Abbas Kiarostami’s death was announced on July 4. The news reached you during the summer holidays, somewhat out of kilter with the time of year. You almost could have ignored it. But then, all of a sudden, you felt a sharp twinge of pain. You knew that he was sick with cancer, that he had fallen into a coma. His last film was released without much fanfare in 2012. Since then, you had heard little news. Up until July 4, 2016. “Filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami dies.” You see his face – with his dark glasses and the serene smile of an immortal sage – join the eerie procession of the recently deceased. In the last year, the anonymous dead masses have jostled for media attention with the deaths of “celebrities,” great and small. Wiesel, Bley, Boulez, Conrad and Eco, not to mention Bowie, Prince and Cimino, all rubbed elbows at the gates of the abyss this year. And then there was Kiarostami. A dead man among all these dead men. When it came to filmmakers, he was in strange company: Jacques Rivette, Chantal Akerman, Tony Conrad, Michael Cimino, Ettore Scola. You can’t help reacting to the piece of news with an idiotic “Oh no! Not him too!” And then you find him nicely embalmed on your “wall,” where you quickly posted photos of Namay-e Nazdik (Close-Up, 1990) or Tam-e gilas (Taste of Cherry, 1997). Others posted their own screen-grabs, clips, homages, anecdotes, short poems and interviews. And then life goes on, of course. The news dissipates, to be replaced by a steady stream of horror, banality and beauty. And then the emotion catches you again, as you see an image taken a few days earlier, during the funeral ceremony in Tehran, not far from the famous Kanun institute where, in 1970, he founded the film department that he would manage for 20 years, and where some of the most beautiful films in the world intended, as the expression has it, “for children and young adults” were made – from Nan-o Kuche (Bread and Alley, 1970) to Mashgh-e Shab (Homework, 1990), from Bashu, gharibeye koochak (Bashu, the Little Stranger, Bahram Beizai, 1989) to Davandeh (The Runner, Amir Naderi, 1985). Hundreds of friends, filmmakers, actors and actresses, dignitaries and cinephiles marched under the shade of trees, the tearful crowd amassed around a coffin draped with printed portraits of the deceased. Upon seeing these images, my thoughts turned to the end of Taste of Cherry, to the mysterious hole atop the hill in Baad Mara Khahad Bord (The Wind Will Carry Us, 1999) to the sublime cemetery scene in Zir-e Derakhtan-e Zeytun (Through the Olive Trees, 1994), to all the dead people haunting the rubble in …Va Zendegi Edameh Darad (Life and Nothing More, 1992), to the shroud draping a dead child’s body carried away on a stretcher in ABC Africa, to the ant carrying a grain of rice back to its anthill at the end of 10 on Ten, to these and many other scenes.
There is a contemporary mode of expressing grief, which I have been struck by for some time. It consists, when a death is announced, of immediately posting, from the vaults of the poorly-named “memory” of the web, phrases, clips and key moments, thereby summarising, in a more or less lightning-like montage (as Pasolini put it) the story of a life. But it seems to me that the novelty of the procedure consists less in establishing an iconographic hagiography of an individual’s life-story (news outlets have long adopted this practice), than in allowing us to relive the impact of the life and work on our own life, and to share a singular, striking fragment from it. It seems to me that this is what this gesture of sharing an archive, an image, a poem, a clip found on the web signifies: “I was touched by the unique grace of the being who just died, and I want you to know the place he occupies in my life,” or “I am among those touched by this being who just died, because his work is part of my memory, and it has shaped my sensibility.” This gesture is also a way of forging a community, of creating links, and it is possibly the technique that our societies have discovered to accelerate the work of mourning, by inscribing it in a circumscribed social ritual which condenses its presence into actuality (in the same way that funerals or days of mourning function as a means for framing pain, but also for fixing limits to this pain). In other words, it is a ritual conceived to allow us to forget and pass rapidly on to something else.
We know that death affects the archive by inscribing it in another temporality or, better, by revealing its own profound temporality: every archive speaks to us from death, and every new death that touches us is a reminder of this. The same goes for memory. Suddenly, with death, the fragile edifice that was unwittingly constructed within us rises up. On every level, in every room, in every brick, are the decisive moments of our relationship with this curious thing that we call an œuvre. The image of Sabzian, perched on Makhmalbaf’s scooter, holding a bouquet of gerbera daisies, is a metonym sufficient to incarnate the poetic grace of Kiarostami’s cinema. This scene, this particular moment in our cinephilia, is also our point of contact with the film, and awakens the sensory sediment that has accumulated in our memory. As I re-watch these red spots, sprinkled above Sabzian’s beard and his blue jacket, this bouquet suddenly becomes funereal, as if the two emotional men were making their way to Kiarostami’s grave, and it dawns on me that the filmmaker’s work has accompanied my life for twenty years. On August 4, surprised to realise that Kiarostami’s death has passed almost unnoticed, and that it barely caused a ripple in Hors-champ, the journal I work for, I knuckle down to write this article.
