Watching Kiarostami Films at Home

This essay was written in late November 2010 for The Common Review, whose editor commissioned it, but was subsequently and recently withdrawn from that magazine once it became clear that the editor wasn’t giving me any straight or candid answers about whether or when he would publish it. Which is why I’m publishing it here. I’ve only updated it slightly to incorporate the recent distressing news about the government’s sentencing of Jafar Panahi. And more recently, thanks to Danny Postel, this article has been reposted here, at Tehran Bureau. P.S.: This essay is included in the much-expanded second editition of Abbas Kiarostami (2019), a book I coauthored with Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa.– J.R.

To what extent does Abbas Kiarostami, Iran’s best known and most celebrated filmmaker, still belong to Iran, and to what extent does he now belong to the world? Insofar as the first sixteen of his seventeen features have been shot in Iran –- only Certified Copy, filmed in Italy, which premiered in Cannes last May, qualifies as a feature shot in exile –- he might be said to “belong” in some fashion to his native country. But the last of his features to date to have opened commercially in Iran was his tenth, Taste of Cherry (1997), and one wouldn’t expect this situation to change anytime in the near future. The violent government reprisals against protests following the “stolen” presidential election of 2009, and the arrest of Kiarostami’s most talented and politically daring protégé, Jafar Panahi — the director of The Circle, Crimson Gold, and Offside, who, in December 2010, was sentenced to six years in prison and forbidden to leave Iran, make films, or even write scripts for 20 years — do not suggest a climate very compatible with Kiarostami’s brand of cinema, quite apart from the fact that the last films of his to have enjoyed much commercial success in Iran have been Where is the Friend’s House? and Close-up, both made roughly two decades ago. By necessity, it would seem, he is already on his way towards becoming an international filmmaker working in exile.

Moreover, if we regard “feature” as an international marketing term, how we add up items in Kiarostami’s extremely varied filmography that fit that category is by no means certain. I’ve arbitrarily defined a feature as a film lasting one hour or longer, and this automatically excludes Kiarostami’s The Wedding Suit (1976, 57 minutes, see above still), his experimental documentary Case No. 1, Case No. 2 (1979, 53 minutes), and Fellow Citizen (1983, 53 minutes), among others – including his middle episode in the three-part, Italian-made Tickets (2005, see still below), which is roughly the same length.

The issue of where and how we situate Kiarostami in relation to both Iranian cinema and world cinema -– and, more generally, in relation to both Iran and the world — is a real and practical matter, for Kiarostami and for us. We’re living through a paradoxical and ambiguous period when, on the one hand, national differences appear to be less important than they used to be due to globalization (including some of the relatively uniform practices of multinational corporations in separate parts of the globe) and the resources of the Internet, while, on the other hand, panicky and paranoid forms of identity politics, including hyperbolic forms of nationalism, responding to these changes have been erupting all around us.

At the same time, definitions of “cinema” and its viewing situations are undergoing radical changes. From 1987 to early 2008, I worked as a weekly film critic for the Chicago Reader, and what I saw was chiefly what I had to review, eventually if not immediately, whether this was at film festivals or in Chicago. During that time, I collaborated on a book about Kiarostami with a Chicago-based filmmaker and teacher, Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa, that University of Illinois Press published in 2003, and our visit to Tehran in early 2001 enabled us to see a rough cut of ABC Africa, his first digitally shot feature, before it surfaced at festivals later the same year.

Since then, when and how I get to see Kiarostami films has been more chancy, for different yet interrelated reasons that have a lot of bearing on the transitional period we’re living through in relation to filmgoing, thanks to DVDs and other digital, nontheatrical formats. When Saeed-Vafa and I were finishing up our book, the only way we could see Kiarostami’s Ten (2002) in time to include some discussion about it was on a VHS copy, shortly after this film premiered in Cannes. I first saw its nonnarrative follow-up, Five Dedicated to Ozu (2003), as a museum installation in Turin during a huge Kiarostami retrospective and then at a large-screen theatrical showing at the Toronto International Film Festival, but as I subsequently discovered when I was finally able to watch it at home on DVD, neither of those presentations were at all adequate or satisfactory for encountering such an intimate chamber piece.

