“I have often noticed that we are not able to look at what we have in front of us, unless it’s inside a frame.”
“You won’t believe it but
I quench my thirst
by drinking from a mirage.”
– Abbas Kiarostami
My old essay on Abbas Kiarostami concluded with his film Ten, made in 2002 (see http://sensesofcinema.com/2002/great-directors/kiarostami/). Obviously the celebrated/acclaimed author/artist produced many more impressive films and art works both for the screen and various museum and gallery settings since then, until his untimely, shocking death on July 4, 2016.
He made three more features: Shirin (2008), Copie conforme (Certified Copy 2010), Like Someone in Love (2012), Five (a series of experimental shorts, 2003), one long documentary (10 on Ten, 2004), and over ten shorts (not counting those he did in his workshops) and several video installations. He also wrote and co-wrote for a number of features for other directors including The Deserted Station (Alireza Raisian, 2002), Talaye Sorkh (Crimson Gold, Jafar Panahi, 2003), Kargaran Mashghoole Karand (Men at Work, Mani Haghighi, 2004), Ashnaee ba Leila (Meeting Leila, Adel Yarghi, 2012) and Emtehan Nahaee (The Finals (2016). He did a video correspondence with Victor Erice and worked on a project titled 24 Frames (24 four-and-a-half-minute short films) in 2016. Before his death he also did the pre-production for his next feature, to be shot in China. And throughout these years, he had several gallery shows of his photographs and led many workshops and master classes around the world. (Many transcripts from those workshops and classes are usefully included in Paul Cronin’s recent book, Lessons with Kiarostami.)
Like Jean Rouch, Kiarostami preferred to call himself an amateur and not a professional in relationship to his work. His deep love for experimenting with cinema and its possibilities moved him to teach his workshops, where he’d make short films alongside his students. In his own words that was a way for him to go back to his original interest in cinema and to discover it once more. He’d say that his students were his best teachers and that he was grateful to them.
Kiarostami’s stamina to create and explore and experiment was amazing. He was so productive and versatile in many different art forms resulting from his interest and experience in painting, photography, graphic arts and he was also quite innovative in both form and content in his work.
He offered intriguing and at times controversial approaches to storytelling, often quite self-critical, which surprised his followers as well as his critics. Ever since Baad Mara Khahad Bord (The Wind Will Carry Us, 1999), his features demonstrated a movement toward a more minimalist poetic language, keeping the narrative elements in a film to a bare minimum. For example, we hear the protagonist’s camera crew but we never see them in the film – a reminder of his remarkable early shorts such as Rah-e Hal (Solution, 1978), Be Tartib Ya Bedun-e Tartib (Orderly or Disorderly, 1981), and the magnificent title sequence that he designed for Qeysar (Masud Kimiai, 1969).
In his monumental and minimalist Shirin, Kiarostami casts Juliette Binoche together with 112 of Iran’s most famous actresses to act as the audience, watching a film that we never see. We hear the film that is presumably playing off-screen, which is based on Khosrow and Shirin, a well-known Persian legend and medieval epic poem about a love triangle by Nezami Ganjavi (c. 1141-1209). The legend offers two versions of the ideal man: one is a king, who has power and status, and the other is an artist.
Here, unlike his other films, there are no landscapes, no obvious mixture of documentary and fiction, and we have only professional actors who are all shot in close-ups. The idea of long shots is suggested only by the magnificent and complex sound track of the invisible film and its epic music, which incidentally – in contrast to the music in Kiarostami’s previous films – is Persian.
All the actresses and actors were filmed in Kiarostami’s living room, where they followed his instructions. He added the idea of the film in the post-production stage. Shirin is a masterpiece of illusionism. We watch these actors reacting to the imaginary film as we also create the film in our minds.
The audience members in Shirin are shown in isolation. They are composed mainly of individual close ups, two shots and sometimes shots of three or four people. We have only faces to look at, but the magnificent complex music and sound track expands our imagination about the off-screen imaginary film. Here, Kiarostami also single-handedly honors the voice artists, the speaking parts of the imaginary film, who are the major hidden talents in Iranian film industry. The film is a more sophisticated version of his earlier three and a half minutes of parts of the same footage in his short Where Is My Romeo? which Kiarostami made in 2007, using the English soundtrack of Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1968). Following Ten, which featured all women characters (played by non-professionals), Shirin, is the pivotal film in Kiarostami’s career, in terms of his attention to female characters and the theme of romantic love that he pursues in his subsequent features Certified Copy and Like Someone in Love.
