A tribute to Abbas Kiarostami in his own words, and words from his cinema.
Abbas Kiarostami, the hugely acclaimed and influential Iranian writer-director who passed away this week, was, at heart, a poet. In his contribution to a Guardian series in which photographers talked about their favourite works, he said, “It’s said that in the beginning was the word, but for me the beginning is always an image. When I think about a conversation, it always starts with images. And what I love about photography is the inscription of a single moment: it’s completely ephemeral. You take the photograph, and one second later, everything has changed.” Take a second to un-gasp from the beauty of these words. Kiarostami was one of those filmmakers to get a measure of whom you didn’t have to see the films; you could just read his interviews. In the same piece, he said, “I’ve often noticed that we are not able to look at what we have in front of us, unless it’s inside a frame.” Kiarostami spent his life making those frames.
When we think “Iranian film,” we think of siblings searching for a pair of shoes. There’s more to the country’s cinema, of course, but Majid Majidi’s Children of Heaven was such an art-house hit, so beloved, that it became an instant reference point: this was cinema about ordinary people whose ordinary lives become extraordinary journeys in search of things you or I would deem utterly… ordinary. Kiarostami’s cinema (and the cinema he inspired) was different. He didn’t do cute. You didn’t come out wiping a tear. You came out scratching the chin. “My way of expression is full of complications and mystery because that’s my perception of life,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “I’ve always said that my only inspiration in my films is taken from life. And as life is full of mystery, there is no other way I can represent life than in mysterious films. It’s just my way of being.”
His most mysterious film? I’d vote for his 1997 Palme D’Or winner at Cannes, Taste of Cherry, which begins with a middle-aged man driving around Teheran, looking for… what we do not know. Some men think he’s looking for labourers. The man says no. He keeps driving and stops when he sees a young man in a telephone booth. When the man steps out, our protagonist offers him a ride. The young man says he’s fine. Our protagonist insists. “If you have money problems I can help you.” Could he be cruising for sex? My favourite quote from the film comes from yet another man our protagonist picks up. “One morning, before dawn, I put a rope in my car. My mind was made up, I wanted to kill myself. I set off for Mianeh… I reached the mulberry tree plantations. I stopped there. It was still dark. I threw the rope over a tree but it didn’t catch hold. I tried once, twice, but to no avail. So then I climbed the tree and tied the rope on tight.”
“Then I felt something soft under my hand. Mulberries. Deliciously sweet mulberries. I ate one. It was succulent, then a second and third. Suddenly, I noticed that the sun was rising over the mountaintop. What sun, what scenery, what greenery! All of a sudden, I heard children heading off to school. They stopped to look at me. They asked me to shake the tree. The mulberries fell and they ate. I felt happy. Then I gathered some mulberries to take them home. My wife was still sleeping. When she woke up, she ate mulberries as well. And she enjoyed them too. I had left to kill myself, and I came back with mulberries.” At least some of this could be Kiarostami speaking. He said, in an interview with Financial Times, “I don’t feel proud that I am Iranian. I happen to be who I am. I feel like a tree. A tree doesn’t feel a duty to start doing something about the earth from which it comes. A tree just has to bear fruit, and leaves and blossoms. It doesn’t feel grateful to the earth.” Suddenly, the title Taste of Cherry bursts with new meaning.
Have you seen The Wind Will Carry Us? It certainly didn’t carry the film, which moves s-l-o-w-l-y – as it should, given the remoteness of the village the story is set in. Kiarostami was never worried about losing viewers. “Happily, I can choose my viewers,” he told The Guardian. “And I’d rather not have the exasperated among them. Cinema seats make people lazy. They expect to be given all the information. But for me, question marks are the punctuation of life. When it comes to showing human beings, complexity and concealment are a crucial part of the character. If I show more than my character shows, it doesn’t make sense. And if the spectator doesn’t accept that, there’s not much I can do.” Is this resignation? Acceptance? At least, it’s the philosophy that comes to drive the engineer-protagonist in The Wind Will Carry Us, as well as the viewers of Kiarostami’s films. When the rhythms are not your own, it’s best to surrender to the flow.
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