By: Parviz Jahed
Abbas Kiarostami’s untimely death is a huge loss and an irreparable tragedy for the Iranian and world cinema. His demise has shocked his fans and admirers of his cinema. He was a creative artist, a world class avant-garde filmmaker and a renowned master of cinema.
Writing about a filmmaker, poet, photographer and graphic artist who had been active in Iranian cinema and culture for over four decades and had made more than forty short, feature and documentary films is not an easy task. Someone to whom the post-revolutionary Iranian cinema owes a huge debt for its worldwide recognition and reputation, a filmmaker with a realistic and minimalist approach in his fiction/non-fiction short films which left a deep and long lasting impression on filmmakers, in Iran and worldwide. By combining documentary and fictional elements in his narrative films, he breaks the boundary between fiction and non-fiction film.
Kiarostami was a filmmaker who received many prestigious cinematic awards such as Cannes Festival’s Golden Palm, Roberto Rossellini Award, Fellini Gold Medal, De Sica Gold Medal and the Henri Langlois Award. In opinion polls conducted among film critics, his name and his films regularly appeared among the greatest directors and films. Many books, numerous articles and academic and theoretical thesis have been written about his work.
In Kiarostami’s films there are unwritten lines and gaps which need to be filled by the viewers. Kiarostami sought active participation of the spectator in solving the puzzles and completing the world within his films. He put a great deal of importance on the understanding and analysis of the hidden meanings in his film by the viewers: “I would like my films to possess sufficient scope to enable the viewers to complete the film in line with their own understanding of them”.
Kiarostami films deal with global issues and are not confined by any geographical limits. They are about the fears, loneliness, loves, deaths and lives of ordinary people. He often chose his characters, except in a few (Taste of Cherry, The Wind Will Carry Us, Certified Copy and Like Someone in Love) from ordinary people in the society who are wrestling with mundane problems of daily life. He was an experimental filmmaker, not afraid of experimenting in his films. He identified with technology in cinema and praised the digital format. He was one of the first distinguished directors to experiment with digital filming.
Kiarostami’s experimentation was not confined to the image. He also made very creative use of the sound. In analyzing his films, we need to also appreciate the beautiful way in which he uses sound. His use of silence in Tajrobeh/The Experience(1973) and Hamsarayan/ The Chorus(1982), not only strengthens the static aspects of the film, but has an important dramatic function in their narrative element. As Michael J Anderson suggests, Kiarostami's use of sound and imagery conveys a world beyond what is directly visible and/or audible.
In Hamsarayan, when the old man removes his hearing aids, a silence takes over which represents the old man’s detachment from the world around him. In his short film Dinner for One which was his contribution to Lumiére and Company a 1995 anthology film made in collaboration between forty-one international film directors (to commemorate a century of cinema), Kiarostami uses sound as a critical element of his film. He shows us two eggs being fried on a pan. We do not see the person who fries the eggs. Then we hear the voice of a woman on the phone requests the invisible person to pick up the phone and talk to her. It seems that she is aware of the presence of the man in the house who refuses to answer the phone. So by his minimalist approach and his creative use of sound and image and with the help of just a two eggs being fried on an oven and by hearing the voice of a woman being recorded on the answering machine, Kiarostami succeeded to show us a broken relationship and an unrequited love between a couple.
Kiarostami put mise-en-scène and editing on equal footing with regards to their importance in cinema. However, editing in his films does not possess dialectic attributes such as used by Eisenstein to show conflicts in society or internal crisis of the characters; instead Kiarostami used editing to complete the mise-en-scène and provide a more believable and complete picture of reality. In an interview with me about the use of mise-en-scène, he said “my latest films have become progressively more simple. Complex mise-en-scène and advanced technology does not help to understand me better. For better understanding of my films, I need to makes things more brief and simple.”
Kiarostami was a master of creating emotional and moving moments in cinema and he drew these moments very poetically. His films are adorned with a poetic conscience and delivery. His poetic vision is conveyed through his calm rhythms, natural landscapes and innovative and impressive framings. He didn’t only make visual poetry by camera. He also wrote Japanese style Haikus which have been translated to many languages. Kiarostami had a deep love and connection with both old and modern Iranian poetry and published a selection of his favourite poems of renowned poets such as Saadi and Hafez: “Throughout my life I have taken solace in poetry”. In my interview with him about his book Hafez be Revayat-e Abbas Kiarostami/Hafez as told by Kiarostami, he added “You need to drink poetry verse by verse”.
Kiarostami adored life and nature and most of his films were in praise of them. As stated by himself, life was his main source of inspiration and, apart from one or two films, all his films were based on his own ideas and written by himself. From this point of view, he was a true auteur: “life has more influence on my work than other people’s films. Perhaps those who watch a lot of films can be influenced by what they see but I am always looking at life and focusing on what is around me. I can say that what changes me is neither cinema nor literature, but life experience and the environment around me.”
Kiarostami was an optimistic filmmaker. From a philosophical point of view, he was the opposite of Sohrab Shahid Saless. Some critics mistakenly consider Kiarostami's cinema to be a continuation of Shahid Saless's. In my opinion, as much as Shahid Saless films were pessimistic and bitter, Kiarostami had an optimistic and hopeful outlook about life and refrained from showing the bitter and tragic aspects of life. We can see Kiarostami's optimistic view of life in all his films. In Zendegi va digar hich/ And Life Goes On (1992) and Zir-e Derakhtan-e Zeytun/ Under the Olive Trees (1994) among the earthquake rubble and in ABC Africa(2001) among the AIDS victims, he searches for positive aspects of life. Even in films like Ta’m-e Gilas/ Taste of Cherry(1997) or Baad Ma ra Khahad Bord/The Wind Will Carry Us(1999) which are about death, again the lust for life and love overcomes darkness.
In a video conversation with Kiarostami, in reply to the question that as an artist or filmmaker, what would you like to be your legacy? replied "It is difficult to tell what I would like to leave behind. Certainly those things which I did not destroy, torn up or disposed of. So those must be works which I had approved and wanted to leave behind. But I haven't given any thought to the day when I will not be around but my works will; because I take more pleasure from my own existence than that any of my works. If there is a conflict between my survival and that of my works, I prefer to stick around in preference to my works".
Kiarostami's cinema requires the active participation of the spectators in watching and listening. In this kind of cinema, watching the film becomes the key part of the filmmaking process. Therefore, the ordinary moviegoer, used to the rules and clichés of commercial and narrative cinema, may find it difficult to connect with and understand the essential meaning of these films. Therefore, watching such films can become a laborious and painful process.
Kiarostami was a stalwart and productive tree whose roots were in Iran, though its branches ventured further to outside his homeland into places far from home covering places in all corners of the world with their shadows. He stated, "If you displace this tree, it will not bear any more fruit. Had I left my country, my conditions would have resembled that tree."