INTERVIEW: Films Without Borders: Abbas Kiarostami Talks About "ABC Africa" and Poetic Cinema
by Scott Foundas
[Editor’s note: New Yorker Films released “ABC Africa” on Friday. This interview originally ran in indieWIRE in May 2001].
Last Saturday, Abbas Kiarostami‘s “ABC Africa” screened at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival — a fitting international launch for a mostly English-language documentary made by an Iranian filmmaker amidst the war-torn, AIDS-ravaged orphanages of Uganda. The screening’s special, out-of-competition status was equally appropriate, given that Kiarostami has said he no longer wishes to enter his films into competitions.
However, this was not “ABC Africa'”s world premiere. Kiarostami chose to bestow that honor on the 2001 DoubleTake Documentary Film Festival, held in Durham, North Carolina the weekend prior to the Cannes showing. Kiarostami attended the premiere in Durham, as well as a festival-long retrospective of his earlier works. And as the capacity crowds indicated, people all over the map finally seem to be catching on to Kiarostami.
As for the film itself: it is among Kiarostami’s greatest works. Documentaries can serve many purposes: to inform, educate, shock and inspire. But Kiarostami manages to accomplish all of those functions at the same time that he transcends them. Though it is his first overtly “international” production (and his first fully non-fiction work in over a decade), “ABC Africa” is essentially, like all of Kiarostami’s films, a breaking-away from specific national and cultural orientations to speak in a more universal tongue: a film without borders.
“ABC Africa” will likely mean something different to each viewer who sees it. And while one suspects that the content and structure of the film will tempt critics to use the word “accessible” as a catch-all adjective, Kiarostami has acted out of no need to narrow the gap between those who do and don’t “get” his work. It is, in short, the closest he has yet come to his ideal of a “poetic cinema,” indebted more to the qualities of poetry and music than to the prosaic storytelling of theatrical-novelistic tradition.
In a Q&A following the film’s DoubleTake premiere, Kiarostami told the audience that Africa is the only area he has visited that caused him to consider trading in his Iranian passport and moving there permanently. Watching the film, you understand why: Despite offering up, in nearly equal doses, the unfettered beauty of the land where civilization began and the horror of the modern plagues that threaten to wipe out its people, Kiarostami is ultimately awestruck by the mysterious affirming of life that exists amid even such ostensibly desperate circumstances. As the film’s final images play from the window of a departing airplane, we realize that part of Africa will always be with Kiarostami, and with us.
In Durham, Kiarostami graciously agreed to sit down for an interview with indieWIRE the morning of the “ABC Africa” premiere to speak about his latest work, digital video, poetic cinema, and “seeing with borrowed eyes.”
[A large debt of gratitude is owed to Dr. Jamsheed Akrami, both for his translation services and invaluable assistance in making this interview happen. Akrami’s own superb, critical survey of post-Revolution Iranian cinema, “Friendly Persuasion,” will premiere this summer on the Sundance Channel.]
indieWIRE: As a rule, I don’t like to talk too much about a film I haven’t seen yet. But because it’s required of this interview that I ask you a few questions about “ABC Africa,” I’d like to start by talking about how the project originated.
Abbas Kiarostami: The UN, since they knew that I had made films for children for so many years, decided to invite me to make a film about the orphaned children in Uganda. Their intention was a sort of general mobilization to attack this problem, and this movie is an invitation to the rest of the world to help with these orphaned kids and their plight.
iW: Was this an invitation you were eager to accept, or did you have initial reservations about making the film?
Kiarostami: I didn’t quite officially accept the invitation, but I accepted to go to the area for a visit. So, it was a sort of location scouting, but we had cameras with us and we started shooting — not for the purpose of making the actual film. Then, when we finished shooting, we looked at the footage we had and decided that maybe we could make the movie out of this footage.
iW: This is hardly alien to you: this idea of making a movie on-the-spot, as you did in “Homework” and “Close-Up” previously. And yet, most movies endure long and arduous pre-production processes — only to produce an end result that is, in terms of clarity and sense of purpose, frequently inferior to your own impromptu films.
Kiarostami: I agree with you about this style of working. A good movie is made by an initial burst of energy, the way that, when you are in school, your class exercises are always better than your final projects. Because again, it contains that initial energy, and that energy contributes to the quality of the work.
