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Abbas Kiarostami- Not A Martyr

By Stuart Jeffries

26 April, 2005
The Guardian

On 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 lives."

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 Iran."

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 location."

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 oasis.

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 Iran.

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 certain.

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 that."

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 Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005










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