After World War II, Italy’s infrastructure was in such ruins that its filmmakers adopted an entirely new approach to their work. They no longer had studios and sets, so they took their cameras into the streets. They no longer had actors, so they used non-professionals. And they no longer had much of a film industry, but boy did they have a story to tell. Despite economic and moral devastation, the Italian neorealists produced films about personal struggle, sacrifice and triumph.
The films of Iran have been compared to these classics, and they do have many similarities. Iran has had a turbulent century, rocked by colonialism, wars and an ever-changing government that has imposed strict rules on public expression. Like the neorealists, Iranian filmmakers found a way to work within their economic and social constraints. But while it’s tempting to view every Iranian film as being about or affected by oppression, Kiarostami’s minimalist films are too rich to be reduced to such limited subject matter. On the contrary, his work makes cinema seem boundless.
Kiarostami began his filmmaking career in the early 1970s by making short films for children that stressed the importance of brushing your teeth or being a good student. In 1987 he made a feature called Where is the Friend’s House? about a boy in the rural village of Koker who needs to return his friend’s notebook, even though he isn’t sure where he lives. It’s a fascinating movie that sees the adult world through a child’s eyes, following the wide-eyed boy as he maneuvers through a forest of conflicting rules. Kiarostami repeatedly shows the boy taking a zig-zagging path up a hillside, the perfect image for the movie as a whole.
Since then, Kiarostami has focused on films for grownups, but he approaches the lives of adults with the same curiosity. How do we navigate through our world? His films have also become increasingly self-referential. It must feel strange to film a real boy in a real village interacting with real parents, teachers and peers in a fictional story, and Kiarostami has made that strangeness a part of his movies.
In 1989, a man named Ali Sabzian was arrested for impersonating director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Sabzian had convinced a family that he was going to use them in his next film. He met and rehearsed with them at their home until they eventually figured that he wasn’t who he claimed to be. Assuming the whole thing was the elaborate hoax of a thief casing their house, the family called the police.
After reading about the incident, Kiarostami immediately seized on it for his next film. He cast the actual people involved and filmed them re-enacting key events. Kiarostami combined the re-enactments with footage of the trial and staged a surprise meeting between Sabzian and Makhmalbaf. The result is the film Close-Up, an inspired hall-of-mirrors about a lonely man who’s not a thief but rather admires movie directors so much that he slips into a fantasy, bringing a family nearly as enthralled by movie magic as he is into his field of distortion. The irony, of course, is that the folks who wanted to be in a famous filmmaker’s movie now are, and we’re watching it. As Close-Up poetically reveals, not only are movies a part of our daily landscape, but they’ve also found their way into our dreams. We want to live lives worth filming.
Kiarostami has continued to fold his movies into themselves. In 1990, a huge earthquake struck Iran, and it was particularly destructive in rural towns, including Koker. The disaster inspired Life and Nothing More about a filmmaker who drives to Koker with his son to check on the people he once filmed. The story obviously echoes a trip that Kiarostami made, and by showing an urban director in a country setting, it contrasts city and rural life and compares the importance of cultural communication like movies and soccer with basic necessities like food, water and shelter.
Kiarostami again returned to Koker to make Through the Olive Trees, a dramatization of the making of Life and Nothing More, which was itself a recreation. An actor plays Kiarostami directing the man who previously played Kiarostami, connected like a daisy chain. The movie completes a trilogy that began with a simple tale about a boy and a notebook and ends with a poignant, multi-layered commentary on life and our attempts to find its essence, blurring the lines between filming and being filmed, between acting and re-enacting. It’s enough to make Charlie Kaufman’s head spin.
Kiarostami’s most recent film is 2002’s Ten, which he shot entirely inside a car, one of his favorite places to put his characters. Using a tiny digital camera mounted on the dash and pointed alternately at the driver and her passenger, he watches a woman make 10 car trips and carry on 10 conversations. Kiarostami takes something of a new direction with Ten. It’s not a meditation on filming, and it’s more overtly political and questioning of Iranian society than his previous work. Kiarostami doesn’t speak for Iran; what single person could, given the country’s wide range of ethnicities, religions and social strata? But he does speak as an Iranian, and he speaks of what he sees in his city and country, and to those of us in the West, his images are invaluable.
In contrast to the broad generalizations we see on American TV, Ten shows a city full of new cars, cell phones, pizza delivery services, racy movies, people who pray, people who don’t pray, children shuttled between divorced parents and people who are forced into difficult positions by circumstance. In other words, it’s surprisingly familiar.
Despite his place as an elder statesman of Iranian cinema, Kiarostami is only 64 and still seems full of ideas. He recently completed an abstract homage to Yasujiro Ozu, and he wrote the script for Jafar Panahi’s Crimson Gold. To many, Iranian cinema is a natural extension of Persian poetry, which has a long, varied history. Those of us who don’t speak Persian may never fully appreciate such poetry, but through the universal grammar of film Kiarostami has become a poet of images, depicting worlds many of us have never seen, some of which are halfway around the globe, and some of which are in our backyards and movie theaters. The magic of Kiarostami’s movies is that he shows us both of these, the foreign and the familiar, mysteriously, at the same time.