Replies to a 2003 Symposium about Kiarostami

The following are my responses to questions from Alvaro Arroba about Kiarostami for the Spanish film magazine Letras de Cine that wound up appearing in Spanish in their 7th issue, in 2003. I’ve taken the liberty of slightly revising the English in a few cases, hopefully while respecting the meanings that Alvaro had in mind. –- J.R.

1- WHICH IS THE FIRST ABBAS KIAROSTAMI FILM YOU SAW? AND WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST REACTION TOWARDS IT?  The first Kiarostami film I saw was LIFE AND NOTHING MORE at the Locarno International Film Festival, and it struck me immediately as a masterpiece. I was impressed by the film’s profound meditation on how to perceive and deal emotionally with a disaster, as well as by the use of long shots, which reminded me especially of the philosophical distance of Jacques Tati: not always knowing what to look at in a busy frame is sometimes a way of trusting in the choices and imagination of the spectator, and for me Kiaroistami in this film and Tati in PLAYTIME are both masters in this highly ethical game….I also have to admit with embarrassment that when I saw my next two Kiarostami films, CLOSE-UP and WHERE IS THE FRIEND’S HOUSE?, a month later in Toronto, my initial reaction to the latter film was that it was only a “cute” comedy about kids in the manner of a minor Truffaut. I was completely unaware at the time of the philosophical depth of the film, of its profound (if often subtle) visual as well as ethical sensibility, and also of the relevance of the title, which derives from a famous Persian poem — although subsequent viewings have persuaded me that this is also one of Kiarostami’s greatest films.

2- WHAT KIND OF ONLOOKER YOU THINK KIAROSTAMI IS SEARCHING FOR? IS IT A PRIMITIVE GLANCE, OR A GLANCE FOR THE FUTURE? IS IT A PAGAN OR A RELIGIOUS MYSTERY?  Not a primitive gaze so much as a curious and innocent gaze — one uncorrupted by “the cinema”. And I find it neither pagan nor religious but spiritual. Furthermore, I would hasten to add that his ear is just as important as his eye: the soundtrack of THE WIND WILL CARRY US is one of the richest in all of cinema, constantly expanding our sense of the visual frame and suggesting a universe that is much more plentiful than anything limited to vision. I like to argue, in fact, is that what’s disconcerting in a film of this kind isn’t the absence of story but the surfeit of stories — more stories than the spectator can possible know what to do with. The universe in every Kiarostami film is never minimalist or impoverished but something that stretches out in every direction.

3- APART FROM THE TEHERAN SCHOOL, WHAT TRENDS AND FILMMAKERS ARE UNDER HIS INFLUENCE, IF ANY? I’ve seen many films from all over the world marked by his influence — English, French, American, possibly Japanese, and others — but I can’t recall many of the titles and names of the filmmakers now, so I’m reluctant to cite them.

4- BASED ON WHAT YOU’VE SEEN IN HIS LAST FILM (“TEN”), HOW DO YOU IMAGINE HIS FUTURE STEPS? IS HE OR ISN’T HE APPROACHING A DEAD END? Part of what’s so exciting about Kiarostami is the impossibility of predicting his next steps, but I happen to know that he has already made several (I believe six) experimental short films about water, none of which I’ve seen at this point.

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