, Scorsese and Nick Cave than to the influence of any film critic or magazine per se. That there is greater consensus in France regarding Kiarostami's genius is not unrelated to his popularity there, and there is no doubt that film journalists with the leading Parisian newspapers weild more considerable power and influence over the public than their equivalents here or in Britain. With the sparsity of screenings of Kiarostami's films in Ireland (even at the major festivals) it is most welcome that within two weeks two of his finest works will be available on video. Through the Olive Trees (1993), the third part of his Roadbar trilogy, it already available from Artificial Eye and during the summer Close Up (1990) will be released by the BFI.

It is possible that Kiarostami remains best known in this country for the script he wrote or rather dictated since he never writes anything for Janar Panifi's The White Balloon (1995). The relatively widespread release that his work has enjoyed of late in Britain is due in no small part to an article in 'The Sunday Times' two years ago by one-man Francophile army Gilbert Adair which ridiculed the puerile nature of Hollywood films whilst lauding Kiarostami as the new saviour of world cinema. As Adair wrote on that occasion "Abbas Kiarostami, an artist as widely known throughout Europe and elsewhere as he is utterly unknown in Britain, an artist whose work is not only esteemed and easily available in France as might be expected (in a recent issue the film journal 'Cahiers due Cinéma' devoted 50 pages to his film), but, since interviews with him have turned up in rock and fashion magazines, actually fashionable. And rightly so. Beside Kiarostami, Kieslowski is nothing, Campion is nothing, Tarantino is nothing." Not for the first time many people in Ireland with an interest in such matters will have to be satisfied with the second degree and second rate medium of video if the wish to see cinematic work of the highest quality. In this case that means, for the moment at least, just two of the eight features Kiarostami has so far made, not to mention his 15 short films and the numerous other projects he has worked on.

When European cinephiles first watched Kiarostami's films they saw Italian neo-realism. They saw long takes, a focus on the details of everyday life, powerful emotions, fictional works that looked like documentaries. Of the latter they weren't quite sure. Was it the reverse? Fiction or fact, Kiarostami seemed to make nonsense of the distinction. Perhaps it was this very indeterminability that threw some critics, leading them to dismiss his work as simplistically humanistic, a-politcal, moralistic or even didactic. These are changes that Kiarostami still needs to be defended from, as he does from many of his supporters who praise his love of human foibles and strong moral values.

De Sica does seem an obvious model for the early work, in particular The Passenger in which a soccer loving boy travels alone to Tehran to see the national side play but falls asleep just before the match begins. In interviews Kiarostami has admitted that neo-realism had a deep impact on him as a young man. Kiarostami is at the best of times a peculiar and fascinating interviewee, using his considerable eloquence and charm to evade seemingly straight-forward questions that somehow seem to disconcert him. In one interview he states that he has barely seen 50 films in his lifetime, that he has never wanted to see any film more than once and admits to finding the films of Bresson and Dreyer unwatchable. In all, he says, there are hardly 20 sequences in all of cinema which matter to him. When he does cite influences they are usually Iranian, such as Sohrab Shahid Sales' film A Simple Event, the films of Kimiavi or Mehrjui's The Postman. Recent and classical Farsi poets are often more likely to be referred to than film-makers. In turn, one Iranian critic has suggested "Kiarostami is similar to Mowlana, the 13th century mystic poet who made the complexity of philosophy easily comprehensible and who showed us in a simple manner what life is." Yet, European critics continue to see his debt to the Italians as the predominant one. "C'est Rossellini" exclaimed Serge Daney for whom the issue was: "By what strange alchemy an Iranian working alone can rediscover and advance Rossellini?" Jean-Claude Biette agrees that The Passenger bears the imprint of De Sica: "Kiarostami hadn't yet found what he will discover in Close-Up and the later films the regulative principle of emotion, namely, the organic law that will enable him to choose the mechanism best suited to the most intense expression of his sympathy for the suffering of other beings." For Biette, with Close-Up Kiarostami is already out of neo-realism and closer to late Rosselini and the great television works, "He takes the best qualities of TV, the techniques of reconstruction, the mixture of the true and the false, the faith in documentary, eradicates all voyeurism and absolutism from them and submits them to the spacious rhythm of lived time the only time available to both filmed and spectators attune to the intransitive and soothing tempo of their memories." Kiarostami has spoken wonderfully well of his interest in and use of distanciation effects and his dislike for simple realism." I seek simple reality but hidden behind apparent reality ... we should remind the audience as much as possible that we are reconstructing reality." Someone once described late Rossellini as "patently artificial and startlingly real" and these words could equally well be ascribed to to Kiarostami's recent films. These works demonstrate the falseness of the opposition between cinéma vérité and fabricated cinema. Kiarostami's habit of working without a script, of using non-professional actors and the way in which the seemingly trivial events of everyday life assume global significance in his films are the elements retained from neo-realism, but the essence of his oeuvre lies elsewhere.

