Iranian Filmmaker, and lifelong artist - Abbas Kiarostami has revolutionised the way we perceive and interact with cinema. With a career that spans over 40 features - each more powerful and commanding than the previous one - it is safe to say that Kiarostami has carved a niche for himself within contemporary cinema that is not solely restricted to the locals, but to the world at large.
A skill of his that weaves his films together is taking very mundane and ordinary scenes and images that we see in daily life, and transforming them into something that drips with poetry and mystery. Much of his films rely on what we feel, and not what we understand.
Rooted in Iran, and its simplistic culture and locality - Kiarostami brings the lives of the Iranian community to the limelight, forcing us to acknowledge that a seemingly volatile nation is just as human as the rest of us, and just as ordinary.
His films, which may seem allegedly naive on the surface, deal with greater themes of morality, goodness, free will, and intimacy - often they tread the thin line between fiction and reality - and more often than not - one spills into the other.
From a boy having to return his friend’s notebook, to a complicated relationship between a British man and a French woman, and from a man that pretends to be a famous filmmaker, to a man looking for someone to bury him, everything in his movies is way more complex and sophisticated than it might seem at first.
With a vision of human society, which is both magnanimous and precisely minuscule, Kiarostami has mastered the conjunction of poetry and contemplative imagery.
Here’s a thematic breakdown of his works:
The Quintessential Ordinary
Kiarostami started his journey by noticing a gap in the quality of films suitable for children - through which they could explore their social relationships as well as moral responsibilities. By conjuring up short films for the Centre for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults, to cater to this neglected audience, Kiarostami received a head-start for thinking up ideas for his own films.
While most films are used as a mechanism to escape reality, even if only momentarily - Kiarostami’s films will keep you grounded throughout their entirety - and you will leave with a heart that is both comforted and heavy.
The Koker Trilogy (Where is the Friend’s Home, And Life Goes On, Through The Olive Trees) is the personification of both the location of Koker, as well as the people that reside there. While some sentiments may get lost in translation, the emotions of the films remain as vivid and heartbreaking as ever. These films are about unlearning, about making discoveries, and about cherishing all that we have - though we may not always understand the depth of it.
Often described as the pioneer of ‘slow cinema’, Kiarostami’s films are not for fast paced action enthusiasts. They are not as plot-driven as they are introspective. Most of his films are set in quiet and pensive landscapes - and reflect (metaphorically as well as physically) - the feeling of aimlessly driving around in a car, lost in your own thoughts.
“All three works are sustained meditations on singular landscapes and the way ordinary people live in them; obsessional quests that take on the contours of parables; concentrated inquiries that raise more questions than they answer; and comic as well as cosmic poems about dealing with personal and impersonal disaster. They're about making discoveries and cherishing what's in the world--including things that we can't understand.”
His films pose a great challenge between urban protagonists amidst traditional settings, and what triumphs? A sense of transformation within the self. Each film is not only a literal journey undertaken by the protagonist, but also an internal and psychological one. His films are a fine example of the story being all about the journey, rather than the destination.
In Where is the Friend’s Home - an innocent child undertakes the mission of delivering his classmate’s notebook to his house, despite having no sense of direction or authority. Through the child’s bird eye view of the village, we experience his wonder, and also his sorrow - and this helps in painting a portrait of Iran, stripped from all its layers.
Kiarostami’s protagonists oscillate between being very young or very old, perhaps because those two ages allow him the freedom to assign the greatest moral weight to seemingly very simple choices. ‘Where Is the Friend’s Home?’ is appropriate viewing for any child who will read subtitles, yet it contains depths for adults to plumb as well.
“Kiarostami’s humanist themes and neorealist attention to the plight of the common man are regularly undercut by the gentle, dark vein of humour that runs through them.”
Iran has had a long and dark history of violence, war and destruction. The western perspective of Iran has always been one that is blood-soaked and through tinted glasses. With a conflicting opinion on culture, beliefs and ways of living - the gap between the two keeps growing.
