Not A Martyr
By Stuart Jeffries
26 April, 2005
May 18 1997, Abbas Kiarostami made what some still regard as a faux
pas. He kissed Catherine Deneuve on the cheek. At the time, he was on
the stage of the Grand Thétre Lumière at Cannes, receiving
the Palme d'Or from the French star for Taste of Cherry (an award shared,
highly unusually, with Shohei Imamura for the Japanese director's film
The Eel). "Many critics said that the film marked the highest point
in Kiarostami's film career," says cinema historian and his biographer,
Alberto Elena, "and with that glorious reputation the film began
to be shown all over the world."
In Tehran, Kiarostami's
honour at Cannes was reported - though not as a great coup for the leading
light of one of the most interesting national cinemas in the world,
nor as the culmination of his 27-year career. Instead, the fact that
a man had kissed a woman to whom he was not married in public offended
conservative Iranian sensibilities so much that the release of the film
was thwarted. Kiarostami stayed away from his homeland until the storm
subsided. Jamsheed Akrami, a US-based Iranian documentary maker and
film professor, says: "What got lost is this huge honour. Even
up to today, [his Cannes prize] is the most shining moment in Iranian
cinema. But it got lost in the scandal of the kiss."
Jean-Luc Godard has said: "Film begins with DW Griffith and ends
with Abbas Kiarostami." According to Martin Scorsese, "Kiarostami
represents the highest level of artistry in the cinema." When these
words are quoted at Kiarostami, he winces most charmingly. "This
admiration is perhaps more appropriate after I am dead," he says.
But in Iran, at least in official circles, Kiarostami worship is not
on the agenda. "The government has decided not to show any of my
films for the past 10 years," he says. "I think they don't
understand my films and so prevent them being shown just in case there
is a message they don't want to get out. They tend to support films
that are stylistically very different from mine - melodramas."
In the US, too, Kiarostami has faced opposition. In 2002 he was refused
a visa to attend the New York Film Festival. Festival director Richard
Pena, who had invited him, said: "It's a terrible sign of what's
happening in my country today that no one seems to realise or care about
the kind of negative signal this sends out to the entire Muslim world
(not to mention to everyone else)."
But the director has many friends and admirers. "There are at least
two retrospectives of my work each year in some country. This year there
was one in São Paolo, and one in Japan; last year in Turin."
Even London, hardly renowned for embracing difficult art cinema from
the Middle East, is, albeit belatedly, going to celebrate Kiarostami's
work this spring in a lavish manner inconceivable in his home country.
"Abbas Kiarostami: Visions of the Artist" will be a festival
of his work in film, photography, installations. There will even be
a chance to hear translated readings of his poetry.
Isn't it intolerable for an artist, whose work is steeped in the culture
and landscape of his homeland, to have it hailed overseas while it is
officially banned at home and only accessible there through pirate DVDs
and underground screenings? Kiarostami, in interview at least, has an
extraordinarily benign perspective on this. "The government is
not in my way, but it is not assisting me either. We lead our separate
He refuses to play the martyr. The eminent American critic Jonathan
Rosenbaum, a champion of Kiarostami's work, says: "If one wants
to see Kiarostami as a martyr in relation to the Islamic state, one
could more correctly cite the resentment of his popularity in the west
and his focus on poverty that forced him to edit most of Taste of Cherry
in the middle of the night - the only time editing equipment was made
available to him." Kiarostami says: "The government doesn't
just own the cinemas, but also the means of production, so I have to
work around them. Even if that means editing at night." As for
the question of Iranian scepticism about his mighty reputation abroad,
he says: "They are worried that there is an element of conspiracy
- that the west tries to promote bad films from Iran." Are your
films bad? "We cannot judge ourselves."
In such circumstances, why did he decide to remain in Iran after the
1979 revolution, unlike many of his fellow filmmakers? "When you
take a tree that is rooted in the ground, and transfer it from one place
to another, the tree will no longer bear fruit. And if it does, the
fruit will not be as good as it was in its original place. If I had
left my country, I would be the same as the tree," he has said,
and now adds simply: "I think I really produce my best work in
Kiarostami has spent 25 years as a winter visitor to rural Iran, photographing
the leafless trees in white landscapes to be exhibited at the Victoria
and Albert Museum (April 26-June 21) and Zelda Cheatle Gallery (April
26-May 31). Like Wordsworth deprived of the Lake District, or Dickens
bereft of London, Kiarostami would be unimaginable as a globally fêted
artist had he not been stimulated by his homeland. Several of his films
involve long takes of protagonists driving in the remote countryside.
