The filmmaker, artist and photographer Abbas Kiarostami, who has died following a series of operations for gastrointestinal cancer, singlehandedly put Iran on the map of world cinema.
Reframing the world and the relationships between individuals through both his creative involvement with actors – often amateurs, often children – and his eye for the beauty of landscapes, Kiarostami produced philosophical works that reinvigorated the genres of documentary and narrative fiction, often blurring the lines between the two, as best shown in Close-up (1990). He translated the traditions of oral storytelling and epic poetry, as well as the modesty of Persian architecture, into a distinctive screen vision, and from the 1990s onwards his model for creating substantial works on slender resources was recognised and embraced by filmmakers from Asia to South America.
Many Iranian critics, however, failed to see enough evidence of distinction to claim him as their own. In his home country he remained subject to dispute, controversy and even neglect. His reluctance to elucidate his filmmaking practice baffled those craving explanations.
Kiarostami was born in 1940 in Tehran. His first love was painting, which led him to enrol at Tehran University’s College of Fine Arts. He also worked part-time as a traffic police officer, aspects of which appear to have shaped his unique sense of mise-en-scène: not only his preference for having actors drive, but also his interest in the still figure who observes the movement around them and the nuances of social interaction.
During the 1960s, Kiarostami was involved in filmmaking as a director of television commercials and title designer for films. At the newly created Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults (in Iran simply known as Kanoon), which provided funding and facilities for producing films for or about children amongst its other artistic activities, Kiarostami made Bread and Alley (1970), a short film about a boy’s fear of a stray dog. He was soon hired by Kanoon on a full-time basis while leading double life as a civil servant.
During his three decades of work at Kanoon, Kiarostami built his style film by film. If early projects were more in the tradition of Eastern Bloc children’s films, he gradually dispensed with all conventions hitherto thought to be necessary. Firstly, he got rid of theatrical contrivances. Quoting screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, Kiarostami claimed that the first ordinary person on the street walking into his frame could be his protagonist. While it would be inaccurate to label him a neorealist (as is often claimed), his work reflects a deep humanism. He proved there is nothing ‘ordinary’ about ‘ordinary people’.
Working with non-actors was not new in Iranian cinema, but Kiarostami interacted with performers in unconventional ways, as had Fellini before him. The actors in his films are realistically unreal, directed via conversation with the filmmaker rather than prior instruction on their words and gestures from him. These non-actors subconsciously perform naivety, innocence and the wisdom of everyday people.
The shorts made for Kanoon, such as the brilliant Two Solutions for One Problem (1975), were closer to philosophy for children than entertainment, and the simpler the premise, the more cogent the film. Typically, a boy wishes to get from A to B and must overcome obstacles. These didactic plots are underscored with a playfulness and display the compositional skill of an accomplished graphic artist.
Eventually, Kiarostami broadened his concerns with children to explore how they interact with adults, as crystallised in the story of a boy in search of his classmate’s house, Where is the Friend’s Home? (1987). This graceful film not only brought the director fame, but was also the beginning of his association with Koker, a village in north Iran.
Five years after the production, an earthquake hit the area, leaving 50,000 dead. Kiarostami took his crew in search of the boy from the first film, but at a certain point decided to take one of his famous detours to search for signs of life in the devastated area. For the first time, the theme of mortality subtly and maturely crept into his cinema, even where the focus was purportedly on life. In the second part of the trilogy, the majestic And Life Goes On… (1992), he encounters a man about to marry a girl despite the human disaster around them. Attracted by the idea of focusing on love in the face of loss, he paid a third visit to Koker for Through the Olive Trees (1994).
In the mid-1990s, from the Palm d’or winner The Taste of Cherry (1997) to the U.N. commissioned documentary ABC Africa (2001), Kiarostami’s films became more sombre, their trips bumpier, and the point of focus shifted to death. Throughout this part of his career he revealed his deep connection with Persian art and poetry, the title of some of his films being taken from poems. The use of these conceits was not artificial as in some Iranian films with their pretty framing, romantic metaphors and glamorised modesty.
In the poems of Attar he found his ‘quest form’, the search by one person or a group for the ideal. In Attar’s story The Conference of the Birds, the birds of the world go in search of the mythical bird Simurgh, hoping to overcome their fears or fulfil what they lack in life, only to discover that they are 30 [si] birds [murgh], therefore they are Simurgh. For Kiarostami, this was the medieval origin of The Wizard of Oz, and in his films the yellow brick road is replaced with a muddy, zigzag path.
Omar Khayyam’s poetry, too, was a keystone of Kiarostami’s thought, in its focus on the fickleness of life; we, the phantom figures in a shadow play, are dissolving into soil (to which Kiarostami pays particular attention in Taste of Cherry and The Wind Will Carry Us). Following Khayyam in his poetry, Kiarostami is probably the only filmmaker whose essential, signature shot is that of Nothing: a black screen, adding to the darkness of movie theatre.
at the newcomer.