Kiarostami's films aim to bridge this gap, and through his minimalist films - he captures the mysteries of everyday life (ones that are not local, but universal). Being the leading figure of the Iranian New Wave, Kiarostami follows the delicate teachings of Persian poetry to tie in the unsung moments of respite with the culture of the East.
With more exposure to the exterior world, more interest has been invoked within the international audiences. Initial reluctance was seen on the part of the West and their disinterest in considering anything of the East to be worthy of real value, but these films persisted - often bordering on dissent, but yet wholly human.
Certainly at the centre of this Iranian “cinematic invasion” of the West has been the work of Abbas Kiarostami.
Poetry within Frames
Abbas Kiarostami approaches his films, and his subjects without any predisposed biases. His intention is unpretentious, yet poetic. Although his films may seem documentary-esque in nature, they still break away from the conventional expectations, and challenge the perspectives of the viewer.
His films are not meant for spoon-feeding, or specific analysis. They invite us in, with warm soaked colour palettes, and soothing landscapes - and ask us to reflect, introspect and review our own reality in comparison. In Taste of Cherry, we are not given any context or background pertaining to Mr.Badii’s insistence on killing himself. He may be a good man, or not; a poor man, or wealthy; a man with questionable morals, or a haunting past. We can never determine any of this, because we are not given any judgements to hold him against. The characters are moulded through the viewer’s projections - and the untold and unexplained parts of these films find meaning within the audiences’ mind. In this way, the audience member becomes responsible for the clarity that she/he expects from the film.
Another example to show the creative participation of his audience can be seen in his film Close-Up, where he interjects and undermines the expected dramatic flow of the story-line with minor characters whose lives are not considered dramatic or relevant to the plot. Fact and Fiction merge together, and it is almost impossible to distinguish one from another. The nonlinearity in time and sequences forces the audience to decide their own chronology of events, as well as determine the motivations of the characters with the little information provided.
“The loose stories, contemplative style, and relative absence of plot in Kiarostami’s films free us from feeling manipulated, even as we are patiently led to endings that are quite often emotionally shattering.”
Abbas Kiarostami’s films are not meant to appeal to everyone, and nor does he wish to cater to the mass audience. It takes detachment from the normal conventions of film-watching, an active effort to involve yourself within the frames, and a willingness to let go of your judgements and allow yourself to be hypnotised by the world he fabricates for you - to truly enjoy a Kiarostami film.
Within Taste of Cherry, the viewer comes face to face with their own judgements, stripped of all their layers. The three connotations associated with life are explored through the three people that the protagonist approaches: a sense of responsibility, theology, and a newfound appreciation for the smaller things in life. By using archetypal characters (a Soldier, a Seminarist, and an old Taxidermist), he presents only the objective reality - nothing less, nothing more.
Although Abbas Kiarostami has been held in regard with the famous names of Satyajit Ray, Vittorio de Sica, Eric Rohmer, and Jacques Tati, his films exclusively exhibit a singular style, often employing techniques of his own invention (the so-called "Kiarostamian style") With long scenes that seem as though someone forgot to stop the camera from rolling, and very little production value, Kiarostami’s style and feel is solely his own, and his sentiments transcend the boundaries of the screen.
As Kiarostami quoted in relation to his individual style of minimalism:
My films have been progressing towards a certain kind of minimalism, even though it was never intended. Elements that can be eliminated have been eliminated. This was pointed out to me by somebody who referred to the paintings of Rembrandt and his use of light: some elements are highlighted while others are obscured or even pushed back into the dark. And it's something that we do – we bring out elements that we want to emphasise.
Just let go, lay back and enjoy the introspective car ride that a Kiarostami film provides.
Here are some of the films that you can explore, to get better acquainted with his work:
Where is the Friend’s House, 1987
Taste of Cherry, 1997
The Wind Will Carry Us, 1999
Certified Copy, 2010
Here are some other filmmakers you can check out for a similar feel and taste