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5 July 2016updated 14 Sep 2021 2:52pm

Life and storytelling: remembering Abbas Kiarostami, the Iranian film director (1940-2016)

The award-winning film maker has died at the age of 76.

By Ryan Gilbey

The 1980s are generally and erroneously considered a barren time in cinema. This very Anglo-American-centric view fails to take into account a miracle that happened: the Iranian new wave. Now its godfather, Abbas Kiarostami, is dead at the age of 76. Though he had been making films since the early 1970s, they had not been widely seen outside Iran. Most were for and about children. (Kiarostami was one of the founders of the film-making department at Tehran’s Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults.) Some, such as The Report, from 1977, were banned following the revolution. But surely no one could object to something as gentle as Where Is My Friend’s House?, which he made in 1987.

Like most post-revolutionary Iranian cinema, this low-key film, about a boy trying to return his classmate’s homework book, was shot naturalistically and seemed not to be out to ruffle any feathers. But, also in common with other films of the Iranian new wave, it contained a subtext critical of authority. (The same was true of Jafar Panahi’s exceptional 1995 film, The White Balloon, written by Kiarostami.) It was a style of filmmaking as plain and direct as Italian neo-realism but with whimsical nuances and a knowing sense of absurdity. “I believe the films of Kiarostami are extraordinary,” said Akira Kurosawa, not a man given to dishing out poster-quotes.

Where Is My Friend’s House? was where the new wave began but Kiarostami’s next film, Close-Up, released three years later, was its breakthrough moment. Kiarostami helped generate a tension between fiction and documentary that created a new form arguably more inquisitive than either. In Close-Up, an impostor charged with posing as the Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf is introduced to the very man he has impersonated. It’s a reconstruction for the purposes of the camera, but using the same people involved in the original incident. A Bigger Splash, Jack Hazan’s 1974 film about David Hockney, had employed similar techniques, restaging conversations that had already happened spontaneously. Kiarostami and his countrymen and women took that further. The division between art and reality was constantly being straddled, or erased altogether; the frisson made it feel as though the screen was buzzing. It was a groundbreaking mode of artistic expression and the first new genre since the mockumentary.

Others in Iran and elsewhere took Kiarostami’s lead. Makhmalbaf himself challenged distinctions between art and reality in his finest film, A Moment of Innocence (1997), in which he reconstructs the events leading up to the stabbing of a policeman. In fact, it was the youthful Makhmalbaf himself who committed that crime, and served time for it. Both he and his victim appear in the picture. Makhmalbaf’s daughter, Samira, used the same technique for her 1998 drama The Apple. For a true measure of how wide the reach of reconstructed reality could be, we must take into account also Private Parts, the bad-taste comedy in which the US shock-jock Howard Stern played himself in his own life story, or Laurent Cantet’s Palme d’Or-winning The Class, starring François Bégaudeau as himself in a film based on his experiences as a teacher.

Kiarostami won his own Palme d’Or for his 1997 film Taste of Cherry, in which a suicidal man drives around the outskirts of Tehran trying to find someone who will agree to fill in his grave after he is dead. No explanation, motivation, back-story: just a series of conversations conducted in his car as he drives. The passenger/driver exchange was to become one of Kiarostami’s preferred form of composition—he used it expertly in his 2002 film Ten (2002). But in Taste of Cherry, the driver and his passengers are not seen in the same shot because Kiarostami himself took the part of the driver during filming, engaging his passengers (all played by non-professionals) in conversation, with shots of his main actor inserted afterwards. Perhaps that is why it feels like such a dislocated, distant film, with none of the playfulness found in his earlier work. “The right man won the Palme d’Or”, wrote the critic John Wrathall, “but for the wrong film.”

More typical of Kiarostami’s talents were the films that completed what critics called “the Koker trilogy” (named for the northern Iranian location which they share) which began with Where Is My Friend’s House? In 1992, there was And Life Goes On, also known as Life, and Nothing More…, in which a filmmaker returns to the earthquake-damaged site of his previous film; this was followed in 1994 by Through the Olive Trees, another film-about-filmmaking, which uses as its springboard the making of a scene in the previous movie about a couple. A person could get dizzy considering the intersection between life and cinema in these pictures, and in the 1999 film The Wind Will Carry Us, but Kiarostami’s knack was for combining the philosophical and the freewheeling.

There was, in my opinion, a hardening in his style in recent work. Shirin (2008) was comprised entirely of close-ups of women as they sit in a cinema watching a film based on a 12thcentury Persian poem about two ill-fated lovers. We can hear the other movie throughout—the dialogue and music, the galloping hooves and clanging swords. But all we see are the women, their faces framed by headscarves, staring out at us. They are Iranian actors, with the glaring exception of Juliette Binoche. Why the focus on women? “Because women are more beautiful, complicated and sensational,” according to the director. “Being in love is part of their definition.” Even Paulo Coelho might have drawn the line at that.

His next film, Certified Copy, retained Binoche, pairing her intriguingly with a first-timer, the English operatic baritone William Shimell, in a kind of pro-am acting tournament. While the film was not a docudrama or reconstruction, it did raise concerns about fabrication and fraudulence which have been pertinent to Iranian cinema. And in its story of two people who may or may not be intimate with one another, it contained one kink, one Last Year at Marienbad-like splash of ambiguity, after which nothing else in the film can be regarded in the same light.

For all its alluring mysteries, there was a sense in Certified Copy that ideas were being aired and exchanged but never quite animated. This was confirmed in his next and coldest film, Like Someone in Love, about the relationship between a prostitute and an elderly writer. I prefer to remember Kiarostami for the revolution he brought to world cinema, the humanity and compassion with which he told his stories—and the lingering impression that this wasn’t really storytelling at all. It was life.