— Walking with the Wind, Abbas Kiarostami
At the end of Taste of Cherry, the central character Mr Badii, who throughout the film has given lifts to several people in the hope of finding someone who will bury him after he commits suicide, is lying in an open grave, gazing up at the moon which is hiding behind menacing clouds. Then comes the harrowing darkness, lasting for minutes of screen time. Dogs barking in the distance. The wind howls. The screening space becomes the grave itself.
Up to this point, the world Kiarostami had depicted was that of boys and men, partly owing to the films’ autobiographical touches, and partly to the fact that he raised two sons (Bahman and Ahmad are both filmmakers). His “girl script”, The White Balloon (1995), would go on to be a breakthrough for his protégé, Jafar Panahi. Yet, a shift was on the way. Women, long absent in Kiarostami’s cinema, were eventually given an unprecedented freedom that their male counterparts lacked.
For 10 (2002), Kiarostami entrusted then artist, now filmmaker Mania Akbari with driving the car and filming conversations without his presence. (In his earlier car movies, the individuals onscreen talk to the director directly and not to the actor who plays the driver in the reverse shot.)He also, maybe unwittingly, found an innovative way of bypassing censorship in Iran, which requires of any representation of women that they be veiled at all times – even in the privacy of their own bed. When the hijab became mandatory in Iran, films would frequently show women covered even in the home, something essentially unrealistic, if not silly. Kiarostami sought refuge in his car and in so doing turned public space into private space, while justifying the use of veil.
With their fixed interior cameras, the cars of Kiarostami creates a complex mise-en-scène. The car becomes a space of cultural diversity, with passengers of various ethnicities and dialects. In this way Kiarostami’s films are microcosms of Iran, reflecting the way in which the country’s various cultures form one national identity, while acknowledging the underlying tensions. The director also foregrounds the act of looking above the looked-at person or object, an invitation to the viewer’s capacity to imagine the environment through which the car travels.
Kiarostami continued to challenge his own ideas about the relationships between men and women in Certified Copy (2010). Returning to a theme that he had unsuccessfully tackled in the autobiographical Report (which was made in 1977 as a reaction his own failing marriage), Certified Copy film avoided certainties in its sensitive response to the shifting identities of a couple, played by Juliette Binoche and opera singer William Shimell. The sense of incompleteness (in both the story and the identities of the characters) is borrowed from Close-up.
A moving and richly layered masterpiece, Close-up is also a demonstration of the futility of any attempt to draw a clear separating line between documentary and fiction. It tells the story of Hossein Sabzian, an idler and cinephile who claims to be the renowned Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf in order to inveigle himself into the home of a family. He is eventually exposed by a blunt journalist and put on trial for fraud. However, his actions bring him face to face with another renowned filmmaker, Kiarostami, who makes a film about him. Eventually he meets Makhmalbaf in the flesh. A lie becomes reality, but just how much of this reality remains a lie is unknowable.
Kiarostami’s growing recognition also saw him expanding the geographical terrain of his productions. Although based in north Tehran, he made films in Uganda, Italy, Japan and China. Paradoxically, a generation of Iranian filmmakers who wished for a taste of Kiarostami’s international success amounted to little more than copyists, ‘doing Kiarostami’. As Paul Oliver once described the problem of the blues, that it attracts performers who can neither play nor sing, so Kiarostami’s deceptively simple approach to filmmaking was like quicksand, towards which many casually ventured but out of which few would come out alive artistically.
Kiarostami always stood outside the crowd, returning to his solitude by venturing into photography, poetry and installation. Yet even these temporary departures from cinema contained clear marks of cinematic thinking and were further practices in the art of reduction and contemplation of mechanisms of looking which he had demonstrated since his early films.
As with many filmmakers with experience of living and working through political upheavals and personal tragedies, Kiarostami found a balance between pure cynicism and deep humanism in his work, as it continually questioned life and cinema. The signature moments of darkness in his films always resolve into light. In this regard, Taste of Cherry’s is the most innovative: in an epilogue, shot in low-quality video, Mr Badii is alive and well. The soldiers seen in the film are roaming around, as if choreographed to Louis Armstrong’s St. James Infirmary, which plays on the soundtrack.
The last shot of the film updates some iconic endings of cinema: Kiarostami’s Land Rover vanishes around the bend of a dusty zigzagging road, echoing Chaplin’s tramp exiting down a street, or the Man with No Name riding his horse towards the horizon. In a split-second there’s no trace of the man but a big, lonely heap of brown earth, evoking Khayyam’s remark that there is no resting place but in the heart of the soil. A director here showing us how he took the cinema on such an exhilarating detour, while also offering the poetic image of his own departure.
Further reading from our archives
Closely observed train: Tickets reviewed by Roger Clarke (December 2005)
Five reviewed by Jonathan Romney (June 2005)
Drive, he said: Geoff Andrew on Ten (October 2002)