"He loves nothing more than heading off in a car on his own to
photograph rural Iran," says Geoff Andrew, the curator of the National
Film Theatre's Kiarostami season. His films, though, are hardly ever
bucolic idylls. Many are shot in or from cars moving through the polluted
and congested Iranian capital. "It is in cars," says Andrew,
"that Abbas has found a congenial environment for filming. It is
an intimate space where people can talk freely. It's also a very cheap
Kiarostami was born in Tehran in 1940. His father was a painter and
decorator, and from him Abbas may well have inherited his inclination
towards visual expression. According to Alberto Elena, the young Kiarostami
painted to combat his loneliness. He never talked to his classmates
at school, but later spent 20 years at Kanun (the Centre for the Intellectual
Development of Children and Young Adults), where he set up and ran the
film department while making films about children's education.
He obtained a degree in fine arts before starting work as a graphic
designer, making commercials and film credits sequences. Asked once
what he learned at university, he replied: "That I was definitely
not made to be a painter." In 1969, he joined Kanun. "We were
supposed to make films that dealt with childhood problems," says
Kiarostami. "At the beginning it was just a job, but it was the
making of me as an artist. The important thing is that I didn't work
in commercial films. I look at these 20 years as the best period of
my professional life." Iranian film historians Shahzad Rahmati
and Majid Sedqi argue: "Film-makers who worked at the centre faced
no financial restraints or problems, and thus could easily engage in
experimentation with audacity, vigour and intellectual innovations."
Especially during the final years of the last Shah's reign, when the
Iranian film industry was subject to restrictions, this was a creative
Kiarostami nonetheless faced censorship. In 1977, he made a short called
Tribute to the Teachers, a commission from then education minister Manuchehr
Ganji to be shown in the presence of the Shah on teachers' day. Ganji
saw the film and demanded cuts to suppress images of women wearing the
hijab, since these women were opposed to the Shah'smodernisation. Kiarostami
reportedly declined, inviting the minister to make whatever cuts he
deemed necessary. Ganji refused and as a result the film was never screened.
Ironically, after the revolution, it was the film's images of women
without the hijab that would once more make it impossible to show in
A similar fate awaited the 53-minute film he made in 1979. First Case,
Second Case is a documentary about a teacher who sends a group of pupils
out of the classroom when one of them does not own up to talking behind
the master's back. Kiarostami showed this film to the Shah's educational
experts and filmed their opinions. Shooting was nearly complete when,
on February 1, Ayatollah Khomeini arrived in Tehran from exile and 10
days later declared an Islamic republic.
Kiarostami set about remaking the film, junking the commentaries and
changing its structure. He decided he would make the film into a dramatised
dilemma: First Case involved pupils refusing to name the guilty party;
in Second Case one of the pupils names the culprit and is allowed to
return to the classroom. All the new observers, including the new education
minister, were filmed commenting on the two cases, many taking the film
as a parable about the Shah's secret police. First Case, Second Case
was immediately awarded a prize at the Tehran Festival of Films for
Children and Young Adults; shortly afterwards, though, the government
banned it because its presumed message was deemed subversive and because
some of the commentaries came from members of political parties (communist,
democratic national front) which had been declared illegal. As a result,
the film disappeared from view for decades. It was only shown at a Kiarostami
retrospective in Turin in 2003.
After the revolution, Kiarostami continued to make films about children.
The last one he made for Kanun was called Homework, and was born of
fraught personal experience - his relationship with Parvin Amir-Gholi,
the art designer he married in 1969, was collapsing. He has given another
reason for staying in Iran after the revolution: "An internal revolution
was taking place in my household: I was getting separated from my wife
and was going to take care of my two sons, so it was impossible for
me to think of leaving the country." In the film's opening sequence,
Kiarostami explains to the headmaster of the school where he wants to
film: "I've had problems helping my son with his homework... That's
why I decided to bring my cameras here, to find out whether it's just
my son's problem or if it has something to do with the actual education
system." Some critics took the film as a denunciation of Iran's
repressive and disciplinarian education system. But it was also informed
by Kiarostami's own memories of school which, he admitted in one interview
"are still traumatic".
Near the end of Homework, Kiarostami films pupils standing in serried
ranks in a playground chanting a prayer, which breaks down as the increasingly
distracted children start playing around while continuing to recite,
thereby undermining the massed display of religiosity. Kiarostami cut
the soundtrack to this scene after complaints from religious groups
angered that the recital of the prayer was robotic and ultimately not
very devout. In the final sequence, Kiarostami interviews a boy and
asks him to recite another prayer for the camera, which he does, followed
by a freeze-frame of his face that ends the film. The two juxtaposed
prayers in Homework lead me to ask Kiarostami if he has religious faith.
"I can't answer this," he says. "I think religion is
very personal and the tragedy for our country is that the personal aspect
has been destroyed. It would be the easiest thing in the world for me
to say that I am religious, but I won't. This most personal aspect of
our lives has become the tool of the government's power. The value of
people is equated with their religiosity."