For many in my generation, the first, belated contact with Kiarostami’s work was with Taste of Cherry, the summer it won a Palme d’or at Cannes, in 1997. I saw it at the Cinéma du Parc in Montreal. Jafar Panahi’s Badkonake Sefid (The White Balloon, 1995) with a screenplay by Kiarostami, had already beckoned us a few months earlier, a comet emanating from a constellation we were soon going to discover. Carried along by the shock produced by this film, we launched ourselves into the infinite task of catching up, as soon as we had figured out that, behind Taste of Cherry were 25 years of more or less invisible films. When we were able to find them on pirated VHS copies, each film we saw was more beautiful than the last (even today, in spite of the imposing number of films available in decent transfers, it remains impossible to watch a satisfactory copy of certain works Kiarostami made for Kanun, including Gozaresh (Report, 1977), Rangha (The Colours, 1976), Do Rah-e Hal Baray-e Yek Masaleh (Two Solutions for One Problem, 1975) and Rah-e Hal (Solution, 1978) and we often have to be content with lamentable video dupes). I remember devouring the 1995 Cahiers du cinéma dossier “Kiarostami the Magnificent”, telling myself that it was still not too late to catch a train that was already leaving the station, to catch up on everything that people were beginning to write about his films – something that is now impossible, after the contributions of Ishaghpour, Bergala, Nancy, Rosenbaum, Naficy and Dabashi. And then, most importantly, we could watch the films when they came out, we could follow a practice that was still perfectly alive. For the first time, perhaps, I had the feeling, as I took in the array of brilliant films that had come out of Iran since the late 1980s, avidly discovering the work of Naderi, Beyzaï and Makhmalbaf at festivals, that I was watching a true movement take shape, a “school” (coherent yet diverse, with varied colors and tones) that both consolidated and overturned a set of certainties, perhaps still unformed, about the specific powers of the cinema: reflexivity, mise en scène, realism, the fiction/documentary divide, and so on. This they did far more than the group of Danish shysters who had thrown dust in our eyes a few years earlier, and who, I must admit, had seduced me a little bit at the time… But how could the timidly conventional, banal psychological sentimentality of Festen (The Celebration, Thomas Vinterberg, 1998) possibly hold its own against the understated fracture that Close-Up opened up in the history of the cinema?
At the center of this throng of calm, beautiful films, of course, is the work of Kiarostami, occupying a corner all to itself. I can recall the first time that I saw Close-Up, during a screening organised by Hors-champ (thanks to Nicolas and Simon), at 460 rue Ste-Catherine, back when the journal had its own office, and the state of astonishment in which this film plunged me (as it does every time I screen it, in my courses or at the cinémathèque). I discovered Khaneh-ye dust kojast? (Where is the Friend’s House?, 1987) during a masters degree at Concordia University, then quickly moved on to the two other instalments in the trilogy, Life and Nothing More and Through the Olive Trees (almost impossible to see at the time). From one film to the next, I saw an œuvre take shape, like an origami sculpture with infinite folds and creases, constantly changing its meaning and form depending on the angle from which I decided to look at it and to unfold it. Then came The Wind Will Carry Us, a bountiful, sublime film which I saw at the Ex-Centris cinema. I remember clearly perceiving it as a culmination of Kiarostami’s work, but also a peak, a possible turning-point, like those hilltops in his films which beat-up automobiles climb, creating a raucous din as they drive over the sand and pebbles, while the horizon stretching out on the other side of the summit can barely be discerned. Then, suddenly, there were his video works, beginning with the strange ABC Africa, his first film shot digitally, and then the remarkable Ten, with its disturbingly simple set-up, which placed speech, the city and a handful of unforgettable faces in the driver’s seat, while Tehran provided the extras in the background. (That year, I remember watching Ten and Philippe Grandrieux’s La vie nouvelle back-to-back at the 2002 Festival du nouveau cinéma, and being haunted for days by the idea that I could enjoy two kinds of cinema that were so remote from one another). Rarely had we seen, in the work of a filmmaker, such a striking aesthetic rupture (which coincided with the change of mediums, the passage to digital), combined with such an effect of continuity. Kiarostami had succeeded in producing a film that was both radically different and perfectly familiar. Bit by bit, as new films appeared, like the Graces, I also discovered older works, thanks to retrospectives, repertory screenings, DVDs: Mosafer (The Passenger, 1974), Zang-e Tafrih (Recess, 1972), Tajrobeh (The Experience, 1973), Bread and Alley, Homework. Curiosities such as Colours, a delirious pedagogical film about colour shot in 1976, were discovered in cinémathèque vaults and programmed with alacrity.
