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Kiarostami, twenty years ago | INTERVIEW

Abbas Kiarostami passed away on July 4th, 2016. He was 76.
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Kiarostami, that filmmaker who spoke in a sweet and elegant voice and made the slow films that have, for long, been part of the pantheon, died nearly two weeks ago. Remembering an article that was published about twenty years ago I dug through an old box and found a Chanteh, a lit quarterly published in the D.C. area that was about Iranians. A special issue on Iranian cinema came out in spring of 1996 . One of the sections within it is an interview conducted with Kiarostami when he visited the D.C. area that year. Here’s the digitized version of it (A.N.) :

The Cahiers du Cinema call him “Kiarostami the magnificent” and “one of the greatest filmmakers in the world.” Akira Kurosawa says, “I was very sad when Satyajit Ray died. Then I saw Kiarostami’s films and I thought that God has sent the person we needed to replace Ray and I thanked God.”

In the movie “That’s entertainment” (Jack Haley, Jr., 1974) one of the narrators says, there are many talents in Hollywood, but once in while you are confronted with a talent so original, so overpowering, that everybody recognizes it. The same can be said about Kiarostami. Yet Iranians, often dichotomous in their appreciation of their fellow countrymen’s successes, don’t really like the Koker trilogy so appreciated in the West (trilogy insofar only as Kiarostami says that he will eventually pull one, and perhaps two, more films out of that area of Iran and the villagers that live in it). They find the three films “Where is the friend’s house?” “Life, and nothing more,” and “Through the olive trees” too simple to be truly moving, not spectacular, deep or fast-paced, enough. As for Iranian communities abroad they reproach him for not being vocal enough in his critique of the current regime (as a Beyzai, for example), or more honestly a part of it (as Ebrahim Hatamikia or the earlier Makhmalbaf, for example). Some accuse him of duplicity, saying that by filming villagers he takes the easy way out to avoid problems with censorship. The only totally appreciative audience Kiarostami films have inside Iran will be the people of the villages where the trilogy was filmed, over a period of six years, when the building of a promised movie theater is completed.

Iranians pay him tribute nonetheless. His talent has spawned imitators—or disciples—sometimes very talented themselves. The road to “less is more” plowed by Kiarostami is turning into a well-traveled one, with Jafar Panahi, Mohammad Rasoulof and Asghar Farhadi in the lead.

“Each of these three films was born of the other,” Kiarostami told me. “I first made “Where is the friend’s house?” then, when the earthquake of 1990 happened, I went back to the Rudbar area to see what I could do to help and out of the trip came the idea of making a second film, “Life, and nothing more,” describing the search for Ahmed the little boy in the first film. While making “Life, and nothing more” on I couldn’t help noticing that there was a kind of undercurrent going on between Hussein and Tahereh. I started wondering about that, and the result was “Through the olive trees.”

In the second and third film of the trilogy the filmmaker explores the border between reality and the world of film. On one level, his subject is a blurred line between what is real and what is cinema. The master’s sophistication almost makes us forget that in those films he used an old ploy, that of the artist contemplating the act of creation—the director as character in the film.

Like other contemporary Iranian filmmakers, he is fascinated with the cinema as a medium—see Makhmalbaf’s “Upon a time,” “Cinema,” “The actor” or “Salam cinema.” This fascination sometimes reaches the point where the cinema itself becomes the subject. Life as seen through the camera becomes more real than the repeated takes of a scene.

When Hossain and Tahereh, the real characters in “Through the olive trees” are on the balcony, the broken and one-sided conversation between takes is of secondary importance compared to the business of filming Hossain, the actor, come down the stairs with Tahereh, the actress’s voice following him.

Outwardly easygoing, pleasant, and fun to talk with, Kiarostami puts up barriers—potent though invisible ones. Listening to him one cannot help but feel that what he gives out, in interviews, conversations, or Q&As is done sparingly and out of duty. What he has to say he says in his films and in the films inside his films. The “sublime sweetness” that is the quality one critic sees in Kiarostami’s films, though perfectly apt, doesn’t however give the entire picture.

The filmmaker himself points out his lack of communication with actors and other members of his crew and the almost manipulative way in which he makes them do what they have to do. He has them be picture-perfect, but rarely tells them what the picture is.