Homework was initially banned for three years in Iran, and subsequently
only screened for adults. "After I made Homework I was forced to
leave Kanun because they disagreed with the film," he says. In
1990, though, he made Close-Up and so began a decade when he would become
the darling of cinephiles around the world. In the autumn of 1989, Kiarostami
had read a bizarre magazine story about an unemployed print worker who
had divorced and had very little contact with his little boy. The man
had been jailed after impersonating his idol, Iranian film director
Mohsen Makhmalbaf, seemingly for dubious motives. Kiarostami decided
to recreate the events on film - amazingly using the real-life protagonists
(he has for many years enjoyed using non-professional actors). He enlisted
Makhmalbaf's support and then the two directors visited the impostor,
Hossein Sabzian, in jail and secured his participation.
Kiarostami went about recreating the events that led to Sabzian's arrest.
Sabzian's deception had begun on a bus, where he found himself sitting
next to a woman reading a copy of the script of one of Makhmalbaf's
most popular films, The Cyclist. He passed himself off to her as the
director and was invited back to her comfortable home where she and
the rest of her family (also fans of Makhmalbaf) were delighted to learn
that he intended to make part of his next film with their co-operation.
But their suspicions were later aroused and the police were called to
arrest the impostor. Kiarostami managed to secure the agreement of the
judge (another Makhmalbaf devotee) to film the trial, where Sabzian
was to be accused of not repaying money he had borrowed from the family
to pay for a taxi and a gift for his son.
"Ultimately," Kiarostami has said, "what the film is
dealing with is the difference between the 'ideal self' and the 'real
self'; the greater the difference, the more unbalanced the person."
But the relationship between reality and fabrication was throughout
indeterminate, no more so than at the end of the film in which, in a
purported documentary scene, Kiarostami rewards Sabzian on his release
from jail with a meeting with his hero, Makhmalbaf. The impersonated
arrives on a motorbike and takes the impostor off to apologise to the
Anahkhah family. "At this point, Kiarostami has already abandoned
his more or less faithful reconstructions of these events using the
real protagonists - now, like a real god, he creates reality and makes
Sabzian's dream come true," wrote Elena. But there is a twist:
as the bike pulls away and we hope to hear the conversation between
impostor and hero, Kiarostami's sound equipment packs up. Elena suggests
that Kiarostami wanted to respect the privacy of the meeting and that
the equipment may not have really broken down. It is impossible to be
Kiarostami won his first European honour for Where is the Friend's House?
(1987) - the Bronze Leopard at the 1989 Locarno Film Festival - but
Close-Up seduced western cineastes with its intertextual devices, its
blurring of the line between documentary and fiction, and its compassion
for the story's ostensible criminal. Such was fellow Palme d'Or winner
Nanni Moretti's fondness for the picture, that he even made a tribute
called Opening Day of Close-Up in 1996. This undermining of assumptions
about truth and reality, or what critic Hamid Dabashi called "the
fictive transparency of the real", was to become a characteristic
of Kiarostami's films in the next decade when he became one of the world's
most celebrated film directors.
In the 1994 film Through the Olive Trees, for example, he seemingly
peeled back layer after layer of fiction to expose a reality - and then
challenged his audience to decide whether what they were seeing was
real and if so, what exactly was going on. The film was set in a rural
district of Iran where he had already made two films: Where is the Friend's
House?, about a boy trying to return an exercise book to a classmate,
and a sequel called And Life Goes On, in which a film director and his
son travel from Tehran to this remote province after it has been struck
by an earthquake, ostensibly to find out whether the two boys from the
earlier film had survived. In Through the Olive Trees, Kiarostami initially
seemed to be making a film about the making of And Life Goes On, shooting
a film crew as it shot scenes in which Iranians rebuilt their earthquake-devastated
homes. But one of the bit-part actors in the film we see being made
is also pursuing a woman who thinks he is beneath her. At the end of
the film, he pursues her through some olive trees and across the beautiful
Iranian landscape, to the point where they become dots. But the shot
never resolves the question of whether she does yield: indeed, instead,
as at the end of Close-Up, Kiarostami could well be telling the audience
that the intimacies of real-life relationships are none of our business.
But it was the Palme d'Or for Taste of Cherry that, for many, best demonstrated
Kiarostami's tender humanism and formal genius. At the end of that film,
after more than an hour in which the sad-eyed protagonist has been driving
around Tehran's outskirts, looking for someone to bury him after he
overdoses on pills and lies down in a hole in the hills to die, we see
the man lying in that hole and looking at the night sky awaiting death.
Then the screen goes blank for several moments, after which the film
begins again, except that now it is day and we see Kiarostami and his
film crew wrapping up on the hillside. Who is that actor wandering around
the hill? Wasn't that the man who played the man who seemingly died
in the last shot? Yes it was: Kiarostami was again, in Brechtian mode,
drawing attention to the fabrication and confounding viewers' expectations.