When I talk to some of the younger filmmakers, they are so worried about their films that, eventually, this state of being worried reflects itself in and helps the final work. Whereas, with projects that are meticulously planned, you look at the end result and it is full of emptiness.
iW: Certainly, the issue of the AIDS epidemic in Africa has been one of the two or three international news stores that has received the most media attention here in the US. Is it a subject that is of any interest or concern to an Iranian audience?
Kiarostami: They have kept the whole question of AIDS under the rug in Iran; it is like a secret illness. There was an attempt a few months ago to bring it out to the public arena for discussion, but this attempt was aborted. To me, AIDS is an international epidemic and every country can be affected by it. Therefore, it can be discussed on an international level. Unfortunately, AIDS doesn’t require a visa.
iW: “ABC Africa” is the first of your films to be shot entirely in a video format (specifically, mini-DV), and I was wondering if you could speak a bit about both the logistical and philosophical reasons for shooting on video this time around.
Kiarostami: I didn’t use this new digital camera as a serious work tool. I took it with me more like a still camera, to take some notes with it. But when I actually started using it — and when I realized its possibilities and what I could do with them — I realized that I have wasted, in a way, 30 years of my career using the 35mm camera, because that camera, for the type of work that I do, is more of a hindrance than a communication tool. When I say “35mm camera,” I’m not just referring to the machine itself, but to what it brings with it — the whole crew. That’s the kind of thing that’s not for me or the kind of movies that I make. I like to work with this much smaller camera, which is more intimate and more immediate. For example, for people who appear in front of it, they are not intimidated by it. They are more comfortable in front of the digital camera and so, in every way, it facilitates communication.
I think that the best writers really are the ones we came to know as the best writers over the past hundred years. But the best filmmakers are not necessarily the ones that we’ve come to know as the best filmmakers of the century. Because of the requirements of the 35mm camera and the mode of production that comes with that camera, there were a lot of people who just couldn’t afford to use it. Now, this digital camera makes it possible for everybody to pick it up, like a pen. If you have the right vision, and you think you’re an instinctive filmmaker, there’s no hindrance anymore. You just pick it up, like a pen, and work with it. I predict that, in the next century, there will be an explosion of interest in filmmaking, and that will be the impact of the digital camera.
iW: Which makes the journey for you between making “The Wind Will Carry Us” and making “ABC Africa” not unlike the journey of The Engineer in “Wind Will Carry Us” who goes from a big crew to capturing snapshots, surreptitiously, with his still camera.
Kiarostami: Yes, actually. I was lucky that this new medium appeared to me between these two films. Because I also had that same sense of exhaustion that The Engineer has in “The Wind Will Carry Us,” this new camera appeared to me, in a sense, like an angel and saved my life. Not necessarily in terms of my mental approach to making a film, but in terms of the ease of operation.
iW: Yet, do you not find that there is a fundamental difference in the way a video camera perceives an image versus the film camera? For example, in “Taste of Cherry,” we have a 35mm feature that is followed by a brief, shot-on-video coda — a juxtaposition of the two media that would not have been possible had you shot the entire film on video.
Kiarostami: I’m caught by surprise by this question, and I need to think about a response. Sometimes, I will have to go back to 35mm, if it’s a complicated work. But for that movie (“Taste of Cherry”), to have the two cameras there was a tremendous help to me –the same way that in “Close-Up,” I had the journalistic aspect of the 16mm, which I used to do the courtroom scenes, compared to the 35mm. The graininess of the 16mm camera was very helpful to me there. I still have this strong inclination to continue to use the digital format, but I’m not committed to it in a way that, if a project required me to go back to 35mm, I wouldn’t do it. But again, you picked up on a very fine point.
iW: In the past, you have spoken of the concept of “seeing with borrowed eyes,” a Persian expression which you define as your desire to have the audience see both what is in a given scene, and what is outside that scene. I’d like to offer an elaboration on this phrase, which is that in your films we are frequently exposed to images that are at once of a deeply personal meaning to you as an artist, but also of a profoundly universal recognition. In a way, you seem to be borrowing our eyes, and we seem to be borrowing yours.
Kiarostami: This is my objective. As I have said repeatedly, I make one film as a filmmaker, but the audience, based on that film, makes 100 movies in their minds. Every audience member can make his own movie. This is what I strive for. Sometimes, when my audiences tell me about the mental movies they have made based on my movie, I am surprised, and I become the audience for their movies as they are describing them to me. My movie has only functioned as a base for them to make their movies.