Kiarostami's method of working with actors, in particular children, has received the utmost accolades from his peers, including Akira Kurosawa who has moreover gone on record to declare the Iranian the finest living film-maker (this from a man who in his long lifetime has only ever commended Tarkovsky, Satyajit Ray and Cassavettes). A few years ago 'Cahiers due Cinéma' published an account of a meeting between Kiarostami and Kurosawa, the pretender and the master, which is a model of its kind, full of fascinating verbal exchanges and shared experiences most notably regarding the direction of actors. Even Jean-Luc Godard has felt compelled to honour Kiarostami and his workng methods. In a list of his 'life's disappointments' he included failure "to force the Oscar people to reward Kiarostami instead of Kiewlowski."

The following lengthy passage is worth quoting in full as it gives a good indication of Kiarostami's approach to working with actors: "If you want to work with non-professionals you have to be clear - never give them a sentence to utter in front of the camera. Nothing will happen. You must make them believe in the dialogue enough so that over time they come to believe that the words are their own. It can take weeks, months to really communicate with them. I was in contact with Hosein Rezai (Through the Olive Trees) for a year and met him once a week during this period. It works like hair transplanting. You must implant one or two locks at a time. During one encounter I suddenly pitched to him the phrase 'Those who have money and those who have not'. Next time, when we met up with my cameraman I said to Hosein 'Repeat what you said to me about the haves and the have nots.' Hosein considers for a moment whether it was he or I who said it before duly repeating it. When he gets it wrong I correct him adding another sentence pretending that he had said that too. I build it up over the months and little by little Hosein believes that he is the source of his words, they become fixed in his memory. During films he repeats them in a natural manner to the camera. He has come to believe that the dialogue was his because he has related it to his own life." But even Kiarostami's working methods are developing all the time. For Through the Olive Trees he chose a professional actor to play the part of the director. For his latest film The Taste of Cherries (the Palme d'Or winner at Cannes) he for the first time shot a test version on video and this is a procedure he is set to repeat for his next film.

The comparisons with Rossellini do help in the task of pinpointing Kiarostami's originality and the unique experience of watching his films. Whereas Rossellini's characters continue in many respects to follow the behavioural and psychological patterns of the classical action film in that they reflect on their surroundings and the situation they find themselves in, and tend to have a consciousness change or revelation of some sort, in Kiarostami's later films (in particular Close Up and Through the Olive Trees) the character is in the midst of a kind of hall of mirrors, a closed world wherein he indulges in some bizarre repetitions pursuit that seems destined to destroy him and where (as Laurent Roth has noted in the aforementioned 'Cahiers du Cinéma dossier) the sparkling allure of his surroundings continues to feed this desire. Watching, in particular, Through the Olive Trees one can often feel that Kiarostami is closer to some of the more 'postmodern' works of Von Trier or Ruiz than to any of the various schools of realism. Strangely enough, Hitchcock would seem to be a vital reference point in this respect. Roth says "As with Hitchcock, every film of Kiarostami's functions like a kind of trap from which an innocent character must escape. Being both victim and author of this snare, he is always alone. The framing, the mise-en-scene, the intervention of cinema itself in the course of events affirms more and more the specular contract that the character enters into with the world and with his own desire.' The character is always transfixed by or pursuing someone or something be it his friend's house (Where is my Friend's House? [1987]), earthquake survivors (And Life Goes On ...[1991]), the great Iranian film-maker Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Close Up), his future wife (Through the Olive Trees) or someone to help him commit suicide (The Taste of Cherries). In Close Up and Through the Olive Trees there is a film-maker close behind the leading character acting as a kind of perverse double. This plot level drag-hunt is often reflected within the mise-en-scene of the film, and each of the films mentioned contains scenes in which a character is spellbound for a lengthy period by something still or moving in his immediate milieu, for example, the aerosol interminably rolling down the hill in Close Up, the gas bottle in And Life Goes On ... and the side-view mirror in Through the Olive Trees. That Kiarostami's films came to have an increasingly complex mise-en-abyme structure culminating in the dizzying film within a film within a film effect of Through the Olive Trees is a direct result of these concerns...

The remainder of this article can be found in Film West 32.