By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
The master Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami (1940-2016) stuck to his filmmaking ways, even through his final illness, spending as much time as his health permitted on an abstract, feature-length project.
While that final project, “24 Frames,” is not part of the lengthy Kiarostami Retrospective playing across four Seattle theaters, the program of seven features (plus four shorts) does offer an expansive overview of his works over four decades.
“My first exposure to the films of Abbas Kiarostami came at what was arguably his introduction to most American art house viewers,” recalled Nick Bruno, SIFF’s Public Cinema Programs Manager and one of the programmers for the Kiarostami RetroSpective. “‘Taste of Cherry’ had won the Palme d’Or at Cannes earlier that year. I remember being blown away by the simple premise, the streamlined presentation, the humanism and poetry intertwined in its plot, and the abrupt shift in visual presentation that takes place in the last sequence of the film.
“To my eye, it’s still a masterpiece to this day… it served as my introduction to the films of the Iranian New Wave.”
“Taste of Cherry,” from 1997, did indeed launch the director into international fame.
Kiarostami granted interviews to promote the film, and even cracked a few jokes about Quentin Tarantino, who’d been famous for a few years longer.
But as the series illustrates, “Taste of Cherry” was hardly the work of a fledgling talent.
Kiarostami started out as a painter and commercial illustrator in his native Tehran. He first got behind a camera to shoot commercials for Iranian television. He also created credit titles for other filmmakers.
His first serious film was a 12-minute short from 1970, showing a confrontation between a boy and a vicious dog. He laughed years later that the boy and the dog were equally un-cooperative, and his cinematographer grew quickly frustrated.
Despite this, he remained fond of child characters, and cast young performers to show life from their point of view. “The Traveler” (1974), the earliest film in the program, follows a 12-year-old boy through 71 minutes, and his determination to attend a soccer match even though he has to lie, cheat, and steal before he’s through. With a humorous tone, and an affirmation of the Iranian mania for soccer, overlie a brooding tone about the temptations toward bad behavior in life.
The series also includes three films referred together as the “Koker Trilogy” (after the films’ settings in and around Koker, a small village in northern Iran). These films all accentuate country life, the physical conditions and beliefs that exist in such places far from big cities.
“Where Is The Friend’s House?” (1987) renders moral choice and moral steadfastness through a seemingly-simple tale of a young boy who struggles to help a classmate who’s accidentally misplaced a crucial notebook. “And Life Goes On,” filmed in 1992, finds Kiarostami returning to Koker after a deadly Iranian earthquake, determined to find the boys who starred in “Where Is The Friend’s House?” and check in on them.
The Koker Trilogy concludes with 1994’s “Through the Olive Trees,” a self-referential tale of a young film actor who, in the process of filming a feature in the countryside, falls in love, both on and off the set, with the young woman playing his wife. Complications and confusion follow both of them.
Kiarostami enjoyed meta-levels, twisting the strands of real life and made-up life, as his 1990 feature “Close-Up” demonstrates vividly. It starts out from a real-life story: Hossain Sabzian, a young Tehran movie buff, convinced a small family that he was actually the famous director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and persuaded them to star in a film he was allegedly shooting. “Close-Up” goes through the entire story with the real-life protagonists playing themselves — to the point where the judge in the resulting fraud case, plays himself.
“The Wind Will Carry Us” (1999) accentuates the unseen as much as the seen. Set once more in a remote village, it concerns a television crew from Tehran who wants to film a rare, distinctive funeral ceremony—but becomes stymied when the old lady who’s supposed to be buried, refuses to die. With a main character who spends the entire movie out of sight in a deep hole, and a few sequences filmed deliberately in low light, the story challenges the viewer to slow down, concentrate, and dwell on what does and does not lie under personal control, or even societal control.
The program entitled “Problems With Many Solutions,” gives us four Kiarostami shorts filmed between 1976 and 1981. These find the director once again playing with expectations (one film is almost entirely in close-ups), and more moral dilemmas. Do we hurt our fellow humans simply because we can? Do we inform on others to authority if that’s what authority demands? And why, or why not?
“In terms of film artists from Iran, I personally find Kiarostami’s work to be the most reflective of Iran’s deep tradition of poetry,” concluded Bruno.
“You’re not going to engage with one of his works without being challenged to view the world differently than most other artists are drawn to present it. None of his films are about just one thing and all of them are deeply rewarding of multiple viewings.”
The Kiarostami Retrospective plays Sept. 14–Oct. 6 at the Northwest Film Forum, SIFF Film Center, the Grand Illusion Theatre, and the Beacon, all in Seattle. For more information, visit nwfilmforum.org/series/collaborative-kiarostami-retrospective.
Andrew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.