One of the most interesting collisions of the public perception of Iran’s Islamic state and its reality is how, out of an apparently repressive state hostile to the creative arts, Abbas Kiarostami became the essential free filmmaker. “Freedom” is always a relative term when it comes to cinema, which, like politics, unfortunately runs on money. But it’s easy to spot the genuinely free filmmakers when they come along. Despite their varying struggles to get their movies made, the work that results is directly personal and unbound by prevailing cultural trends and diktats. They range from Jean Vigo to Kidlat Tahimik, Pedro Costa to Shirley Clarke, Stan Brakhage to Jose Luis Guerin. Kiarostami was the free filmmaker par excellence, since he managed to find his ever-developing acute approach to modernism through whatever system in which he might find himself working.
The first system under which he developed as a maker of semi-experimental shorts was during some of the most repressive years of the Shah (from 1970 to the Islamic Revolution in 1979), which was nevertheless an extraordinarily rich period for Iranian cinema, with work by such directors as Dariush Mehrjui, Bahman Farmanara and Bahram Beyzaie.
Kiarostami critic and biographer Jonathan Rosenbaum has cited the deep influence of poet Forugh Forrokhzad’s groundbreaking 1962 short, “The House Is Black,” as a seminal influence on Kiarostami, but I would argue that it’s the immensely powerful minimalist features of his contemporary, Sohrab Shaheed Saless—especially “A Simple Event” (1973) and “Still Life” (1974)—that imprint the most visible stamp on the features and shorts that Kiarostami went on to make in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. Like never before among Iranian directors, Saless’ storylines and images are stripped away to their essentials, fixed shots are extended to produce the effect of lived-in experience, and ironically sly humor pokes its head up when you least expect it. It was a particularly rigorous modernism, which Kiarostami embraced and adapted to suit his own ends.
What Kiarostami introduced to Iranian cinema, realized with powerful results through a string of shorts produced under the Islamic government’s Institute for the Development of Children and Young Adults and capped with his feature non-fiction, “Homework” (1988), was a rich style of artistic reflexivity inside of films ostensibly made about children. More than any of his fellow compatriots (some, like Saless, already in exile before the Revolution), Kiarostami explored and tested the limits of film form and grammar. “Homework” announces itself as an experimental film by being an experiment itself, in which Kiarostami tries to question students about their class work, and films their responses. But more than this, Kiarostami allows us to watch him filming and asking the kids ever more probing questions.
This formal freedom was matched by his instinctive and unpredictable taste for crossing over the borders of fiction and non-fiction. Up until (arguably) the end of the old century, makers of fiction and non-fiction often seemed penned off from each other, and if a filmmaker wanted to cross over from one to the other, he/she needed some kind of artistic passport. Some like Alain Resnais, crossed over, but never crossed back again; Kiarostami was one of the first to go in-between these boundaries, cross back and forth at will, and sometimes in the same film.
Seen together and consecutively, his so-called “Koker trilogy”—comprising his lovely and deeply amusing “Where Is The Friend’s House?” (1988), the more grim “Life and Nothing More…” (1992) and the poetic finale “Through the Olive Trees” (1994)—begins with the first film’s near-storybook narrative and its gently comic minimalism of a school boy’s frustrating daily travails in the northern town of Koker. The subsequent films reflect upon the first (a barely fictionalized Kiarostami character ventures to Koker to try and rescue his “Friend’s House” child actors after a devastating earthquake hits the region around Koker) and find an uncertain resolution in the third film after the quake’s shock subsides. Koker plays itself: Kiarostami films the place as it is—intact, then destroyed, then recovering, allowing fiction to invade reality and transform and reflect upon each.
During the course of this accidental trilogy, Kiarostami made “Close-up” (1990), quite possibly his most sublime experiment in the blurring of narrative and documentary, the granddaddy of all in-between films. During the course of Kiarostami restaging the true events surrounding a pathetic guy named Sabzian, who had been arrested for passing himself off as Mohsen Makhmalbaf, one of Kiarostami’s most acclaimed fellow directors, he allows the restaging itself to morph into a “documentary” of fiction-making. Like no film before it, “Close-up” presents new cinematic means to inquire about ethical behavior, the role of the storyteller in actual events and the responsibility of the viewer to parse the truth of what they’re being shown.
The logical conclusion of Kiarostami’s long-running experiment, which later found steady support in the producing patronage of Marin Karmitz and his company MK2, was that he invited the viewer to engage in their own act of freedom. Starting with his international breakthrough, “Taste of Cherry” (1997), continuing with “The Wind Will Carry Us” (1999) and concluding with his penultimate feature, “Certified Copy” (2010), he frequently stated in interviews that his open endings—most starkly experienced in the dense blackness of the final moments of “Taste of Cherry”—are his invitation to the audience to work at finishing the film for themselves. Much like his gently elusive landscape photography, often of roads winding through countryside, no end may be in sight, but can be perceived by the sensitized eye. It was this sensitivity of perception where Kiarostami, a free man of cinema, found his expression and release.