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Abbas Kiarostami: A Versatile Artist

Abbas Kiarostami is one of the leaders amongst the Iranian directors. He is widely considered as the most prominent representative of this exotic cinematography which has celebrated a lot of successes at different film festivals over the last few years. This is due to the Iranian New Wave, who brought to the world many outstanding filmmakers and made Iran a significant force in the cinema world.

Kiarostami is one of a few who didn’t emigrate from the Muslim fundamentalist-dominated Iran. Until now he lives in his home city of Teheran where he was born on June 22nd, 1940. His interest in art was cultivated at home. His father was a painter and a decorator, and young Abbas studied painting at Teheran University where he could realise his passion for fine arts and developing his painting skills. Even now, though he is known mainly for his film works, he still takes photographs and paints. He also writes poetry, primarily haiku, what reflects his interest in Zen Buddhism. This fascination is also reflected in his films.

His way to filmmaking began in the year 1969 when together with friends he founded the Centre for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults (KANOON),  where he was in charge of the film department. It was also the time when he made his first film Nan va Koutcheh/Bread and Alley (1970), in which he focused on the everyday problems of Iranian children and criticised the Islamic education system based on violence, control and indoctrination. Working for KANOON, he also shot such films as Mossafer/The Traveller (1974), Rang-ha/The Colours (1976) and Gozaresh/The Report (1977), all of which were the forerunners for the plots and the styles of his future pictures.

The excellent intuition for children and their psyche returned in 1987 when Kiarostami made Khane-ye doost kojas?/Where is the Friend’s Home?. In the film, he tells the story of two juvenile protagonists living in the region of Koker whose story was the starting point for another film Zendegi edameh darad/And Life Goes On (1991). This time Kiarostami took the audience to the province of Koker just after the tragic earthquake struck the region. The director wandered with his camera over the destroyed area to find the two boys he cast four years earlier. However, the searching itself is not the essence of the film. And Life Goes On is a para-documentary, a metaphorical story about the human attitude towards the unpredictability of fate. He showed people who don’t capitulate in the face of tragedy and can start their lives all over.

For instance, a couple of young lovers married just after the earthquake who are not afraid to start their lives over. This is one of the episodes from And Life Goes On. Kiarostami used their story and made it a subject of the third instalment of that trilogy titled Zire darakhatan zeyton/Through the Olive Trees (1994). The film explored metafiction, the trend characteristic for the French New Wave authors. It’s a film about a film, about the process of filmmaking. Once again Kiarostami went to Koker to reconstruct the set of And Life Goes On with non-professional actors just after the disaster. By chance (was it chance?), for the parts of the young lovers, he chose a genuine couple. The film starts to be a kind of game between him and the audience, where the reality and the fiction begin to blur. Abbas draws the viewer into the post-modern jigsaw puzzle where it is pretty hard to tell where the fantasy ends and the reality starts. He takes the audience behind the scenes and shows them the practical side of the filmmaking process. The audience also sees the events happening outside the set which is at the same time parts of the plot. A similar method was used by Francois Truffaut in The American Night. Abbas Kiarostami was awarded the Critics Award at the Sao Paulo International Film Festival for the film Through the Olive Trees. 

But the real madness about Kiarostami began when his next feature film Ta’m e guilass/Taste of Cherry (1996) which won the Golden D’Or at the Cannes International Film Festival.

Taste of Cherry focuses on the eternal deliberation of the sense of being. It looks into the existential rhetoric about the opposition of life and death. The main character Ba’di decides to commit suicide. The film is an intimate story about the searching for an accomplice to Ba’di’s death. It appears that the searching is futile and on a metaphorical level it shows how lonely Ba’di is. He wants to kill himself, but it is not his primary intention at all. In fact, he searches for a soul mate who could dissuade him from doing it and could show him the bright side of life and why it is worth living. The audience doesn’t know the character’s motives, and the author doesn’t reveal them. Kiarostami’s film leaves everything for the spectator to interpret. The only thing he does do is to show the clues which may be followed by the doubters. One of those clues is the title ‘taste of cherry’, a pure, sensual feeling in which the joy of being can be caught, even for a split second.

The slow rhythm of the film, the long sequences of events, in which the protagonists mostly talk, the monodominant excitement over landscapes and the action laconism comprise his style which Kiarostami developed later in his films.

