Abbas Kiarostami was at the forefront of the Iranian New Wave of cinema, telling stories to an international audience that challenged cinematic convention, and persevered to make the ordinary compelling. Kiarostami was preoccupied with exploring the concept of truth within – and relating to – his films, tiptoeing the line between narrative fiction and documentary storytelling. We remember his films as part of this month’s Retrospective Roundtable.
Where Is the Friend’s Home? (1987)
By Ian Floodgate
Early in his career, through the 1970s and 80s, Abbas Kiarostami established himself in Iran, directing a number of shorts and feature-length films. It wasn’t until the release of Where is the Friend’s Home? that Kiarostami’s films attracted international attention.
The first film in The Koker Trilogy follows a schoolboy named Ahmed (Babek Ahmedpour) and his attempt to return a classmate’s workbook after taking it by mistake. The plot might not sound like it has much to it, but Kiarostami was adept at exploiting simple scenarios and creating captivating films. He stated that he was not interested in working within the standard conventions of filmmaking. His minimalist and neo-realistic approach has became known as “The Kiarostamian Style”. Where is the Friend’s Home? is the epitome of his style. Through the simplicity of presentation, a heartfelt story unfolds with a charming performance from Ahmedpour. His intentions of goodwill fused with an innocent persona are utterly heartwarming. The audience ends up willing Ahmedpour to fulfil his task more and more with every challenge he faces. The fact he perseveres only makes the audience adore him more. Children and adults could learn so much from his efforts in this film, and without Ahmedpour’s contribution, the film would not be nearly as successful. Though, Kiarostami must take credit for finding such a talent and giving him the freedom to perform and creating the situations Ahmedpour tackles.
When people talk about films that children should watch, I believe this should be one of them. Ahmedpour not only displays a delightful demeanour tackling problems, but the Kiarostami demonstrates how perseverance and intuition payoff in a charming film without any added effects.
By Jessica Moore
Abbas Kiarostami’s breathtaking quasi-documentary Close-Up obscures the line between performance and reality, complicating their distinctions. Fronted by the implicated persons themselves, Close-Up recreates the series of events that lead to Hossain Sabzian’s arrest and trial for impersonating a well-known filmmaker, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, to an unwitting family, extending the lie so far as to promise the children roles in his upcoming film. And yet, Kiarostami expresses a great deal of empathy towards Sabzian’s crime; he sees its poetic potential.
Defending his impersonation to a courtroom, Sabzian describes the effect Makhmalbaf’s films had on him, confessing that Makhmalbaf and his films ‘spoke for’ him. In choosing to reframe the absurdity of Sabzian’s crime to convey sincerity, Kiarostami demonstrates its philosophical implications, those which are richly cinematic. Indeed, Kiarostami recognises cinema as a vessel for self-identification.
With Close-Up, Kiarostami gestures towards a deeply cinephilic impulse: the act of attaching ourselves to the art we encounter, assigning our own personal significance. During the film’s memorable closing sequence, as Sabzian and Makhmalbaf ride through the streets of Tehran on a motorbike, Makhmalbaf asks Sabzian ‘do you prefer being…’ before the sound is cut off. Sabzian’s answer hangs in the air, tempting us to imagine his response. Though perhaps we already know.
Life, and Nothing More… (1992)
By Timan Zheng
Life, and Nothing More…, the middle entry of Kiarostami’s Koker trilogy, is the circumstantial postscript to the Iranian filmmaker’s esteemed breakout hit, Where is the Friend’s Home? Following the devastating earthquake that shook Iran in 1990 and killed over 30,000 people, Kiarostami sought to search for the cast of his previous film, which consisted entirely of village locals and thus non-professional actors. In the process of doing so, Kiarostami constructed a semi-fictitious story with Life, which acts as a neorealist observation surrounding the effects of said earthquake. Now, Life was filmed long after the actual earthquake occurred so many of the events on display have been restaged — Kiarostami blends fact and fiction, expanding upon what he had just experimented with in Close-up — again using locals as nonprofessional actors. Additionally, we experience the story through the perspective of an unnamed director played by Farhad Kheradmand — he is Kiarostami’s stand-in and the cast treats him as such.
Clearly, this is a very interesting film for several reasons, though one aspect that is often glossed over is Kiarostami’s willingness to deconstruct aspects of his previous film. The first actor that Kheradmand meets, while traveling to Koker (the locale where much of the cast resided), is the grandfather character who appears to be fairly young. It is quickly, and casually, revealed through dialogue that his appearance was completely altered for the film — as was his home, it too was fabricated. Only a few years following the film that put him on the map, Kiarostami was daring enough to provoke audiences by questioning its own authenticity (he would further build upon this idea in Through the Olive Trees). However, at its core, Life, and Nothing More… is a beautiful and naturalist film about the resilience of the human spirit, and optimism following seemingly insurmountable tragedy.
