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How Abbas Kiarostami Changed My Life: Godfrey Cheshire Reflects on a Master Filmmaker

The longtime film critic explains how the Iranian auteur's death impacted his own work and inspired him to write a book.

Godfrey Cheshire Abbas Kiarostami

Godfrey Cheshire with Abbas Kiarostami and his son Ahmad

Godfrey Cheshire

My returning to work on a book about Iranian cinema that I’d put aside years ago, followed by the decision to produce the book independently, and then the choice of supporting this effort with an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign were all things set in motion by one terrible event: the death of Abbas Kiarostami.

That happened last July 4 in Paris, and it was a profound shock. I knew Kiarostami had been hospitalized for months in Tehran, but gleaned that he had turned a corner and was on the mend. Though it seemed his recuperation would take months, he had already mapped out plans for a new feature to be shot in China, and even in his hospital bed was putting finishing touches on the partly computer-generated feature “24 Frames” (which premiered in Cannes and will have a U.S. opening in the coming months).

His unexpected death was a jolt not only because I regard him as one of past century’s greatest artists in any medium, one whose work I’ve been writing about for a quarter century. More than that, he was a good friend. When I first met him in 1994, there was an immediate rapport, mainly, I think, because he sensed I got both his intelligence and his playful wit.

READ MORE: Abbas Kiarostami’s ’24 Frames’ Is A Moving Farewell From A Legendary Filmmaker — Cannes 2017 Report

I was with him when “Taste of Cherry” won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and “The Wind Will Carry Us” captured the Silver Lion at Venice. I visited him often at his home in north Tehran, where we discussed a vast array of topics ranging from the cinema of Jim Jarmusch to the poetry of William Carlos Williams (this was years before Jarmusch made a film that invoked Williams’ poetry and starred an Iranian actress.)

Once when I elected to spend a summer in Tehran, his generosity was boundless. He allowed me to interview him at length about all this films. In his battered Land Rover, he took me and his younger son, Bahman, on a bumpy five-hour road odyssey to the ruined rural village where he shot his Koker Trilogy. I know he developed friendships with other critics, but he always made me feel ours was special. The last time I saw him, he told me he regarded me as a member of his family.

The decision I made on hearing of his death was not at all rational or carefully considered. It was instinctual and almost instantaneous. I thought, “I now must finish that book.” It was the first and best thing I could think of to pay tribute to him.

I set the book aside originally for multiple reasons, mainly professional. In 2001, after I was laid off by New York Press, where I’d been chief film critic for a decade, my good friend and colleague Matt Zoller Seitz predicted that I would prove to be “the canary in the coal mine.” He was right. In the coming years, the Internet’s impact on print journalism decimated the number of writers earning a living as staff film critics.

I wasn’t too dismayed by this personally, though I considered the phenomenon a cultural blight. I’d long ago had the idea of emulating my heroes in the French New Wave by reaching a certain status as a critic, then leapfrogging into filmmaking. So I started working on various film and TV projects, both dramatic and documentary. The first of these to bear fruit was my documentary “Moving Midway.” (I’ve also kept my hand in as a critic, most recently writing for RogerEbert.com.) Meanwhile, the Iranian cinema book was out there, but drifting further and further away…until Abbas’ death.

The book I’m returning to is different than the one I originally set out to write. That one was meant to be an original-content book about Iranian cinema and I was determined “Kiarostami” would not be in the title, because I understood the view of many Iranians that his renown unfairly eclipsed the reputations of other great directors. The book I’ve resumed working on I’m calling “In the Time of Kiarostami: Writings on Iranian Cinema,” not only in tribute to him but also in recognition that it covers the era in Iranian cinema that he dominated, and that ended with his death.

Roughly a third of the book will be new, unpublished writings. There are a couple of reasons why two-thirds of it will be previously published materials. First, I’ve often been told that my work introduced Kiarostami and Iranian cinema to Americans, and I’d like the book to be a record of that which indicates how my coverage evolved over time. Second, I know that some of my earlier pieces are taught in university courses yet teachers find many hard to access. Readers of this article may find one reason for that a bit shocking.

I wrote the New York Times’ first piece about Kiarostami, just as I did its first piece about my Taiwanese friend Edward Yang. Yet those pieces, along with others I wrote about Iranian cinema, cannot be found on the Times website because a few years ago the paper decided it would rather expunge them than pay us poor scribes for our digital rights. So much for “the newspaper of record.”

If those comments hint at my distant roots in DIY/punk media, they perhaps also point toward my decision to create the book independently. In recent months I’ve been working on an anthology that includes some of my writing with a young British guy who lives in Brooklyn and approached me saying he’d run an indie music label but wanted to start his own imprint to publish film books. He was so terrific to work with as an editor on the other book that, when I told him about my Iran book and he offered to work with me on that, I instantly accepted. Yet we both knew that getting from here to there would require some funding for things ranging from travel to translation. What to do?

Abbas Kiarostami 24 Frames

“24 Frames”

I looked at various options until a 25-year-old friend convinced me to consider crowd-funding. Being a guy whose mind is still tied to the 20th century, such things are beyond my usual ken. But the more I looked at it, the more sense it made. People all said, “It’s a lot of work.” And guess what? It’s a helluva lot of work. But we started in early June, have reached more than half our goal, and are extending our Indiegogo campaign till the end of July.

I put together a team that included three people besides myself. Recently we added another member: a guy named Sujewa Ekanayake, who contacted us offering his services as a campaign manager (a role he’d recently played on a campaign by friend Matt Seitz). He has been super-industrious and highly effective, utilizing skills and knowledge that none of the rest of us have.

While I started out thinking that money was the campaign’s main point, I quickly saw that, in connecting us with literally thousands of people around the world, the Indiegogo page has created what’s essentially a massive pre-release publicity blitz for the book. It’s also re-connected me with me with lots of friends I haven’t heard from in ages, and with fellow lovers of Iranian culture and cinema.

READ MORE: Abbas Kiarostami’s First 20 Films to Be Restored in 4K, Including ‘The Traveler’ and ‘Where is the Friend’s Home?’

I now realize that the book and the Indiegogo campaign don’t represent a goal, an end point, but rather a new beginning for me as a critic. When I went back to Iran in April, to take part in a Kiarostami tribute where I was the only American, it struck me that I had been granted a unique opportunity and privilege as the only U.S. critic to visit post-Revolutionary Iran six times.

I was honored to learn about its cinema close-up, and to write about it for a number of illustrious publications. I also delved deeply into Iranian philosophical thought and took part in a number of efforts to use cinema to improve relations between the U.S. and Iran — a cause as pressing now as it was 20 years ago.

All of this means more and more to me in retrospect. It has also made me determined to resume my engagement with Iran and its cinema; I already have a number of projects on the drawing boards. That’s a lot to thank Abbas Kiarostami for, but I do, fondly.

For more information on Godfrey Cheshire’s Indiegogo campaign for his book “In the Time of Kiarostami,” go here.

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