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The Man Who Was Sold To The World

Authored on August 6, 2010

With clockwork regularity, the more conservative nations of the world have banished artists who played with the illusion of artistic freedom. Perhaps Iran’s most fancy hand-me-down to the West, Abbas Kiarostami is a recent victim of such an aesthetic cleansing.

The filmmaker was forced into a creative exile after his Cannes Palmes d’Or winning film Taste of Cherry (1997) shocked the regime with its lusty exploration of suicide. Screening of his films has been banned in Iran since and this became the turning point of his career; clearly distinguishing what preceded from what was to follow.

Kiarostami’s dark glasses, a result of a medical condition he suffers from, have never shaded his views of the world and cinema which remain eerily clear. He was among the first products of the New Wave in Iran and formed a department of films in the Institute for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults. The shorts and documentaries produced by the department are just as relevant and delightful today as they were in 1969.

With the release of ‘Where is the Friend’s Home?’ in 1987, Kiarostami found international recognition. He shot two more films in the same village creating, what is now known as the ‘Koker trilogy’. The second movie in the sequence documented a real search for the young boy who played the lead in ‘Where is the Friend’s Home’, undertaken after a devastating earthquake hit Iran in 1990.

“I don’t like to engage in telling stories. I don’t like to arouse the viewer emotionally or give him advice.” Not a fan of deeply disturbing films, he prefers the ones that are “at least kind enough to allow you a nap and not leave you overwhelmed.” He is also clever in critiquing the Tarantino brand of gory cinema, “Since violence will never leave American film, what Tarantino has done is find a way to make fun of violence, and that brings down the tension of violence.” But when the two shared space on the jury of the 2006 edition of the Cannes Film Festival, Kiarostami heartily praised the American for backing a small film from Kazakhstan.

Cinema may be his strongest love now but there were several other influences like poetry and art. Harvard University Press published ‘Walking with the Wind’, a collection of 200 poems by Kiarostami in Persian and English. His reverence for the art is also evidenced by the effortless weaving of Khayyam’s verses in ‘The Wind Will Carry Us’ (1999). He is also a  painter and photographer. It hardly comes as a surprise that Kiarostami’s younger son Bahman directed his first documentary at the age of 15 (Journey to the land of the traveller).

Close-Up (1999) The award winning director discusses the finer points of film making in ‘Ten on Ten’, while also explaining the cinematic quirks he indulges in. This documentary as well as the experimental film ‘Ten’ made in 2000, were shot entirely inside cars with the camera positioned on the side view mirror. ‘Through the Olive Trees’ in 1999 which had Mohamad Ali Keshavarz playing a director, presented a striking picture of the veteran’s film making methods. Shortlisting untrained students from village schools for lead roles borrowing props from locals are prominent Kiarostamian quirks featured here. Close-Up (1990) was another film where Kiarostami referenced himself by talking to his actors from behind the camera.

Kiarostami often likens his films to windows. They come with an uncomplicated view outside of your life and the freedom to look calmly away if you please. In a way, the 70-year-old is a rather romantic journalist, who lends a lyrical beauty to inconvenient truths. The constant switches between fact and fiction in his cinema often leaves the audience feeling like confused voyeurs.

Liberty was never a perk for Kiarostami who maintains that the best art is born “when artists operate in unfavourable circumstances.” In keeping with the law, he would choose non-controversial plots. Usually against a backdrop of quaint villages, his films were innocently modeled around children. Not out of fear of the establishment, but those were the stories he wanted to tell. Curiously, he has always defended the political restrictions in his country, “In the West when I’m asked about censorship, I am offended. They think we are a third world country, with incredible restrictions and we work in terrible conditions. We’ve always had the problem of censorship not just as filmmakers. We deal with it and talking about it in another nation will not solve anything.”

Akira Kurosawa once said of Kiarostami’s films, “Words cannot describe my feelings about them and I simply advice you to see his films. When Satyajit Ray passed on, I was very depressed, but after seeing Kiarostami’s films, I thank God for giving us just the right person to take his place.”
Copie Conforme (2010)
Increasingly, though, his films have lost that neo-realist, documentary style of narrative. Fiction is now accentuated and he uses seasoned actors, bound scripts and exotic locations. In new-found safety, his leading lady can lay her head on her lover’s shoulder, minus the headscarf. And the film would not be banned for it. A case in point is ‘Copie Conforme’ (Certified Copy), his latest venture set in Tuscany and starring Juliette Binoche. The film has invited comparisons with Roberto Rosellini’s ‘Journey to Italy’, a signal of grim change. Selling out to Europe hardly sits well beside this man who is known to have stamped simplicity onto celluloid. With his dapper looks and fine clothes, he looks comfortable rubbing shoulders with global greats but his best-loved works are still the ones perfumed with an interminable love for Iran.

Using the global media glare to good effect, he turned spokesperson for his friend and colleague Jafar Panahi who was arrested by the Iran government under suspicion of planning anti-national films. “When a filmmaker is imprisoned, it is an attack on the art as a whole. We need explanations. I don’t understand how a film can be a crime, particularly when that film has not been made,” he observed. He even wrote a well publicised letter to the administration that hastened Panahi’s bail procedure.

Kiarostami is a target of mindless rules laid in an erratic system, but we hope he will not give in to wicked voices that may suggest that he quietly resign to “life, and nothing more”.