Shot near the Caspian Sea while Kiarostami was visiting Panahi and coscripting the latter’s Crimson Gold, the film mainly focuses on such subjects as a piece of driftwood buffeted by waves, dogs and ducks on the beach, and the moon reflected in a pond. The work’s full title is Five Long Takes Dedicated to Ozu, and this is misleading in at least a couple of ways, because (a) Yasujiro Ozu was a Japanese studio director who worked exclusively with fictional narratives, and (b) as Kiarostami himself explains in his 54-minute Around Five (2005), the fifth and by far the most interesting “take” was actually filmed over several months in diverse locations, but edited so that it looks like a single take in a single location. But misleading the audience and subsequently informing the audience about how it was being misled has been a central concern of Kiarostami’s at least since Close-up (1990) and Taste of Cherry. And more often than not, even when Kiarostami has been making films destined to show in non-theatrical spaces, situating his work in a dialectical relation to the various illusionist seductions of commercial cinema, including Hollywood, have continued to be an important part of his game. (“I don’t believe in a cinema of literary narrative,” he avows in Around Five, “but I don’t believe that cinema can exist without telling a story,” going on to argue that viewers consciously or unconsciously impose narratives even on still photographs.)

In fact, Five proved to be a pivotal work for Kiarostami in many respects. It marked the beginning of an extended period during which Kiarostami escaped from the world of theatrical art cinema and into the world of museums and galleries, where he exhibited many of his own landscape photographs and created many film-related installations (including a series of video “letters” exchanged with Spanish filmmaker Victor Erice). And when he started to make his way back to theatrical filmmaking with Shirin (2008), he significantly did so by focusing on theatrical filmgoing as a subject.

I’m not sure how I feel about the best viewing format for 10 on Ten (2004), Kiarostami’s making-of documentary about Ten, which I saw both as a DVD extra and on a big screen at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center, and I felt some of the same ambivalence when I reviewed the half-hour short Roads of Kiarostami [see above photos] -– a video that is about his landscape photographs, but which also ends with a polemical and alarmed response to the prospect of Iran’s development of nuclear armaments —  almost two years later: despite the obvious advantages of a big-screen image, the separate advantages of browsing and backtracking on DVD can’t be overlooked either. In the case of Kiarostami’s episode in Tickets, I regretted that my only way of seeing it was on DVD, and I regretted this impasse even more when it came to Shirin (which, interestingly enough, works from an even more specifically and archetypically Iranian context).

By the time I got to see Certified Copy last fall, I was teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, so my only option if I wanted to see the film anytime soon was to order the French DVD of the film from French Amazon, which I promptly did. On the other hand, I was teaching Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), on a projected DVD, around the same time, and I wound up showing one sequence from my Certified Copy DVD on a big screen as part of the same course. This time, as in Tickets, an Iranian context is almost completely absent, apart from the English hero’s passing reference to a Persian poem.

Saeed-Vafa remarked to me after she was able to see Certified Copy in Chicago that the film is limited by being essentially the film of a tourist. This reminded me that, according to Pedro Costa, Jean-Marie Straub once criticized one of Kiarostami’s Iranian features as the film of a tourist. One might even say that an outsider’s vantage point — even when he’s objectifying and/or critiquing his own ambiguous relation towards his characters — is an essential part of his equipment as a filmmaker, and one that distinguishes him sharply from Mohsen Makhmalbaf – a filmmaker who now lives with his family in Paris and has suffered immeasurably as an artist by being effectively forced into exile. (To my mind, Makhmalbaf’s more recent features shot outside of Iran, such as Kandahar [2001] in Afghanistan and Scream of the Ants [2006] in India, as well as his earlier Time of Love [1990] in Turkey, are far less assured and persuasive than such purely Iranian works as his Marriage of the Blessed and The Peddler [both 1989].)

When we were working on our book, Mehrnaz and I discovered that a major difference between our view of his work was that she mainly viewed him as an Iranian filmmaker while I viewed him more as someone making films about the contemporary world who happened to be Iranian. Yet now that he’s starting to make films about the contemporary world outside of Iran, it’s possible that the absence of an Iranian context may limit his view of that world in certain respects. For it’s also important to bear in mind that Iran is as ethnically multicultural as the U.S. (a fact readily demonstrable even from the CIA’s web site), and Kiarostami’s Iranian films often reflect this, if one considers, for example, the Turkish characters in Close-up and Taste of Cherry or the Kurdish characters in Taste of Cherry and The Wind Will Carry Us.

