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In 1983, when the late great Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami made his medium-length documentary Fellow Citizen, Iran was still in the throes of its tumultuous modern history. The 1979 Islamic Revolution, in which control over Iranian society transitioned from the iron fist rule of the Shah to the iron fist rule of Ayatollah Khomeini, had taken place just four years before and the war of attrition with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was already underway.

Through all this, Kiarostami, the very portrait of an idiosyncratic artist, was carving his own path working at the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children & Young Adults (known in Farsi as Kanun for short). This institution, founded under the Shah’s regime with the backing of his wife Farah Diba, had in the 1970s become a haven for vanguard artists, including filmmakers like Kiarostami and Amir Naderi, and most importantly had survived the post-revolution handover to Islamic cultural watchdogs relatively unscathed.

Little had changed for Kiarostami at Kanun. In these years before the international breakthrough that would alter the trajectory of his career, he continued to make mostly shorts, nominally educational as per the Institute’s requirements yet, in his own words, about but not necessarily for children1. Whether making films under the Shah or under the Islamic Republic, Kiarostami’s early work seemingly transcends historical and political context by focusing on deceptively simple subjects: the behaviour of two schoolchildren (Two Solutions for One Problem), the hearing aid of an elderly man (Chorus), or a series of vignettes comparing the same actions played out alternatingly (Orderly or Disorderly). Indeed, a large part of his Kanun output consists of parable-like exercises in cinematic form and repetition, at times closer to the playful wit of avant-gardist Hollis Frampton’s filmic experiments than to the purely didactic intentions the films might superficially appear to hold. 

Despite being a work of non-fiction and not about children, the Kanun production Fellow Citizen fits this same pattern of (literally) zooming in on the micro-level. For the entire duration, Kiarostami’s camera confines itself to telephoto lens close-ups on one traffic warden’s attempts to regulate the undammed flow of cars attempting to drive into an area recently restricted by Tehran’s new traffic laws. Unwinding their car windows, every driver makes their case on why they should be exempt from the rules: certain motorists plea for leniency with the traffic cop by insisting they’ll be back out in 15 minutes; some show the officer their X-ray results to underline an urgent need to reach the hospital; a few more impatient commuters simply drive straight through despite the outraged protests of this uniformed human bollard whose hapless task seems increasingly overwhelming as the film goes on.

For a filmography as personal and interconnected as Kiarostami’s, these early Kanun films serve as a key to unlocking new perspectives on many of the themes and interests that recur in his later features. We should note in passing that Kiarostami himself had worked part-time as a Tehran traffic cop in his student days, adding an intriguing autobiographical element to the film, although it is the presence of cars and the conversations with drivers that most obviously brings to mind the director’s later work. From And Life Goes On’s car-led quest to find a young boy actor in earthquake-hit Northern Iran, to the entirely vehicle-bound Ten, and via his 1997 Cannes winner Taste of Cherry where a suicidal man drives meanderingly around the outskirts of Tehran, Kiarostami’s films have frequently used cars and drivers as existential symbols.

Kiarostami’s interest in cars as a liminal space of interaction and conversation, lying somewhere between the private and the public, is combined in Fellow Citizen with the motif of quest narratives so present in Persian poetic and storytelling traditions. Every driver here is on a quest of their own, needing to go through this checkpoint guarded by the traffic cop who, benevolent a gatekeeper though he may be, nevertheless needs to be charmed with the right ‘Open Sesame’. And so drivers must use all of their wits, their storytelling skills, their resourcefulness (a trait so often seen in Kiarostami’s child protagonists if one remembers Ghassem in The Traveller or Ahmad in Where is the Friend’s Home?) in order to get past this barrier and proceed in their quest. Some make it through; others do not.

As the title suggests, Fellow Citizen is on one level a sociological parable about ideas of citizenship. The use of storytelling and (we can assume) the occasional white lie by many of these drivers, in most cases without realising that a zoom lens is filming them from afar, serves as a very Kiarostamian reminder of the performativity of all societal interactions. It also draws attention to another permeable boundary: not just that of the officer’s blockade protecting the forbidden traffic zone, nor of the car windows poising those inside the automobiles between the public and private spheres. There is also, and as so often in Kiarostami, the thin line between fiction and reality.

Fellow Citizen represented for Kiarostami his first foray into medium-length documentary by immersing us into the reality of one urban crossroads and never letting us leave it. In the editing room, he reduced 18 hours of footage into the 50 minutes of the final cut, forming an early experiment in his later expert ability to mould fictional narrative out of material rooted in reality. Just as he would in Ten, a turning point of his career, Kiarostami in Fellow Citizen is trying to erase the presence of the filmmaker (notably by use of the zoom lens to capture the scene from a distance), but paradoxically doing so through the technical artifice of the filmmaking process. Indeed, on several occasions, bemused drivers do notice the the camera and ask the traffic officer whether a film is being made. Already in this relatively early stage of Kiarostami’s filmography, he demonstrates an attraction to simultaneously observing reality while intervening within it.

Existential quests, social performativity, the blurred boundaries between documentary and fiction; Fellow Citizen is thus deceptively multi-layered. We may even be tempted to ask whether it really is that marooned from the social and historical context of Iran in 1983 after all? Is it not possible to see in it an allegory about side-stepping new and bothersome rules and regulations? The traffic cop, as sympathetic and often flexible as he is, remains a figure of social authority. The film may finally be viewed as an ode to the ingenuity of the many drivers who make him and the rules bend in their favour. No matter which changes around them occur, no matter which regime is in power, the drivers of Tehran and the people of Iran still find a way to persevere through their daily business and, to quote the title of another Kiarostami film, life goes on.

Hamshahri / Fellow Citizen (1983 Iran 48 mins)

Prd Co. Kanun Parvaresh Fekri Dir. Abbas Kiarostami Scr. Abbas Kiarostami Phot. Firooz Malekzadeh Ed. Abbas Kiarostami Snd. Mohammad Haghighi

Endnotes

  1. Kiarostami quoted in Alberto Elena, The Cinema of Abbas Kiarostami (London: Saqi, 2005), p.33

About The Author

Jean-Baptiste de Vaulx is a London-based postgraduate researcher and teaches world cinema.

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