Certified Copy (2010)
By Eugene Kang
Juliette Binoche plays an unnamed antiques dealer who attends a book signing for James Miller (William Shimell). His book, ‘Certified Copy’, is an essay on the value of imitation, that a copy of the original can have just as much or even more artistic value than the original. Binoche’s character is forced to leave the signing early when she has to attend to her teenage son’s needs, but she manages to leave her phone number with James. The two meet the next day and spend the whole day together – driving, walking around, getting into random conversations with strangers, etc.
It is clear almost from the first moment that the two talk to each other that there is more to this relationship than meets the eye. Why exactly would James agree to meet a woman he apparently only saw briefly at his book signing yesterday? Why would he agree to go on a road trip and spend the whole day with her? Soon, they start play acting at being a real couple, and their performance is so realistic that we can simultaneously doubt and know exactly what is going on.
Kiarostami “pitched” this film to Binoche by giving a synopsis of the film to her but under the guise of some passing anecdote. He was interested in looking at Binoche’s facial expressions while he told the story. And this tension between two narratives, one surface and the other unnspoken, is explored so subtly that most viewers tend to get wrapped up in “solving” this movie like a procedural. For many of Kiarostami’s previous films, the blurred lines between fiction and fact take the form of pseudo-documentaries, but seeing him explore the same concerns within a clearly fictional narrative is mind-boggling in its inventiveness.
Much of the credit goes to the brilliance of the actors. Shimell had never acted before, but he knows how to use his charismatic presence as both a shield and a weapon in his dialogue with Binoche. Binoche can play so many conflicting emotions without so much as changing the tone of her voice. Kiarostami gets well-deserved credit for his innovative use of techniques typical of narrative filmmaking and applying them subtly to real-life subjects, but he doesn’t get enough credit for his performances, since so many of his characters don’t seem like they’re acting. In Certified Copy, Kiarostami shows just how well he understood his actors and their processes and had his film naturally envelop their performances. For anyone just starting out with Kiarostami’s work, Certified Copy is a great place to start to familiarize oneself with the themes of his work and also witness what a formidable filmmaker he was.
Like Someone in Love (2012)
By Timan Zheng
Between this and Certified Copy (the two films Kiarostami directed outside of Iran), Like Someone in Love is possibly the filmmaker’s strangest film in terms of its conception; this is an ostensibly native Japanese film, shot in Tokyo with an entirely Japanese cast, and yet it is a French-Japanese co-production directed by an Iranian man. Moreover, the film is named after an American song by jazz singer, Ella Fitzergald, which is featured as a primary recurring motif throughout the film. And despite this unusual geocultural mesh, it is a very personal film for Kiarostami — as he would offer insight into during a NYFF press conference for the film’s release — revealing that he held the film’s premise in mind for years, originally intending to film it in Iran, but settling on Japan after a trip there decades prior.
Whether a conscious incentive or not, placing the story of Like Someone in Love in the context of modern Japan could not have been more appropriate: the film centers around a young Japanese college student named Akiko (Takanashi Rin) who works as an escort, presumably to finance her tuition, all while living with her abusive boyfriend, Noriaki (Ryo Kase). This phenomenon of students, across colleges and even highschools, prostituting themselves is prevalent across the nation. One night, Akiko is pressured by her pimp, Hiroshi (Denden), to excuse all of her priorities and visit an important client, a man revealed to be Watanabe (Okuno Tadashi), an elderly writer/translator — who has no interest in sex, instead simply desires someone to talk to. Kiarostami interestingly noted that each of the characters we meet in the film, from the gentle Watanabe to the violent Noriaki and naive Akiko, are representations of himself throughout his life — the Fitzgerald song was chosen in particular due to his love for jazz as a teenager. Here, Kiarostami depicts love in all of its shades — platonic, familial, sexual, and destructive — and questions the notion as we watch these characters interact and engage with each other through such forms.
24 Frames (2017)
By Henry Baime
Abbas Kiarostami’s final film, 24 Frames, saw many of the director’s long standing methods reach their most distilled forms in perhaps his most experimental film. The film stands without any narrative, showing only 24 frames and a short film to accompany each one that brings movement to the image. Using both paintings and photographic images and animating movement that Kiarostami imagined could follow the moment captured in an unmoving image, it brings Kiarostami’s long fascination with blending reality and fiction to its simplest form. It also gives a moment to simply think without distraction about the nature surrounding us and why these particular images may have been chosen. In a world with so many distractions, forcing a moment to turn inwards is a rarity.
Though it’s a film, 24 Frames feels like a rumination on the art forms that preceded the moving image, pondering how each person might consider the still frames as a moment where time paused but everything shown certainly continued to move constantly ever after the camera snapped its picture. Perhaps that’s why it’s such a fitting end to his career, now stopped and frozen in time, only letting us see what was captured by an artist, but still able to inspire thought of what could have followed and letting the viewer’s interpretation lead the art.