Since Taste of Cherry won the Palme d'Or, Kiarostami has made several
highly regarded films: The Wind Will Carry Us, which won the Golden
Lion at Venice, and ABC Africa, about the Aids crisis in Uganda. His
last British release was 10, a picture that redeemed him somewhat in
the eyes of those who thought his work had ignored the subject of Iranian
women. For Geoff Andrew, whose book on the film is published by the
British Film Institute to coincide with the London festival, this is
Kiarostami's best. It consists of 10 scenes set in the front of a car,
shot in digital video (Kiarostami is a great advocate of this kind of
film-making, arguing that it makes shooting flexible and filming cheap)
as a woman drives around Tehran with various passengers - her son, a
friend, a prostitute and an old woman. It is, on the face of it, the
most overtly political of the Iranian's feature films. The driver, who
has divorced her husband, at one point complains about Iran's "stupid
laws" that forbid her to divorce unless she charges her husband
with abuse or drug addiction. And it depicts, upsettingly, the consequence
of that divorce in the form of her aggressive son who treats his mother
disrespectfully from the passenger seat, having seemingly internalised
the licence of a sexist society.
Was the film drawn from your own marital experiences? "Definitely,"
says Kiarostami. "I never reflect or convey that which I have not
experienced myself. I divorced 22 years ago." In Iran, while women
can sue for divorce, they are not economically able to look after their
children afterwards and as a result often see their children only rarely.
"Women, after divorce, lose their independence and therefore they
are less and less able to take responsibility for their children. It
often results in tragedy for all concerned and I was trying to explore
Kiarostami's work has often been regarded as only obliquely showing
repression, poverty and abuse; still less does it take a stance on these
issues. "That has to be wrong. If people don't think Abbas's work
is political, they ought to ask themselves why it is so often banned
in Iran," says Andrew. Ken Loach, the politically committed British
director, who, with Italian director Ermanno Olmi, collaborated with
Kiarostami on a film called Tickets last year, says: "It's the
stories he has chosen that are the real political act. His works often
remind me of the films of the Prague spring when Czechoslovakia was
invaded by the Soviets; the fact that those directors were choosing
to make films about people who were not heroic but mundane, telling
stories that were often comic. Like them he is subtly subversive. But
he has to tread carefully in a way that I do not."
So have censorship and repression helped or hindered Kiarostami and
others in the new wave of Iranian cinema? Gilles Jacob, director of
the Cannes Film Festival and one of Kiarostami's greatest admirers (he
has two of his photographs in his office), argues the former: "Artistic
revolution often takes place in those countries weighed down by restrictions,
where artists are not free. Art is often born from constraint. On the
other hand, when liberty is rediscovered, there is sometimes a diminution
in quality because choice becomes immense, posing new problems."
Jacob explains why Kiarostami's work has transcended its national boundaries.
"His talent is recognised because he is a humanist. That an international
public, from every corner of the world, is engaged in the intimate facts
and gestures of peasant victims of an earthquake or a woman at the wheel
of a car for an hour-and-a-quarter well demonstrates this." Not
everybody agrees. Roger Ebert, the powerful American critic, accusing
Kiarostami of "arid formalism" and a "willingness to
alienate or bore" audiences, wrote: "I am unable to grasp
the greatness of Abbas Kiarostami. His critical reputation is unmatched.
The shame is that more accessible Iranian directors are being neglected
in the overpraise of Kiarostami. Since story-telling is how most films
work and always have, it is a shame that Iranian stories are being shut
out of western screenings because of a cabal of dilettantes."
Ebert will doubtless be displeased by Five, Kiarostami's latest film,
which premieres in Britain this spring. It shuns storytelling in favour
of five single-take short films shot on the shores of the Caspian Sea
- featuring waves breaking, ducks waddling, walkers promenading, a pack
of dogs and, finally, moonlight on waves. "Five is at the crossroads
between poetry, photography and film," says Kiarostami. "It's
an experimental work of art." When I tell Kiarostami that I saw
Five on video, he, for the first and only time in the interview, becomes
cross. "I'm not happy you saw it that way. You need good sound,
a large screen, absolute darkness. You must be persuaded that it's about
a whole world engulfed in darkness when the moonlight disappears. It
took two years of my life. It was the most difficult film I ever made,
but it doesn't show on the surface. It will be a money-losing proposition."
Does he now regard himself chiefly as a film-maker? "I have many
professions. None of them appeases me. There are film-makers who when
they are making one film are thinking about the next. These kind of
film-makers don't tend to be artists. I am not like that. I am a vagabond.
Being this vagabond leads you to all sorts of places and leads you to
do all sorts of things." What appeases you if not making films?
"I spend a lot of time doing carpentry. Sometimes there is nothing
that gives me the contentment that sawing a piece of wood does. Working
in quiet gives me inner peace."
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005