Thanks to Kiarostami, and with the aid of Iranian friends who had set me on this path, I gradually discovered all those artistic works whose influence innervated his œuvre: the poetry of Forough Farrokhzad, and her superlative film Khaneh Siah Ast (The House is Black, 1963), the films of Sohrab Shahid-Saless, Ebrahim Golestan, Parviz Kimiavi, Dariush Mehrjui, Nasser Taghvai, Kamran Shirdel, Amir Naderi, the poetry of Hafez and Sepheri, Persian miniatures, traditional Iranian art. The whole crazed harvest of Iranian cinema from the 1960s and 1970s, in both fiction and documentary, and the multiple communicating vessels between this past work and the contemporary creations of a country that has been endlessly shaped by contradictions and paradoxes. Kiarostami was the link that held all these islands together in a radiant mosaic. He was also the one who did not cease to fertilise the present and open the future to others, from Iran and elsewhere. As the years passed and his fame grew, Kiarostami acquired the status of a global star (hosting masterclasses around the world, staging exhibitions, chairing juries, being granted honorary doctorates and prizes). He found a greater freedom to create outside of Iran, and we discovered a filmmaker capable of articulating the most distant past with the most pertinent tendencies in global artistic creation. He is one of the first firmly established filmmakers to have embraced, with stunning success, the possibilities of digital cinema, presenting his work in galleries and museums through a series of hybrid film-installation pieces made since the early 2000s, such as Five, Sleepers, Shirin, Looking at Tazieh, the Erice-Kiarostami exhibition at the Pompidou Centre, and many others. The suppleness of his genius and his intelligence as a filmmaker led him, among other things, to try his hand at directing opera (his staging of Così fan tutte at Aix-en-Provence in 2008 garnered ecstatic reviews), as well as what appeared on the surface to be conventional fiction films (the sketch he contributed to Tickets, alongside Olmi and Loach), sometimes adorned with the presence of international stars like Juliette Binoche in Copie conforme (Certified Copy, co-written with Jean-Claude Carrière, 2010), or Japanese stars like Denden, Rin Takenashi and Ryo Kase in Like Someone in Love (2012), his last film, a remarkable work, and the second feature he shot outside Iran.
With the passing of time, and in contact with the innumerable forms of art he practised (we can mention, of course, his poetry and photography), the same acute gaze (we know that he was a highway patrolman in his younger days), an extreme economy of means, where the maximum is expressed with a minimum of expression (we know that he also worked in advertising in his younger days), the genius of simple plots (a man who wants to commit suicide seeks someone to bury his remains; a child comes home with a piece of bread but a stray dog blocks his path, etc.), a total absence of embellishment, posturing, preciousness (his poetry tends towards the minimalism of the haïku, while his photography focuses on bare landscapes, sprinkled with a few features: a tree, a man’s back, a bug). At the same time, this work is an abyss of complexity and depth, a labyrinth impossible to circumscribe, where each facet that composes it can be, in turn, a window, a mirror, a crystal, a broken porcelain vase. It is a work capable of the most profound silences, but also of deploying rhetorical jousts (denuded of all pompousness), dizzying in the way the dialogues link with each other and coil into each other unto infinity. Kiarostami’s films constitute one of the rare cinematic œuvres of the post-war era (alongside the old masters like Bresson, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Tarkovsky and Oliveira) about which we can say, without reservation, that each work possesses the same style, punctuated with minor summits, which are also thresholds where the cards are re-shuffled, the pieces of the puzzle re-arranged.
All Kiarostami’s films are inhabited by a certain confidence in humanity – our intelligence, our sensitivity – both the humanity of the characters we meet in his films and the humanity of the spectators Kiarostami’s work welcomes. For this reason, surely, his cinema has reanimated our faith in the powers of film, as if it had authorised itself to recover the simple innocence, the absence of malice and cynicism present in the early days of the cinema, by giving us the chance to once again be awe-struck by the random chaos of automobile traffic, the rustling of the wind in the trees, the meandering course of a rolling aerosol can, a window opened onto a landscape. Turning our thoughts to these films, paying homage to them, involves unfolding the system of correspondences that forms their scaffolding, their tissue, their coherence. It involves rediscovering all these moments, in solidarity with each other, moments that we carry within us, like so many protective talismans, in the placid and discreet silence where we locate them, beyond words, beyond analysis, beyond everything we have been able to say about them. It involves recognising the force of their simplicity. These moments are memorials. They are pebbles strewn at random in the guise of a grave. As if to say “thank you, A.K.”
For these “pebbles strewn at random in the guise of a grave”, see “Abbas Kiarostami Gallery”
This article originally appeared in French in the Quebecois journal Hors-champ. See http://www.horschamp.qc.ca/spip.php?article643. Translated by Daniel Fairfax.