I am lucky as a filmmaker that my films have found audiences such as yourself, because otherwise my work has gone to no purpose. Unfortunately, we don’t have too many audiences of this kind in the world. Maybe I shouldn’t have used the word “unfortunately.” Just the same amount that exists right now is OK, the same limited number of audiences that appreciate my work. But that number is on the increase right now, and I’ve been witnessing that myself. It seems that something is changing very rapidly, and the sort of film that used to not have a great audience is now gaining one.
iW: I think the mere fact that we are here, in Durham, amidst capacity crowds for the screenings of your films, is evidence of that. But even in major U.S. cities, the films of yours that have been released commercially have come and gone in the blink of an eye. And it’s puzzling when you consider that there was a time when the films by the great filmmakers of the world — Bergman, Fellini, Godard — regularly received healthy international distribution, and caused crowds to line up around the block. You might be the first of an entire generation of similarly great filmmakers whose work will be known almost exclusively within the world of film festivals.
Kiarostami: Thank you for comparing me with those filmmakers. I think they were making greater films, but at the same time, the Hollywood cinema wasn’t as dominating then as it is now. In earlier years, when you had a dragon in a Hollywood movie, it only had one head. But now, those same dragons have seven heads! So, it’s a more formidable competition, and that’s why those movies don’t leave any audience for us. The fact is that movies train the eyes of their audiences, and when they have been trained on these types of Hollywood movies, it is very difficult to then convert them to our movies. But, sort of unknowingly, the Hollywood cinema is going into a direction that may end up helping our kind of cinema. Audiences are being left dissatisfied now.
Some movies bring out the creativity in you. Every single audience member can become creative in the face of a particular movie. If you happen to like my films, it’s because my films provide a bed for you on which you can find your creativity. The Hollywood movies do not provide that for you.
iW: You’ve spoken in the past about a desire to make a kind of “poetic cinema” — more indebted to poetry than to novels or theater.
Kiarostami: Well, the cinema has been referred to as “the seventh art,” and you can interpret that in two ways: either it includes the other arts and is some sort of summation of them; or, maybe it is the most complete art form. But unfortunately, there is so much reliance on storytelling in cinema, this makes it unlike the other art forms. The other art forms do not take it upon themselves to tell you a story; it is only film as a medium that has assumed that function.
I remember a poem by Rumi that my father taught me and, since I was a child, I’ve been reciting it. That poem is like a mirror in which I have been able to see myself throughout the different stages of my life, and I have found it to always be true to where I was at a given point. But a movie is not like that poem. A movie is something fixed, and when you look at it you see the same thing. It doesn’t grow with you, whereas the poetry has the potential to grow with you, and to change with you.
But going back to the idea of cinema as the seventh art, it’s ironic that all the other art forms, such as painting and music, have gone through stages of evolution and have changed. But for cinema, this has not happened yet; the cinema is the same as it always was. When I talk about “poetic cinema,” I don’t mean that it has something to do with poetry. When I talk about “poetic cinema,” I’m not talking about sending a humanistic message. I’m talking about the cinema being like poetry, possessing the complicated qualities of poetry, and also having the vast potential of poetry. To have the capabilities of a prism.
This kind of cinema — the prism-like cinema — has a lasting capability and, in any given situation, in any given time period, you can relate to it in a different way and people can discover themselves in it. I think cinema should follow the other arts, go through the same process and assume the same outlook that they do. But the viewers have to make a concession, in the sense of not expecting only entertainment from the films, in the same way that, when they don’t understand poetry, they don’t fault the poetry for being bad poetry. They live with it. And when they go to hear music, they don’t expect to hear a story. And when they’re looking at an abstract painting, it brings other things to their mind; it is through association that they “get” the meaning of it, not through immediate reality. I wish they would do the same in front of a movie screen.
iW: Part of me came here today wanting to ask you, out of sheer curiosity, specific questions about what is real and what is staged in such films as “Through the Olive Trees” and “Close-Up,” which so skillfully confuse our notions of documentary and narrative filmmaking. But I think that a larger part of me chooses not to know the answers to those questions, for risk of spoiling the special magic of those very films.
Kiarostami: I thank you for not asking those questions! You know, when I was watching “Close-Up” last night, I couldn’t remember which lines I gave to the actors and which ones they gave to me, and I like that. I think the ideal is for the two sides to fall into a unified whole. That’s why I think filmmakers should stay at a distance from their films, and that was the experience that I had last night. I was able to view the film more like a viewer.