When Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami unexpectedly passed away in 2016, he was deeply mourned by lovers of cinema. Martin Scorsese gave voice to the world’s loss when he said, “He was one of those rare artists with a special knowledge of the world, put into words by the great Jean Renoir: ‘Reality is always magic.’ For me, that statement sums up Kiarostami’s extraordinary body of work.”1
Kiarostami was born in 1940 in Tehran. An early interest in painting led him to enrol in the Tehran University School of Fine Arts, where he abandoned painting in favor of graphic arts. An early career in commercial art and advertising followed, which included illustrating children’s books, film titles and posters, as well as producing numerous filmed commercials. In 1969 Kiarostami went to work for the film department in a new agency called The Centre for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults (Kanun). He started his career with several short black-and-white films in which the protagonists were young boys; Tadjrobeh (Experience2) was one such film.
With their use of nonprofessional actors and gritty location shooting on urban streets, these early films clearly owe something to Italian neorealism. The protagonist of Experience, Mamad, is a cheeky teenager who has a job in a photography business, where he cleans floors, fetches drinks, and sometimes helps in developing negatives. He has taken to sleeping on the premises overnight and exasperates his bosses by cutting out pictures of a pretty client he has a crush on. Always on the verge of being fired, Mamad is an Iranian Huck Finn, an orphan who must scramble to survive in an environment clearly poor in opportunities.
Experience is highly observant of the poverty in pre-revolutionary Iran, yet it doesn’t seem to be the product of a social conscience. The sociological evidence is there, to be sure: the shoes with separated soles, the socks with holes, the dirty public urinals and baths, all in a world where the only smiles are on the faces of the rich. As in one of Kiarostami’s spare, haiku-like poems — “Morning is white, / evening is black, / a grey sorrow / in between”3 — Mamad is on the cusp of entering the “grey sorrow.”
Yet unlike Rossellini and De Sica, Kiarostami does not provoke outrage. Rather, Experience seems to record the ingenuity of human beings caught in a series of traps. The action rarely stops. Like Mamad, the audience has no time to stew over life’s injustices. In a public bath, Mamad watches a young man stoically shave a stubbly beard with rough, painful razor strokes without the benefit of shaving cream. Kiarostami’s unsparingly curious camera catches it in extreme close-up. Similar images of poverty are swallowed without comment by the narrative. Pity is not forbidden, but it is not demanded of the audience.
In short, the approach is semi-documentary. The director seems to be withholding the full commitment of an imposed point-of-view on the material. This is far from saying the filmmaking is half-hearted! On the contrary, Kiarostami’s powers have been growing with each new work: Into Experience he pours all the tricks he has been learning as a fledgling director, demonstrating greater flexibility with the camera as well as a filmmaker’s growing courage in withholding information from the audience at the risk of trying their patience. And more than in any earlier film, Kiarostami pays attention to that favorite word of all new film students: mise-en-scène. Framing and lighting provide a richness not previously seen.
Even at this early stage, then, Kiarostami is exhibiting the complicated issues — for both filmmaker and audience — implicit in the term “docufiction.” It is as though from the start Kiarostami was preoccupied by the philosophical problems of transferring reality to an audience through the filter of an artist, through the medium of a medium. Perhaps in this beginning phase of his career, Kiarostami did not trust film as an instrument of truth. (Perhaps he never would!)
He shares his misgivings honestly: photography — his own medium — is questioned when he shows us the discrepancy between real people and their photographs, their “certified copies,” as it were. Are we more interested in Mamad or the affecting young actor who plays him? In another early film, Mossafer (The Traveler, 1974), Kiatostami is even more direct. The film follows a mischief-prone boy who wants to see a football match in Tehran so badly that he scams the population of his small village to finance the trip — by charging customers for photographs of themselves that he takes with an empty camera. Here Kiarostami finds in a camera with no film the perfect metaphor for a transaction between filmmaker and audience that is doomed to failure; and in the sham photographer, the perfect stand-in for a director who cannot deliver reality. In fact, Kiarostami has admitted that he identified with the young scoundrel who scammed his audience.4
Seventeen years later, in Close-Up, Kiarostami would perhaps come closest to bringing into artistic focus the mysterious challenges he faced as a filmmaker when he attempted to represent, depict, express, create (even the choice of verbs is a problem) reality. He would further explore the love/hate relationship between reality and cinema in A Taste of Cherry, Certified Copy, and others.
Perhaps Experience, a rich, under-discussed film — a worthy satellite of future masterpieces — shows us that Kiarostami struggled with these career-defining challenges from the beginning.
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Tedjrobeh (Experience, 1973 Iran 54 mins)
Prod. Co: Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults (Kanun) Dir: Abbas Kiarostami Scr: Abbas Kiarostami, Amir Naderi Prod: Abbas Kiarostami Ed: Abbas Kiarostami, Mehdi Rajaian Phot: Ali Reza Zarrindast Snd: Herayr Atashkar
Cast: Hossein Yarmohammadi, Andre Govalovish, Parviz Naderi, Mostafa Tari, Firoozeh Habibi
- Associated Press. “Abbas Kiarostami, Palme d’Or-Winning Filmmaker, Dies at 76” The Hollywood Reporter, 4 July 2016, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/abbas-kiarostami-dead-award-winning-908307. ↩
- This film is frequently called The Experience. That title suggests a short-story-like single episode, while Experience (an equally acceptable translation) perhaps more appropriately suggests the work history and life lessons that the protagonist accumulates in the course of a film in which employment is a major element. ↩
- Quoted in Aria Fani, “A Wolf Lying in Wait’: The Poetry of Abbas Kiarostami,” PBS Frontline, 22 June 2011, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tehranbureau/2011/06/a-wolf-lying-in-wait-the-poetry-of-abbas-kiarostami.html ↩
- Matt Zoller Seitz, “Abbas Kiarostami, the Filmmaker and the Man: an Interview with Godfrey Cheshire,” rogerebert.com, July 26, 2019 https://www.rogerebert.com/mzs/abbas-kiarostami-the-filmmaker-and-the-man-an-interview-with-critic-and-longtime-friend-godfrey-cheshire ↩