Also, unwittingly perhaps, Kiarostami reveals a certain streak of cruelty, not uncommon in a culture where riling can reach extremes. For instance, he talks admiringly about Hossein’s acting “In through the olive trees,” then tells the following story. “There’s a line Hossain speaks when he’s trying to persuade Tahereh to marry him despite the fact that he is a construction worker with no prospects. He says, ‘some people want to own a lot of things. They even have two houses. What for? At night, when you want to sleep, you can’t lie down so that your head will be in one house and your feet in another.’ That was something I told him once when we were driving somewhere and talking on the way. When we arrived on the set, I called one of the crew over and said, ‘Hossein just said something really interesting. Go on, Hossein, tell him.’”

“Hossein just stared at me not knowing what I meant and I said, tell him what you just told me, about how a guy can’t own two houses. Hossein repeated the line, and I made him tell it to others. Gradually he became quite proud of it, believing that he had come up with it himself. And, one day. when he was saying it to someone I said, ‘ah, but you can live in one house and rent the other.” He didn’t expect that. He looked at me with an uncomprehending expression and I could see his mind shifting to accommodate the new development. He thought I had let him down and he didn’t know why.”

There’s another story, about a scene in “Where is the friend’s house?” in which the little boy Nematzadeh breaks into heartbreaking sobs when the schoolmaster scolds him for not having done his homework. Kiarostami says that he tore up a Polaroid photo that the child liked in order to get them to cry like that.

In the three films that take place in the Koker area, near Rudbar, Kiarostami shot on location, with non-professional actors in most of the parts, preferring to improvise and adapt dialogue rather than use a detailed screenplay.

“I try not to have people act. It’s not easy. The difficulty is compounded when you have someone like Hossein [he appears in “Life, and nothing more” and “Through the olive trees”] who is a natural actor, who is also bright and catches on quickly. He became almost too good, too professional.

Then there is the story of Farhad Kheradman who plays the part of the director in “Life, and nothing more.” “For the part of the director—the one who goes looking for the little boy of the first movie—I thought of a friend of mine, Farhad Kheradmand, someone who had never acted. If you remember [in the film “Through the olive trees”] the character drives the whole time, going from one place to another, looking for Ahmad.

A few days before we were due to go on location Farhad told me that he couldn’t drive, he’d never learned how to. At first I thought he was joking, but he wasn’t. So we had him take a two-day driving course, not enough, obviously. The script calls for him to be at the wheel right from the start, on the expressway leaving Tehran. He gets to the tollbooth somehow, and his car stalls. Second take, same thing. Third, fourth take—again. Finally, we had to push his car so that it appears that he’s pulling up to the booth. I don’t know how we made it to the earthquake-stricken area, but we did, with him behind the wheel and the equipment following behind. We see a policeman at one point. I told him to stop so we can ask for directions, and what does he do but run the guy over?”

Iranian films, even those made by talented directors, often oscillate between bravado and awkwardness, and suffer from common-denominator problems such as bad acting, over-sentimentality, and a lack of structure. What makes Kiarostami’s movies so likable, besides the director’s immense talent, his poetic vision, his palpable empathy with his characters, is the absence of these common denominators.

The filmmaker’s work is so deceptively simple, naïve almost, that audiences and critics always wonder if there are layers that they might have missed, or if there should be more.

Interestingly, one of the rare times Kiarostami failed to convey the simplicity he seeks in story, images and acting is when he used a professional actor, namely, Mohammad Ali Keshavarz, who appears in “Through the olive trees.”

A well-known Iranian director once told Kiarostami that he’d missed the opportunity of emphasizing, in “Through the olive trees,” the real story that was the Pygmalion role of Keshavarz playing the director, gradually molding Hossein’s character. “I never saw it,” Kiarostami is reported to have answered. “Maybe I’m just dumb.” To this day, the other director wonders if Kiarostami meant what he said.

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“Where is the friend’s home?”

Kiarostami went on to wonder, “what is special about the Iranian cinema? Is it different from before the 1979 revolution? It is difficult to answer without triggering a misunderstanding, either with Iranians abroad or with Iranians inside Iran. I don’t want to divide our cinema into pre-revolution and post-revolution. I think that there has been continuity for the last twenty-five years. What is important is that the Iranian cinema is relevant now, it is being discussed, it is at festivals. In 1995, as a member of the jury of the Fajr festival (Iran’s national film festival -ed), I was surprised by the fact that almost an entire new generation of filmmakers had risen in Iran. Economically, our cinema is in better shape than before the revolution for the simple reason that movies from other countries are not allowed [ed- at market] so audiences have to see Iranian films. It’s a shame for the spectators, of course, because they don’t have much choice. Another reason for the expansion of the filmmaking industry is the unwitting help it gets from state television. TV programming is so bad that people flock to the movies.”

