When I first met Abbas Kiarostami on the evening of 21 June 1999 – I know the date because it was the night before I interviewed him on stage at the National Film Theatre, the highpoint of a big season of Iranian movies curated by Rose Issa and the late Sheila Whitaker – I had no idea how much he would come to mean to me over the next 17 years. Perhaps I should have known the encounter was likely to be somehow transformative; after all, getting acquainted with his films had already had an effect on my thinking about what the cinema could be. But I could not have imagined that this extraordinary filmmaker – to me, at that time and until yesterday, the greatest living director in the world – would find my company pleasant enough for us to become friends, nor foreseen that we’d continue to meet whenever we found ourselves in the same country.
I never made it to Tehran, but Cannes, Berlin, Turin, Thessaloniki, Barcelona, Paris, Marrakech and Morelia afforded many encounters and conversations both public and private. Moreover, when Abbas came to London in 2005 for a massive celebration of his work – a full retrospective of his films and another interview at BFI Southbank; installations, a photographic exhibition and a conference at the V&A; more photos at the Zelda Cheatle Gallery; workshops at the London Film School; the publication of my own BFI Modern Classics monograph on 10 – I had the privilege and pleasure of spending a great deal of time with him. He even came round to dinner with me and my wife (whom, for reasons best known to himself, he always likened to Jennifer Jones).
I mention this visit because it not only shows how down-to-earth Abbas was but is indicative of his fundamental reserve. I believe that he accepted our invitation partly because it allowed him a peaceful evening away from the limelight; at a big dinner in his honour the previous evening – as on many such public occasions – he had insisted I sit next to him, not because he found my company in any way ‘sparkling’ but because… well, better the devil you know. Abbas greatly appreciated and enjoyed the support he received for his work, but he much preferred a small group of friends to a large gathering. For him the celebrity that accompanied global acclaim was at best a double-edged sword; this was someone who spoke often of the joy of being alone in his car, driving out into the mountains around Tehran to take photographs. He had embraced digital technology partly because, with ABC Africa (2001), 10 (2002), Five (2004) and Shirin (2008), it enabled him to make films with very few or no collaborators and with as much creative control as is customarily enjoyed by a poet, a painter or a photographer (all of which he had been at one time or another). To him, undoubtedly, film was not industry but art.
Geoff Andrew interviewing Abbas Kiarostami at the Morelia Film Festival in 2012
Quiet, sensitive, a little shy yet blessed with a warm and mischievous sense of humour, Abbas was, quite simply, unlike anyone I have ever met. Sometimes very private, he could surprise you with frank details about his life, thoughts and feelings. He was extremely well read and enormously intelligent but tended to conceal his erudition. No cinephile, he probably thought more deeply about cinema – its potential, limitations and ethics – than most filmmakers. He was unsentimental yet profoundly compassionate; playful yet genuinely philosophical. Perhaps what struck me most, over the years, was his unusual perspective on the world. He once told me, “It’s about how you look at life… It’s all a matter of concentration. If you concentrate, you can find something more. If you don’t, you won’t get it.”
Abbas looked closely and patiently at everything: at people, at places and at questions about how to live. He listened. He pondered. He took note of small things. (Check out, for example, the very ending of 10 on Ten (2003), with its revelatory shift to a column of ants.) He was highly alert and profoundly curious. He was fascinated by point of view; his own seemed to be no more important to him than that of others, and he was very good at imagining himself into the subjective consciousness of people very different from himself. That may have been a consequence of working so much with children at the start of his filmmaking career. Whatever, his films about children are miracles of understanding and empathy; likewise, when he went to Italy to make Certified Copy (2009) and to Japan to make Like Someone in Love (2012), the results never felt like clumsy fictions made by an outsider. (Tony Rayns’s Sight & Sound review of the latter commends its accurate depiction of Japanese manners.)
A matter of point of view. With his very first short, Bread and Alley (1970), the narrative shifts from being about a young boy fearful of a dog to being about a hungry dog keen to get food from a passing boy. Similarly, consider his poem:
that the turtle doesn’t see
the little bird’s effortless flight.
Is the poem about the turtle, the bird, or the writer pondering the inequalities of the world? I quote it because it is evocative of the man who wrote it. Abbas would often surprise me with a comment or observation that would at first sound merely eccentric but which, upon further consideration, would prove to express an unforeseen truth. Small wonder, then, that a film about a convicted fraudster should convince us of the defendant’s goodness (Close-up, 1989); that a film about suicide should be a hymn to the simple pleasures of life on earth (Taste of Cherry, 1997); or that a film entirely set within a single car speaks hitherto undivulged volumes about the plight of women in modern Tehran (10).
Where would Abbas have gone next as a filmmaker? He had longer-term plans to shoot a feature in China, but in the meantime, since Like Someone in Love, he had been working, wholly by himself, on a characteristically personal project consisting of 24 four-minute films of a highly experimental nature, devised to explore the relationships between reality and representation, static images and moving pictures, perception, creativity and time.
The last time I saw him, over a couple of days last December at the Marrakech Film Festival, he showed me, on his laptop, nine of the 18 short films he had so far completed. Many of them began by showing a classic painting – Bruegel’s The Hunters in the Snow, say, or Millet’s The Gleaners – into which, after a few seconds, Abbas introduced sound and (through digital animation) a little movement. The idea was to imagine what the painter might actually have seen and heard while working on the picture in question; the results were inventive, illuminating, witty and often quite magical. Not all were based on paintings; some were live-action (of a sort) and bore some resemblance to episodes in Five. All, however, provided further evidence of Abbas’s abiding desire to deploy the cinematic apparatus in new and imaginative ways.
He hoped that the compilation, when all 24 shorts were completed to his satisfaction, might be made available to the public somehow. He recognised that it might appeal only to a comparatively small audience – but then he had never felt the need to compromise his ideas simply to win over a wider public. He simply enjoyed the work; indeed, he clearly found it hard not to work. His work had in many ways become his life.
It was through his work that I became a friend of Abbas Kiarostami, and that honour has left me both with a very deep sorrow that we shall never again spend time together, and with a treasure trove of warm and happy memories. The world has lost a truly great filmmaker, great artist and great human being.