Abbas Kiarostami (22 June 1940, Tehran – 4 July 2016, Paris) was an Iranian filmmaker, screenwriter, editor, photographer, graphic designer, poet, and painter. He is the most prominent Iranian filmmaker, and probably the most well-known Iranian artist worldwide. Many critics regard him as one of the 10 greatest filmmakers in history. His films, albeit simple, contain a unique complexity that introduced and induced new horizons to contemporary cinema.
In an interview, Kiarostami labels graphics as “the birthplace of all art.” Graphics are his birthplace too. His first major experience in the history of Iranian cinema is making the credits to Masoud Kimiai’s “Qeysar” (1969); A film that’s regarded today as one of the flagships of modern Iranian cinema. As time passed, Kiarostami’s focus shifted from graphic design to photography. If we agree that graphic design generally deals with images and photography deals with reality, during his artistic career, Kiarostami sacrificed the former for the latter. André Bazin splits all filmmakers into two categories: those who care about the world, and those who care about imagery. Bazin praises the former group, and if he were still alive to watch Kiarostami’s films, he would have undoubtably written something in his praise.
Many critics regard Kiarostami as a realist. They mostly compare his detailed attention to reality to that of post-war Italy’s neorealist cinema, and mainly to Roberto Rossellini. Of course, there are evident similarities between the two directors, but their differences are so plenty that one could place these two great filmmakers on two ends of a wide cinematic spectrum. On one hand you could regard Kiarostami as a realist, and on the other hand a modernist. He is a realist like Rossellini, and a modernist like Antonioni. Something in between the two, something beyond the two or something other than the two. It’s a difficult and impossible task to categorize Kiarostami in one specific category of cinema. He is so simply complex, and so complexly simple.
one of the main characteristics of his cinema is the concurrent existence of contradictory elements: realism-modernism, simplicity-complexity, film-documentary, copy-original, outside the frame-inside the frame, filmmaker-actors, performance- reality. These contrasting elements are woven in such a creative and magical way that it makes it impossible to single them out. The protagonist in “Close-up”, Hossein Sabzian, tries to extort a family by pretending to be the famous Iranian filmmaker, Mohsen Makhmalbaaf. Kiarostami never judges or criticizes Sabzian in his film, in fact, he often sympathizes with him. In his cinema, a forger could be real just like reality could be forged.
Kiarostami once told a story in an interview that could describe the fundamentals of his cinema. He recalls seeing a lion used for the mourning ritual of Muharram, resting in the shade under a tree. “at that moment”, he said, “I was amazed that I couldn’t distinguish whether that was a lion in a man’s skin or a man in a lion costume.” In many ways, that’s what Kiarostami’s cinema is about. In “Life and Nothing More…” a director heads to Roodbar to film the earthquake and the events happening there. We don’t know whether Kiarostami is narrating this story or if the film’s story is narrating Kiarostami’s life. The protagonist is also a director in two of his other films: “Under the Olive Tree” and “The Wind Will Carry Us”. Kiarostami folds reality on itself to reveal the hidden and invisible aspects of it.
Because of their direct and untampered relationship with their subjects, Kiarostami’s films often resemble a TV news report or a reality show. But as Matthew Abbot once pointed-out, they are completely different. In reality shows, the point is for a scene or a fake moment to appear real, while in Kiarostami’s cinema, it is reality that reveals to be disingenuous. We are constantly reminded in reality shows that we’re watching the raw, un-edited truth, but Kiarostami constantly reminds us in his films that we are watching a movie about reality. By that rationale, Kiarostami could be categorized as one of the modern filmmakers who constantly create a distance, and pause between his audience and reality. But Kiarostami never achieves this through formalist and elaborate techniques like Godard or Antonioni would. He does it by simple methods of storytelling and imagery. He makes reality complex through simplicity.
There’s no trace of classic cinematic techniques or formulas in Kiarostami’s films. One of the techniques he discards is the shot-counter-shot rule of filmmaking. In scenes of dialogue, we usually only see one character, whether they’re talking or listening. Kiarostami usually filmed these shots separately and he would read the opposite dialogue to the actors from behind the camera. The most striking example of this is the opening scene of “Ten” in which we see a boy arguing with his mother. The stubborn camera is fixed on the boy’s face and refuses to change direction. After a few minutes, it finally cuts and we see his mother. In all of Kiarostami’s films, what happens outside the shot is just as important, if not more, as what happens in the shot. He opens this space between outside and inside the shot that forces audiences to think and understand.
Kiarostami’s films are like halls of mirrors. As if a realist filmmaker is filming reality in a space filled with mirrors. Whatever that’s real, is folded, duplicated, reflected and shadowed. In the documentary “A Week with Kiarostami” by Yuji Mohara, the director decides to document the making of “The Wind Will Carry Us”. The result is an interesting and fascinating film. A film about a film that’s about another film. Mohara folds reality for a third time. We lose track of which layer we’re in and which dialogue belongs to which film. We’re lost in the magical labyrinth of Abbas Kiarostami.