“On the whole,” Kiarostami observed, “the difficult present circumstances cannot be denied but these limits themselves have enhanced the creativity of filmmakers who constantly look for ways around those limits. I have an architect friend who says that he builds much better houses when the ground [under them] is uneven, because that forces him to find solutions, to be more creative than when he has to erect a building on flat and unchallenging ground.”

Regarding the aggravations on the creative artist’s life in Iran Kiarostami remains equanimous. “Is everything perfect in Iran, he asks? No. But then, where is everything perfect?”

“It’s easy to see that what I describe comes from my own experience and is not necessarily very realistic. We can change reality to adapt it to our needs.

I am certainly very influenced by the Italian school of Neorealism, and this sometimes causes people to mistake my films for documentaries. When I went back to the Rudbar area after the earthquake of 1990 I didn’t even have a camera with me. Yet, after I made “Life, and nothing more” people were always asking me how much of the film was showing reality. They didn’t believe me when I said that every single set was made from scratch. Even the gridlock scene was created for the film and wasn’t real gridlock. To make my point, I decided to use a professional actor for the next film, “Through the olive trees,” so that people would know this is a fictional story.”

“People ask me why I used Western classical music at the end of “Through the olive trees.” I don’t know what that distinction means and, no, I was not trying to make a point. To me music is music. It seemed appropriate to me, so I used it.”

“I don’t write elaborate screenplays. For “Through the olive trees” I wrote a fifteen-page treatment. I knew what I wanted to do, but my collaborators did not understand at first. It was simple, if you see that there are three directors: myself, behind a camera, Keshavarz, as a director in the film, and Kheradmand, as the director of “Life, and nothing more.” For the rest I played it by ear, finding dialogue as it came from the characters in the story, making them speak lines that they would speak.

When I’d come on set in the morning and notice that my camera operator hadn’t slept well, I’d avoid complex camera movements without letting him know. I’d do the same with the actors. If an actor has to play a sad scene but seems to be in a good mood, I would rearrange the shooting schedule.”

“It is true that some Iranian movies appear slow. I have just seen one of my movies made some twelve years ago and it appeared slow, even to me! However, it must be said that you who live abroad are used to a different cinema. Also, you live your lives set to a different rhythm.”

“I don’t like it when a spectator gets bored, but my conception of the cinema is more an interior one. Without meaning to criticize the cinema in the West, it seems to me that it is always in a strange hurry, so that it has distanced itself from life. Many human and emotional problems aren’t touched upon anymore.”

“If we look at the old silent films, the speed was caused by technical limitations, as sequences were filmed separately and then put together. Today, speed has another meaning. When you watch a film, you don’t really have any contact with the people in it. Sometimes I don’t even have time to see the face of a performer, or the location, the space of the scene. It’s changed before I see it. I strongly believe in the interior rhythm of an image. This rhythm is not the same for everyone, some people stay behind, and some are already pushing forward. It is true that some of my movies may be slow, I find them to be so myself when I see them outside Iran, when I’m already used to a faster pace. To patient spectators my movies appear too short and to impatient ones, they appear far too long. The answer would have to be a fast-forward button that each spectator could push whenever the rhythm appears too slow. I don’t know, maybe that’s not the solution. But I would like my audience to be satisfied.”

Kiarostami often proves too subtle for audiences in search of a clear ending but who find themselves dangling instead. Did the director find the little boy at the end of “Life, and nothing more?” No answer, just a Renault climbing a hill. What did Tahereh tell Hossein when he follows her in the field, through another stunning longshot?

“I don’t know,” Kiarostami says. “We were too far to hear.”

Reprinted with permission from Chanteh The Iranian Cross-Cultural Quarterly. Saïdeh Pakravan, a contributor to Screen Comment, is a French- and English-language novelist and film historian. Her latest novel, La Trève (Belfond), comes out next month in France.

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Abbas Kiarostami on set

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