by Tina Hassannia Feature Articles Film Retrospective

Retrospective | Abbas Kiarostami: Life is Subtext

August 21, 2011

Originally published August 15th, 2011

One of the most important filmmakers of the last 30 years emerged from a country famous for its brutal censorship, a nation that forces many artists to take up residence elsewhere if they wish to freely pursue their craft or, in some cases, even if they just want to stay alive. These unfortunate conditions turned out to be serendipitous for Abbas Kiarostami, who has managed to carve out a niche, creating films that are philosophical, poetic, quietly but powerfully critical of society, and above all, inquisitive about the perplexities of life—all the while managing the approval of the Iranian authorities, and for a great many years even receiving funding from the government cultural institution of Kanun-e Parvaresh-e Fekri-e Kudakan va Nojavanan (Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children of Young Adults). Few are the tools with which Kiarostami has chiseled out works that rival any 20th century masterpiece. He proves that, like his most archetypical characters—each dutifully oriented towards a goal, no matter the obstacles in their way—the creativity of the filmmaker can trump even the most demanding and short-sighted of Iranian censors. For this reason, while the role of censorship in an Iranian filmmaker’s work seems crucial—it is probably the most frequently discussed topic they encounter—it is also usually the least interesting subject for Kiarostami. It overshadows the universality of his trademark motifs and subject matter and suggests that Iranian culture is defined solely by its governmental oppression.

Kiarostami is a brilliant, provocative filmmaker. But he’s also a deceptive and shrewd interviewee: he has never been one to blame his government, and many Iranians find this frustrating, even unforgivable. It is difficult to accuse Kiarostami of being a government apologist given the fact that he is an artist working within Iran (at least until recently—he now splits his time between Tehran and Paris), and that any comment a shade less than neutral can be incriminating. His answers to questions are cunning, an art unto themselves. The famous trial sequence in 1991’s Close-Up is a great example, for it appears as if Kiarostami not only gained access to the courtroom and permission to shoot the trial, but was also allowed to ask numerous in-depth questions of his own. According to Alberto Elena’s book The Cinema of Abbas Kiarostami—a bible on all things Kiarostami—the director asked his questions after the trial, but edited the sequence as to appear seamless. Yet in interviews he usually responds to questions about these trial sequences vaguely, with an amusing deflection: “What is possible is impossible in my country; what is impossible is possible in my country.” In films like Close-Up, last year’s Certified Copy, 1996’s Life, and Nothing More and so many others, viewers have found themselves consistently repositioning their knowledge of what’s going on to make sense of the narrative, in most cases only to find out that there is no certainty in the Kiarostami-verse. It appears that he is not content doing this in his films alone but in his interviews as well, as if he considers the impossible attainability of the truth a life-long chess game with others.

Jonathan Rosenbaum astutely described Kiarostami as belonging to a small group of filmmakers more interested in posing questions with their compositions than answering them. In the case of most narratives, a given shot will in some way answer the previous shot. But certain filmmakers—Cassavetes and Tati among them—do the opposite, piquing the viewer’s curiosity all the while refusing to provide an answer. Kiarostami has built an entire career on creating questions out of his narratives, and the refusal of an answer is a philosophical stance that adheres to the postmodern rhetoric Kiarostami was exposed to, if not in formal education than through the cultural osmosis of modern Persian poetry. Most Western critics shy away from researching Persian cultural influences in Kiarostami’s work, and reasonably so—it requires a fair bit of education on the part of the critic. But if a viewer misses this influence, they may be curious as to why Kiarostami’s work is so quintessentially postmodern, especially given that he is a non-cinephile. If he didn’t grow up on Godard and Tati, how did an artist of educational short films for children create such self-reflexive works? The answer can be found in the Iranian New Wave of the late 1960s. Consisting mostly of Iranian poets, and some filmmakers, the new wave translated the qualities of European arthouse cinema and Italian neorealism for an Iranian context. Ghana (or The Cow), one of the most influential films of this period by Dariush Mehrjui, concerns the life of a village man whose beloved cow suddenly dies, triggering an existential crisis that leads him to believe he has become the cow. Symbolism and social critique characterized many Iranian New Wave films, and Kiarostami continues the tradition even with his most contemporary films. Mehrjui, along with Forough Farrokhzad, Sohrab Shahid Saless and others cultivated Kiarostami’s cinematic and poetic sensibilities.

This series examines Kiarostami’s films from the earliest, Kanun-funded works to his most recent, Certified Copy. The latter is Kiarostami’s first fiction feature made entirely outside Iran, and the Italian production has enabled him to explore fertile ground he could not tread in his native country. You may have heard of Certified Copy through its “gimmick”: a man and a woman meet for the first time, but halfway through the film, their relationship abruptly switches to the behaviors of a long-married couple. Many Kiarostami films contain “gimmicks,” but to use that term denies the possibilities of his cinema, the unanswerable questions it poses, the uncertainty of life it represents, and the humble acceptance which many Kiarostami characters embrace: to navigate life, one must be creative and tenacious and find solutions when there are nothing but obstacles. My father, only a few years younger than Kiarostami, taught me similar lessons about navigating life and people, but he also instilled in me a paranoia of never accepting anything at face value. Life is subtext. Both Kiarostami and my father grew up in a culture that propagated innumerable lies, from the Shah’s plans of modernity, to the promise of freedom offered by the Revolution, to the excuses and white lies people are constantly trading—to get what they want, to get out of trouble. To make their lives easier. For Kiarostami, the only way out of this deeply embedded social structure was to play the game for your own fun, to be clever about it, and to never hurt anybody through such deception. His elegant explanation in Alberto Elena’s book is among the most sincere and honest things anyone has ever said: “The most important thing is how we make use of a string of lies to arrive at a greater truth. Lies which are not real, but which are true in some way. That is what’s important.”

Part I — Starting Out in the ‘70s & ‘80s*:
*1984’s First Graders was unavailable at the time of this retrospective. 

Part II — The ‘Koker Trilogy’ & the ‘90s: 

Part III — Avant-garde in ‘00s & ’10s*:

*2012’s Like Someone in Love and 2018’s 24 Frames had not been released at the time of this retrospective.