Kiarostami Will Carry Us; The Iranian Master Gives Hope
by Patrick Z. McGavin
(indieWIRE/ 8.1.00) — The distinction between a gifted and great director is one of vision. Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami is one of the few great directors working today. At a time when there is such a profound gulf between the artistic aspiration of filmmakers who believe in cinema as an art and the bottom line imperatives of the market, Kiarostami proves there is still a possibility to dream and a hope for the ecstatic possibilities of the medium.
One of the most important examples of post-revolutionary Iranian cinema, Kiarostami’s movies are grounded in the neorealist aesthetic: distinguished for the director’s natural, unforced work with nonprofessional actors, particularly children, location shooting and highly naturalistic settings. His breakthrough works, “Homework” and “Close-Up,” both made in 1989, were self-reflexive meditations on the nature of identity, creativity, freedom and personal expression. With Kiarostami’s Koker trilogy: “Where is the Friend’s House?” (1987), “And Life Goes On” (1992) and “Through the Olive Trees” (1993), landscape art was the primary visual influence.
With the Cannes prize-winner “Taste of Cherry” (1997), a devastating and trenchant political allegory, Kiarostami was suddenly more knotty and dissident, eschewing key questions of characterization in exploring the moral and personal dissolution of a middle-class man who wishes to kill himself. With his exceptional new work “The Wind Will Carry Us” (now playing in New York), Kiarostami invites his audience to experience the work exactly as its mysterious characters do. The film is an investigation — a philosophical examination into the nature of man, existence and civilization.
The story concerns an engineer (Behzad Dourani) and two never seen colleagues who travel to a remote village in Iranian Kurdistan for reasons that remain unknown. The story of the engineer is counter-pointed against the lives of the people he encounters: a young boy who becomes his guide, a laborer who discusses the restrictive roles of women, a pregnant woman who shelters them, and the village elder, or teacher, who surmises the reason of their visit. But the movie’s structure is identifiable to those familiar with Kiarostami’s work. It is about a privileged outsider dropped into an alien culture who becomes a witness to the customs, beliefs, daily rituals and actions of the locals. The village — a labyrinth of caves, paths and mountains — is transformed into the stage where the overlapping and entwined stories play out and connect.
Kiarostami not only locates the humanity and vision of this community, but he infuses it with an off-center humor and wry understatement (the confusions wrought by new technology are particularly funny). Kiarostami’s great skill is to take moments, scenes, images, that feel familiar or previously viewed and transmute them into something poetic, charged, mysterious, and finally, quite beautiful. He shows a part of the world about which very little is known, and by the end of this transcendent work, he illuminates and brightens it.
The following interview was conducted last November at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival as part of a group interview involving an international panel of journalists and film writers. The questions have been modified for clarity and brevity. Kiarostami’s comments were translated from Persian.
Question: Can you talk about the nature of poetry, which is so critical to the formal shaping and organization of the film? One of the poems of Forough Farrokhzad, one of Iran’s most important poets, is the source of the film’s title.
Abbas Kiarostami: During the shooting, I found out how poetry is close to my subject, and I added it to my script. I think that in a way this is my own script; it’s really close to all of [Farrokhzad’s] poetry. The film starts out with a poem by Omar Khayyam; and this poem symbolically carries a meaning of death in our lives; someday the tree will fall down. This was the reason I selected this poem.
Question: Can you discuss the allegorical nature of the movie?
Kiarostami: I don’t want to talk so much about symbols and metaphors in my film, because if I explain them, then they’re no longer metaphors and symbols, so just let them be metaphors and symbols.
Question: Can you discuss the difference in mood, temperament and style between your work and Western, especially Hollywood, films.
Kiarostami: For this [Kiarostami’s] kind of cinema, we do not enjoy films with the usual attractions like explosions. For this kind of cinema, what is interesting and attractive is the storyline. Not telling everything directly; that’s the only storyline that can take the audience from the beginning to the end and express the information gradually. Even circling, if there’s wrong and correct information — come here for the treasure, come here for the communication — but then later; there was a logic behind it.
Question: Could talk about the relationship in your work to silent cinema?
Kiarostami: Because it’s based on reality, real life can experience the silent life of movies. Even if you don’t find any chance to be in nature, we can make this relation; silence and nature are two important elements in order to see this work differently, to understand it differently. Unfortunately the American commercial movies have made all the audiences throughout the world accustomed to sound, explosions, the close up. That is part of cinema, but not, I think, part of life. I do not claim that my films are cinematic, but they are a slice of life.
Question: The film has a recurring joke about the engineer’s efforts to find a suitable location to receive a cellular phone signal. Can you comment on this?
Kiarostami: [Cellular phones are] so strange to me and surprising. I remember about seven years ago I was following a guy who was talking on a mobile phone; it was strange, but nowadays it is very common. It is surprising to find this in a city or society that’s not as civilized and technologically modern.
Question: Can you talk about the role of the car in your movies? Throughout your work, key dialogue scenes occur while characters are driving. These scenes also point out a key formal device, in the traditional two-shot sequence, you typically omit any crosscutting. Their dialogue almost always occurs off screen.
Kiarostami: The first reason is that I spend a lot of time in the car. I think of my ideas, I think of my stories and plans, my drafts, so it is only natural that I put this into films. My car is actually my private moving house; I insist on moving because — though I like the fixed frame — it helps me to see the moving frame as well. The second reason is the journey, moving from one point to the other. In our culture, journey doesn’t necessarily mean moving from one place to the other. It could be a natural journey; any change of the ideas could constitute a journey. The poets call it, “the journey without legs and hands.” There is a logic behind all of this. In “Taste of Cherry,” you can see a very good privacy of two persons in this place; they don’t look at each other directly. You have seen them both and you haven’t seen them. I always give rides to hitchhikers, it’s not just to help them but I do like to see and experience the different kinds of communication.
I believe the director has to be beside the camera in order to control the actor. I didn’t do this in “And Life Goes On.” I was sitting just below the actor’s knee and instructing him. I could only control the actor through the side I was sitting; when I was watching the rushes, I could see that some of these actors’ looks are not good; they’re not pure. So I made one of the actors get up and I sat there. Through this side, I could concentrate on more of the actors.
Question: You’re well known for your work with children. . .
Kiarostami: If you look at my previous cinema, it’s referred to my previous experiences with children. I’ve seen studies a lot on the children over the years that I’ve been working with. The children look like mythical figures that have already existed in our literature and our culture, but you’ve never seen them. And I found very new specifications in the children. They learn to love life. I’ve had experiences with my own kids, that has helped me a lot. They’re not like the adults, they do something as soon as they get up; they’re active, they’re just working; the world can see their smile. The adults aren’t waking up until much later, until they’re drinking their coffee. Children have more eagerness for life; their encounters are much better; they accept their lives without any special reaction. I like children because they fight each other, but without any kind of anger or without hatred. I like children because they build and destroy and they’re not afraid of rebuilding it. I like children because they’re well behaved and polite, without any comforts. I like children because they easily cry and show their emotion.
Question: The 1997 national election of moderate Mohammed Khatami was the source of a great deal of hope among Iranian artists and filmmakers. What, if anything, has changed since then?
Kiarostami: We have not yet experienced these new reforms and openness; we’ve only heard news of them. In practice I believe that everything is like it was before, but there is this kind of hope.
[Patrick Z. McGavin is a Chicago-based film critic and writer. His essays, reviews and articles have appeared in The Hollywood Reporter, Chicago Reader and Filmmaker magazine.]