A former commercial artist, born in 1940, who designed book covers and posters and made film trailers and over 150 TV commercials between 1960 and 1969, Kiarostami became a filmmaker only after he was invited in 1969 to help set up the film unit at Kanun (The Center for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults), a state organization founded by the shah’s wife. He subsequently made practically all of his films, 19 in all, for this organization between 1970 and 1992 –- the only significant exception was his first full-length feature, the 1977 Report –- which meant that he was able to develop as a filmmaker in complete independence from the usual commercial and industrial constraints. Yet both in spite of and because of this unusual background, Kiarostami began to fashion his own kind of cinema in a dialectical relationship to commercial cinema once he entered the international market in the late 80s and early 90s, principally with Close-up (which was recently released on both DVD and Blu-Ray by Criterion, in the same package with his first Kanun feature, The Traveler [1974]).  This tendency, which was already firmly in place when he won the Cannes festival’s paume d’or in 1997 with Taste of Cherry, has become even more pronounced and overt in his two most recent features, Shirin (already available on DVD from Cinema Guild, with Roads of Kiarostami included as one of the extras) and Certified Copy (which, as of late 2010, is available in French and Italian versions and is coming out on DVD in the U.K. in January). But it can also be felt in the recurring uses of cars in most of his major features (most notably, Life and Nothing More, Taste of Cherry, The Wind Will Carry Us, Ten, and one especially beautiful sequence in Certified Copy), with the driver almost invariably responding to various pedestrians, who suggests ongoing analogies not only between windshields and cameras, but, even more significantly, between drivers and spectators in a film auditorium, who manage to be alone and with other people at the same time.

Kiarostami isn’t a cinephile, despite his allusion to Ozu, and although he’s hardly alone in this trait among respected international filmmakers — the Hungarian director Béla Tarr is probably even less interested in the films of others — it helps to define the playfully adversarial position he has carved out for himself in relation to the norms of commercial filmmaking. It’s almost as if he has set out to imitate and emulate the conventions of commercial narrative cinema while steadily undermining and deconstructing them in various ways: withholding important aspects of his plots , including motivations and/or outcomes (as in Life and Nothing More [1992], Through the Olive Trees [1994], Taste of Cherry, The Wind Will Carry Us, Ten, and Certified Copy), and composing various narrative illusions that depend on the audience’s imagination (in all of the above films as well as in Where is the Friend’s House? [1986], the documentaries Homework [1988] and ABC Africa, the singular mix of documentary and fiction comprising Close-up, Five Dedicated to Ozu, and Shirin). His ways of carrying out this program vary from film to film -– in Through the Olive Trees and Taste of Cherry, he refuses to give us the narrative closure we’ve been expecting; in The Wind Will Carry Us, he keeps many important characters perpetually outside of the camera’s range; in most of these films, apart from the documentaries and semi-documentaries, he restricts all or nearly all of the action to exteriors; and major scenes in Taste of Cherry, The Wind Will Carry Us, and ABC Africa transpire in almost total darkness. But one could still argue that the desire to engage with the cinema as an institution with various codes and conventions is a constant. (In the case of his usual refusal to shoot in domestic interiors, Iranian censorship regarding women wearing hijabs is largely responsible, because requiring women characters to wear these in their homes would violate plausibility.)

From his long stint at Kanun, working most often with children and almost invariably with nonprofessionals as actors, Kiarostami worked out various methods of getting the sort of performances and responses he wanted from them without recourse to scripted dialogue. By the time he made Taste of Cherry, one of his best films, he had become so adroit with this technique that he was able to film virtually all the dialogue exchanges in the film, most of which take place in the front seats of a car driving through the outskirts of Tehran, without any of the actors ever meeting one another. He filmed the driver and main character in the film from the car’s adjacent seat and whomever this character was talking to from the driver’s seat, then edited the two sets of shots together so that audiences had no trouble believing that the two characters were in the same space at the same time. Variations of this technique were used in other films of his. In The Wind Will Carry Us, another masterpiece, some of the dialogue exchanges between a documentary film director in a remote Kurdish village (Behzad) and a local boy who serves as his guide (Farzad) were filmed separately, with the result that the following dialogue in the film between these characters was in effect a partial transposition of a real-life conversation between Kiarostami and Farzad that was filmed:

Behzad: “Can you answer me frankly?”
Farzad: “Yes.”
Behzad: “Do you think I’m bad?”
Farzad (smiling): “No.”
Behzad: “Are you sure?”
Farzad (assertively): “Yes.”
Behzad: “How can you be sure?”
Farzad (blushing a good deal): “I know…you’re good.”
Behzad (smiling broadly): “Well, since I’m good, can you get me a bowl to carry the milk?”

