It’s his birthday today.
When Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami died at the age of 76, shock waves erupted through the film world. There was a general feeling: What are we supposed to do now? If you’ve seen just one of his films, you will know how unique they are, his radical insistence on distance (he can be very Brechtian), his deconstruction of various movie tropes, his interrogation of what is cinema – and why – and how – the recurring images and moods, with characters often driving around in cars, their faces seen through the windows, reflections of trees and buildings flowing over them like water.
Certified Copy – I reviewed the film here.
Like Someone in Love
His films defy description. The questions are more important than the answers. Seen as a whole, his is an extraordinary body of work, one of the most impressive in the last 50 years.
Kiarostami’s films that made it here (and most of them did after Taste of Cherry) were not just limited-release foreign films, or indie arthouse hits or glittering Cannes-festival winners. His films may have been SOME of those things some of the time. But what a Kiarostami film was ALL the time was an EVENT. Like Jean-Luc Godard’s films, like Terrence Malick’s films, like Wong Kar Wai’s films … there are only a few directors who inspire such reverence, such passionate interest over DECADES.
Taste of Cherry
Kiarostami was consistently inventive. He never stopped challenging himself (and us). His talent did not calcify as he grew older (as often happens with directors). Two masterful – and radically different – films as Certified Copy and Like Someone in Love coming out one after the other? It was thrilling to experience this in real time.
I have written a lot about Kiarostami over the years (full archive here), although there are many of his films I still have not seen (many are hard to find, in general). He lived and worked in Iran (surviving the Revolution and continuing to make films inside the Islamic Republic afterwards – not possible for many directors). It wasn’t until the end that he made two films outside of Iran, the glittering one-two punch of Certified Copy and Like Someone In Love). At the very same time that his former assistant Jafar Panahi was being persecuted and arrested, he was flourishing in a way that other Iranian artists could only dream of.
Jafar Panahi, the talented and persecuted Iranian filmmaker, is – as everyone knows – banned from making films (he’s made 4 since the sentence came down: he is a hero), banned from traveling, and forbidden from speaking to foreigners or giving interviews (he continues to give interviews). The man is a hero. Panahi needs no introduction and if you’ve been reading me for 5 minutes you know my feelings about his work and his life.
Panahi got his start as an assistant to Kiarostami. Kiarostami wrote some scripts for Panahi to film, and was instrumental in giving the younger man his start.
In recent years, as Panahi’s situation worsened, attracting international attention, Kiarostami – who has escaped persecution – would speak out in support of Panahi as well as all of the Iranian artists either in prison or silenced. When this happens, and when it happens from the main stage at Cannes or the Berlinale: it is a political act. People in Iran are watching. People in Iran see this, hear this, and know that there are millions of people “out here” who think what is happening is appalling. And no matter how much the censors in charge there want to stop the back-and-forth flow of information: it is too late. We hear from them, they hear from us. It’s the Internet age, bitches: you cannot control it.
In 2016, when Kiarostami died, Jafar Panahi reached out – through a translator who passed it on to the outside world – with a statement of tribute for his old mentor. It’s a beautiful reminiscence about how their friendship started and what Kiarostami taught him.
My favorite bit is this.
Later that afternoon, he asked me to ride with him to another location. Along the way, he stopped and gave me a handkerchief to use as a blindfold, which I did. He continued to drive for a while and stopped again. He helped me get off the car, held my hand, and, after walking me for a couple of minutes, asked me to remove the blindfold. I opened my eyes and saw what turned out to be the final shot of “Through the Olive Trees,” that majestic landscape! As I was stunned by the view, Mr. Kiarostmi told me, “That’s my vision. That’s how I see this place.”
The experience taught me a valuable lesson. I realized the importance of having a vision and how each filmmaker needs to develop his or her vision. The spot we were standing on was Mr. Kiarostami’s vision. He didn’t tell me that was the best vantage point. He just said that was his point of view, and I realized I had to have mine.
Kiarostami was an example to other struggling Iranian artists of what could be possible. His films were not as political as Panahi’s (it was Panahi’s politics, presented without euphemism, that got him into trouble), but they did not lack for social/political commentary and – therefore – controversy. (Taste of Cherry is about a middle-class man driving around a construction site looking for someone – anyone – willing to bury his body after he commits suicide. The film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, the first film from Iran to be so honored, but in Iran, the censors went nuts because of suicide’s centrality to the plot.) Kiarostami’s roots in the Iranian cinema tradition were strong, and he wrote scripts for other directors (including Panahi), collaborating with others in the energized and inspirational “everyone does everything” atmosphere of Iranian cinema. But Kiarostami’s reputation was not local. He was an international star. He worked with Juliette Binoche twice (in Shirin and Certified Copy), he was a regular at Cannes and the Berlinale, one of the glittering lights of the film world for decades, a true icon.
The writers at Rogerebert.com, myself included, each wrote a tribute when Kiarostami died, collected here.
His final film, released posthumously last year, was an animated film called 24 Frames. It was on my Top 10 List. Still out there on the very edge of his talent and technology, pushing us, challenging us to see the world in different ways. Not just to look, but to SEE.
It’s indicative of the power of Kiarostami’s imagery, that when I shared the below screen-grab on Twitter and Facebook upon hearing the news of his death, putting it up with no text attached, people started sharing it, liking it, leaving comments like “I’m so sad.”
“Close Up” (1999)
Because the image is instantly recognizable.
And once you’ve seen the film, that image will never ever leave you.
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