An idea behind his successive projects border on a film experiment was a maximum laconism in using cinematic means to accentuate an emotional and intuitive side of his works. He meant to augment the participation of the spectator in the process of filmmaking and to make the spectator some partner for the director and even co-creator of the film. Kiarostami consistently uses indications of the cognitive theory of film. According to the cognitivism, the spectator “produces” meanings that are open to interpretation. The view of the audience, the process of projection – identification creates a new quality and enriches an intention of the director inscribed in work. Kiarostami meets the audience halfway. He gives them the purest pictures without that creative invention. The viewer may read it freely, according to their knowledge and needs. This method as well as the subject of reflection over the human condition Kiarostami consistently developed in his next films Bad ma ra khahad bord/The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), Ten (2002), Five (2003), Shirin (2008).

The Wind Will Carry Us is based on the very same idea as And Life Goes On. The film crew goes to Kurdistan to record the local funeral habits. The story covers the period of waiting for the old lady to die. It takes weeks and makes the crew more and more impatient. It’s not easy to overcome the natural life circle though. „Civilized” filmmakers get confronted with the society which lives its rhythm set by nature. Kiarostami built up the deliberate treatise about the human nature set in the beautiful and rough landscapes of Iranian Kurdistan which silently accompanies the characters.

Ten is a development of the construction used in Taste of Cherry. The film plot is set in the confined space of a car where the protagonists debate about sensitive subjects. The only changes of the action are when a new person gets into the car. The limited space, which we don’t leave even for a moment, cuts down needless, according to the director, elements and reduces the essence of the plot to dilemmas of the main heroine. The film is a critique of the Islamic rhetoric in which women’s freedom is limited, and the omnipresent patriarchy imposed on women is part of an objective.

Five and Shirin are considered to be brave formal experiments in which final limits of the reduction of cinematic means are to be found. The camera sitting motionless is pure and devoid of any author’s interference record of five landscapes (Five) and 114 female faces watching in the cinema a screen version of melodramatic Iranian poem (Shirin). The bewildered critics coined the name „anti-cinema”, for those, very difficult to interpret, films.

Abbas Kiarostami also shoots documentaries. Worth to mention here is a digital recorded ABC Africa (2001). In it, Kiarostami told about the toils and the beauty of Uganda, which he showed from the children’s point of view, just as he used to do in his early films shot for the KANOON institute.

Kiarostami also took part in the short stories projects, realised by the masters of the world cinema. In 1995 he directed one of the shorts in memory of the hundredth anniversary of cinema Lumiere et Compagnie. In 2005, together with the Italian Ermanno Olmi and the British director Ken Loach, he created the film Tickets. Each of the three short stories is an individual, self-contained story set in the train coming from Germany to Rome. The three-minute Where is my Romeo? It was a part of Chacun son cinema (2007), the project was created for the 60th anniversary of the Cannes International Film Festival.

Abbas Kiarostami has been the chairman of different film festivals all over the world many times, i.e. in Cannes (1993) and in Venice (1995).

In the year 1997, he was awarded the UNESCO Fellini Medal for his contribution to filmmaking and popularisation of liberty, peace and tolerance.

Chosen filmography:

1970 Nan va koutcheh/Bread and Alley

1973 Tadjrobeh/The Experience

1974 Mosafer/The Traveller

1976 Rang-ha/The Colours

1977 Gozaresh/The Report

1982 Hamsorayan/The Chorus

1987 Khane-ye doost kojas?/Where is the Friends Home?

1990 Nema-ye nazdik/Close-up

1991 Zendegi edameh darad/And Life Goes On

1994 Zire darakhatan zeyton/Through the Olive Trees

1995 Lumiere et compagne

1997 Ta’m e guilass/Taste of Cherry

1999 Bad ma ra khahad bord/The Wind Will Carry Us

2001 ABC Africa

2002 Ten

2003 Five. Dedicated to Yasujiro Ozu

2005 Tickets (short story)

2007 Chacun son Cinema (episode Where Is My Romeo?)

2008 Shirin

Chosen awards:

1989 FIPRESCI Prize at the Istanbul International Film Festival for Nema-ye nazdik/Close-up

1994 Golden Spike at the Valladolid International Film Festival for Zire darakhatan zeyton/Through the Olive Trees

1997 Golden Palm at the Cannes International Film Festival for Ta’m e guilass/Taste of Cherry

1999 Grand Special Jury Prize and FIPRESCI Prize at the Venice Film Festival for Bad ma ra khahad bord/The Wind Will Carry Us



Filed under: film history

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Magda Olchawska is an award-winning independent filmmaker, writer and screenwriter. She writes not only about making films and writing but also about financially independent and sustainable lifestyle. Her current projects include Ecotopia Universe and School Runs.

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