“I had to ask him that question,” Kiarostami once explained to me in an interview, “because he didn’t like me very much, in contrast to the actor [Behzad Dorani] who was playing the main character. So,” he added with a laugh, “that’s why he wasn’t very convincing when he called me a good man.” The real motive behind the sequence, in short, was a kind of autocritique, yet Kiarostami was happy to hide this fact at least partially behind a narrative fiction.

In Shirin, he carries this technique a lot further and in a more radical direction, by focusing his camera exclusively on close-ups of women spectators whom we firmly believe are watching a film in a movie theater, a film we hear offscreen. (These spectators are played by many of the leading professional actresses in Iranian cinema and by Juliette Binoche.) The illusion in fact is seamless despite the fact that there was no movie and no movie theater; Kiarostami filmed each of the actresses in his own living room and put together the soundtrack of the imaginary film, complete with dialogue, sound effects, and music, in a sound studio. The paradox of this intricate experiment is that the film that these women are supposedly watching is commercial kitsch based on a famous medieval romantic poem, Khosrow and Shirin, by Nezami Ganjavi (c. 1141-1209). It’s almost as if Kiarostami were responding to the advice of various critics and colleagues that he make a “real” movie with famous actors, an easy-to-follow plot, music, and so on, by creating an impossible object that is simultaneously all these things and none of them, meanwhile fooling us every bit as adroitly as Hollywood illusionism does. This is clearly why those “making of” documentaries that are becoming so prominent nowadays as DVD extras, whether made by Kiarostami himself or by others, are especially interesting and relevant in relation to his work. As French filmmaker Olivier Assayas pointed out in a 2003 interview,  discussing mainstream cinema, there’s been a curious duality in recent years whereby audiences prefer to be completely passive and overpowered by films that they see in cinemas and then, a few months later, become empowered and interactive in relation to what they see and hear when they buy or rent the same films on DVD. Kiarostami’s own films partake of that dual nature even when they seek to overpower the spectator in a more intimate way, as in Five. In Shirin, which is about spectators being overpowered by what they see and hear in a public cinema, this quality is even more pronounced.

Yet to fully experience this paradox, one would have to see Shirin in a theater with other spectators, and so far I haven’t been able to do this. I’m far from alone in living with such a restriction; most people in the world are living in places where a public screening of Shirin would be inconceivable, whereas ordering the film on DVD and seeing it at home is clearly a widespread option.  (It’s already available in several editions from separate countries, and I acquired the English edition released by the British Film Institute as a reviewer well before I was commissioned to write an essay for Cinema Guild’s U.S. edition.)

Certified Copy –- filmed, like the Tickets episode, in Italy, but this time without Iranian actors or any spoken Persian — is in some ways an even more radical subversion of commercial cinema, although this time it initially appears to be far more conventional. A visiting English author (played by opera singer William Shimell) goes on a day’s outing to a village in Tuscany with a local French antiques dealer (Binoche) he has just met, although they suddenly start to behave as if they were an old married couple, quarreling as they attempt to celebrate their alleged 15th wedding anniversary. The relative verisimilitude, already made somewhat precarious by the pairing of an awkward nonprofessional actor with a gifted professional actor, becomes unhinged by this curious charade, even though what is being represented might seem more “real” than the artificial elements comprising Shirin.

Those who have seen Kiarostami’s rarely screened and highly uncharacteristic first full-length feature, Report (1977) — an attempt to deal fictionally with the trauma of the breakup of his own marriage (which costarred a nonprofessional actor with a professional stage actress, Shohreh Aghdashloo, who would be nominated for an Oscar 26 years later) — can easily regard this film as a much-improved and theoretically upgraded remake. One might even say that Binoche gives a far more aggressive (or at the very least, assertive) “star” performance than Aghdashloo did in Report, which underlines the extent to which all the professional actresses in Shirin are giving performances, even as alleged spectators.

The behavior and psychology of Binoche and Shimell in Certified Copy may be puzzling and even intractable in spots as a fiction –- including an open-ended finale that is every bit as unresolved as in Life and Nothing More, Through the Olive Trees, and Taste of Cherry —  but the emotional issues being exposed are inescapably real.  (Report was made shortly before the Iranian Revolution, and Kiarostami has described it as being about a “revolution inside myself”.)

Although Kiarostami has often been criticized both inside and outside Iran for his avoidance of political subjects — at least in relation to Makhmalbaf and others who have been driven into exile, as well as Panahi –- one could argue, as I have elsewhere, that his unorthodox relation to commercial norms has also inspired and empowered the filmmaking practices of others. Whether it can survive in exile and on DVD are obviously not the same question, but both questions hover over his work with haunting persistence.

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