“Repetition” is a principal motif in Kiarostami’s cinema. One contributing factor for why could be Kiarostami’s lengthy career in children and young-adult cinema. The repetitions in his films are variations of a childish attempt to grow up. In his view, children can only learn the ways of life by repeating the same actions and behaviors over and over. Hence, one could argue that even the adults in his later films are also subject to this childish attribute as they’re trying to find the meaning of life and overcome its hurdles through repetition. In the opening section of “Two Solutions for One Problem”, one of the boys starts a fight once he finds his book torn by his friend. In the second section of the film, Kiarostami repeats the story, only this time, the two friends help each other and put the torn book back-together. Thus, the kids in the film learn a valuable life-lesson thanks to the story repeating itself.
In addition to actions and events, dialogues are also repeated in Kiarostami’s films. Very often we see a person ask a question and subsequently repeat that question without noticing his counterpart’s response. It’s even more intriguing when one considers the fact that most dialogues between actors were recorded separately on set and the actors delivered their lines to Kiarostami himself. Kiarostami is the person behind the camera who forces characters into giving various answers by repeatedly asking the same questions. In his cinema, the process of asking and the attempt to answer is more valuable than giving the right answer to each question. This is also exactly how Kiarostami views filmmaking; the process of making a film and presenting it is much more vital and precious than the final product and its message.
One of the main locations in Kiarostami’s films are interior of cars. Perhaps the political circumstances of post-revolution Iran were a contributing factor to the recurring role of automobiles in his films. Kiarostami has mentioned numerous times in interviews that he could never imagine depicting women wearing hijab indoors, as well as how the revolutionary atmosphere of cities after the revolution did not match the logic of his films. Therefore, car interiors and small villages seemed like the best possible locations for his movies to occur. But besides that reasoning, the aesthetic possibilities of cars are also appealing to Kiarostami. The faces of those delivering lines could be depicted separately from the listeners and the entanglement of the interior and exterior in a car offer an array of possibilities to a creative filmmaker like Kiarostami.
The purpose behind the automobile sequences in Kiarostami’s films are generally to either portray a search or a conversation. In either of those instances, Kiarostami creates impactful and unique sequences by manipulating and experimenting with the picture, sound, time and space. In these sequences, we either see the actors in a close-up inside the car, or we follow the car from afar, and we also never see two people inside a car. As opposed to most cinematic experiences, the sound and the image don’t always coincide in Kiarostami’s cinema. In wide-shots of cars in motion, the actors’ voices as clear as they would be if we were in the car with them, and voices of people speaking from outside the car are the same volume as the people inside the car. Thanks to his formal innovations, Kiarostami constantly makes what occurs outside the frame and inside the frame interchangeable. He sees no differences between the events occurring outside the frame with the ones going on inside the frame, as he finds no differences between fiction films and documentaries, and generally between art and life.
Kiarostami’s curious and experimental quality is evident in every single one of his films. He never grants his films an added layer of irony through elaborate techniques or pretentious reliances on form. His simple stories are instantly made complex with the briefest technical maneuvers and his signature tricks of the trade. In the closing sequence of “Close-Up” and one of the most beautiful moments in Kiarostami’s cinema, Mohsen Makhmalbaf picks his impersonator, Hossein Sabzian, up on his motorcycle. On the bike, a delusion of grandeur probably compels Makhmalbaf to start giving Sabzian advice. However, Kiarostami uses this opportunity to save the film from giving pseudo-moral messages that was omnipresent in Iranian cinema at the time, and he does this with the simple yet effective method of repeatedly cutting and reconnecting Makhmalbaf’s voice.
In Kiarostami’s films, characters often have a specific task to complete, and they face obstacles and problems on the way. In order to overcome these obstacles, they usually have to temporarily untie with other people who help them solve their problems. These allies are always strangers. People who’ve come from somewhere else and accidentally run into the protagonist. This union between the protagonist and strangers is most evident in “Taste of Cherry”. A middle-aged man who intends to commit suicide, randomly picks up strangers and asks them to help him in his plight. None of the passengers ask the protagonist for why he intends to kill himself, only why they will or will not assist him.
Today, Abbas Kiarostami is considered one of the greatest filmmakers in cinematic history. Significant filmmakers from all over the world have praised him on different occasions and many cite his style as a direct influencer on their films. One of the most influential living film critics, Jonathan Rosenbaum, regards Kiarostami as one of the top 5 filmmakers of all time and dubs “Close-Up” as the most beautiful film in cinematic history. Renowned Italian filmmaker, Nanni Moretti, directed a film as a homage to “Close-Up” in which the protagonist (played by Moretti), is annoyed and angry at people for watching American films more than they watch Kirostami’s. He says he is sure that a day will come when everyone will regard “Close-Up” as one of the greatest films ever made in history. Fortunately, that day has arrived sooner rather than later.