With Certified Copy, casting Binoche and capturing the beautiful landscapes Tuscany, Italy and his beloved car scenes with gorgeous reflections, Kiarostami moves to a less radical adventure in his first fiction feature shot outside Iran (although the narrative is still minimal, ambiguous, and elliptical). Here, he demands his audience to imagine the rationale behind the film’s narrative and possibly change the order of his story upon the completion of the film in their minds. When, halfway through the film, without any explanation, the relationship between the writer and his female host changes into that of a married couple, we start to think about the first part of the film and assume that it was a flashback. Or maybe they were married before, a long time ago. Or maybe one part is fake and the other is real. The open-ended conclusion of the film leaves the audience in limbo, as if there were no beginning and no end to the story.
As Kiarostami has repeatedly said about his films, we can not say that we follow any story from the beginning to the end. A story begins before we encounter it and concludes long after we turn away from it. It is our own choice to say that the beginning was there and the end was here.
With this film he also expands his earlier experiments with the off-screen field. The film’s opening generates a sense of suspense and expectation. A podium, microphones and no speakers in site. This treatment of space manifests itself in a more intriguing manner in the opening of his next feature, shot in Japan, Like Someone in Love. Here Kiarostami plays with our expectations as well as our orientation. The film starts in a dark bar in downtown Tokyo, where we hear a young woman’s voice off-screen saying “I’m not lying to you.” It is not clear who is talking and where she is. But there is an empty seat facing the camera in the center of the frame that suggests an absence, or a possible forthcoming entrance. Later, another woman enters and exits the frame while talking to someone we can not see. This geometry of looking and hearing adds to the enigmatic, ambiguous, and confusing understanding of the scenes and the relationship of players in it. In fact, the whole core of the film revolves around a sense of uncertainty. We never know if anything happens between the old man and the young call girl.
Even more than Certified Copy, this film poses critical challenges to our reading since it makes it impossible for us to analyse it in the social and political context of Iranian society. The story revolves around three characters: a young prostitute who does not want to go to her client, her jealous boyfriend who is angry at her, and an elderly client, who treats her with kindness. (Kiarostami picked an old Japanese movie extra to play the latter without giving him the full script.)
As the film progresses and we learn more about the characters, our understanding of their motives becomes more complicated and less predictable. Here again the use of the old man’s apartment window forces us to see the separation of his world from the exterior world. Furthermore, the reflections on car windows lead us to the see the philosophical and existential statements of the film about the illusory world it presents. Like Someone in Love portrays a dark view of relationships between men and women and the possibility of romantic love – a reminder of the bleak portrayal of a marriage in The Report (1977). Interestingly, the film starts with the young woman, Akiko, and our sympathy is with her as she is forced by her pimp to go to a client. Then our attention is shifted towards the old man. He is the only one the film allows us to see in his home – and one of the few wise old men in Kiarostami’s films who occupies a central rather than peripheral role. In fact, the central question of the film mostly revolves around him, his desires and fantasies and his reality. We are not quite sure why has he sent for this young prostitute, and we are never shown what happens (or does not happen) between them.
Similar to Certified Copy, there is an implied change of roles. The old man’s relationship to the young call girl shifts to a father/daughter relationship when he starts taking care of her and protecting her against her angry young boyfriend. With this film, Kiarostami also returns to another version of his innocent/deceitful young character that we first met in his Mosafer (The Traveller, 1974). Here the childlike, innocent-looking young prostitute is longed for and desired, and encouraged by the film to empathised with. The shocking ending of the film suggests a fragile border between the exterior world and the false sense of safety provided by the old man. The window smashes, the film ends and the distance between the viewer and the film (image) suddenly falls apart. Strangely, with this last feature, Kiarostami brings back the idea of violence and fear that he portrayed in his first film, Nan-o Kuche (Bread and Alley, 1970). The violence in Like Someone in Love, however, could not be controlled by a piece of bread, and it remains unresolved.
Abbas Kiarostami has provided us with a menu of intriguing, innovative films, deceptively simple, but profoundly poetic, complex yet playful. He invites his viewers to look at both cinema and life in different, unpredictable ways. Although he has been compared to Tati for his formalism, Rossellini for his approach to capturing reality on screen, Godard for his self-reflexivity, and Ozu for his poetic ruminations, it is still a challenge to formulate a set of critical tools and theories to understand and analyse his rich, diverse body of work.