Abbas Kiarostami, 1940-2016

An emotional retrospective of the iconic Iranian filmmaker.

Movies Features Abbas Kiarostami
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Abbas Kiarostami, 1940-2016

When Abbas Kiarostami died on July 4th at the age of 76, people who in any small way loved the man’s work became, as is often the case in the wake of the passing of any iconic artist, suddenly aware of confronting that love: defending it, extrapolating it, contextualizing it, explaining it. If the Iranian filmmaker’s work has ever touched you, you felt obliged to somehow express what that meant—even if all that meant was re-watching a beloved film or recommending a title to a friend otherwise unfamiliar with the director’s canon. There’s nothing revelatory about this phenomena—we each deal with grief as our souls compel us to.

But there’s a particular honesty required of grieving for Kiarostami. For people who write about film especially, writing about a love for a director after that director is gone can be a befuddling experience, deserving of authority and familiarity in the artist’s work even if none of that previously exists. Sometimes the sad fact is that death breeds respect—and if the director hadn’t died, chances are many people would still be totally ignorant of that director’s (or musician’s or painter’s or writer’s, etc.) output. Sometimes faking a commanding love of an artist can be easy, and sometimes it’s necessary—when Werner Herzog dies (god, seriously, forbid, for it will lay bare the emptiness at the heart of humanity’s eternal push for immortality) we will all ecstatically lie our psyches off. But for Kiarostami, his works demand truth, no matter how (critically and scholarly) weak that truth makes us. In the films of Abbas Kiarostami, truth, in fact, should make us weak, because in that weakness we will be most likely to turn to our fellow human beings to cope with that weakness. Empathy, Kiarostami shows us, is bred in suffering.

Abbas Kiarostami wrote and directed a lot of films. No one on the Paste Movies staff has seen all of them, and many of our Movies writers have seen very little of them—let alone any. Which is fine! But what that means is that in commemorating the brilliance of Abbas Kiarostami we must be very open about the fact that we cannot offer any substantially comprehensive overview. So we won’t.

Instead, we asked our writers to write about whatever they wanted to write about when it came to a specific experience with a specific Kiarostami film, hoping that in such freedom they could offer, in whatever way they pleased, a sample of the complex emotional experience that can be encountered in any one. Call it an emotional retrospective; call it our obituary—whatever you want to call it, we can only ask that if you haven’t, you give Abbas Kiarostami’s films a try. And if you have, then be as honest as possible in sharing your experience with what “trying” even means.


Where is the Friend’s Home? (1987)

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Though not technically his first feature (that’s The Traveler from 1974), Where is the Friend’s Home? was the first to bring Abbas Kiarostami wider international recognition. It remains one of his finest works.

The story sounds almost ridiculously mundane, revolving around young Ahmed’s (Babek Ahmedpour) efforts to return classmate Nematzadeh’s (Ahmed Ahmedpour) notebook after he discovers he accidentally took it home with him. To such a simple story, though, Kiarostami brings a wealth of character observation, social criticism and, above all, the kind of humanistic wisdom that proved to be a hallmark of his cinema.

In its own documentary-like way, Where is the Friend’s Home? offers a child’s-eye perspective on lower-class Iranian life, one in which most of the adults are either too busy to pay much attention to their children, or are too beholden to old-fashioned ways of discipline to offer them the love and affection they demand. Such is Kiarostami’s sense of humanity, however, that he’s even willing to indulge Ahmed’s grandfather (Rafia Difai) a lengthy defense of his harsh view of parenting, taking time to understand where he’s coming from despite how appalling his endorsement of regular beatings might sound to Western ears. And Ahmed eventually finds in an elderly door- and window-maker (Hamdollah Askarpour) he encounters in Nematzadeh’s town something of an unexpected kindred spirit: a rare generous soul who, despite his age, has enough innocence in him to question the recent modernizing trend of replacing his old doors with iron doors when those old doors seem perfectly functional.

Through such sly offhand moments, Where is the Friend’s Home? suggests a broader perspective beyond the relatively trivial concerns of this one young boy. Ultimately, though, it’s empathy—chiefly, the kind that inspires Ahmed to risk the ire of his relatives just to return a notebook so its owner won’t be expelled from school—that suggests a way forward for Iranian society. It’s a worldview that Kiarostami himself would continue to practice, even as his art became more austere and experimental later on. —Kenji Fujishima


Close-Up (1990)

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We meet Hossein Sabzian in jail. He’s a man with squinched shoulders, he’s preternaturally hemmed in, head forever slightly bowed—or at least in the presence of, by this point in 1990, a well-regarded filmmaker. Kiarostami interviews Sabzian himself, patiently giving the man plenty room to speak, the audience watching from behind a wall, from behind glass and bars, but still focused intently on a one-foot-by-one-foot square surface area of Sabzian’s face—wondering what of this, if any, is real. Sabzian is charged with “attempted fraud,” a phrase never explained, left floating vaguely in the stale, bureaucratic prison air. It feels like a riddle, or a thought experiment: Isn’t all fraud only “attempted” if you get caught?

Sabzian confirms that he recognizes the director, but within a minute must be reminded who Kiarostami really is. Sabzian operates emotionally—such is his standard of truth—and he acknowledges that from the outside looking in, such weirdly distant acclimation to typical social cues would appear to be the opposite: fraud. A big, carefully orchestrated lie.

Kiarostami explains to Sabzian that he read about Sabzian’s circumstances in a magazine story. The facts he knows well enough: Hossein Sabzian took on the identity of Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf in order to ingratiate himself with the admiration and friendship of an upper-middle-class Tehran family, the Ahankhahs. Sabzian nods. Kiarostami asks Sabzian if he can do anything for the imprisoned man. “You could make a film about my suffering,” Sabzian replies. Kiarostami tells him he’ll do what he can. Sabzian can’t remember how long he’s been in prison, nor, for that matter, when his trial’s been scheduled and so when he’ll get out. If he does get out. Kiarostami assures him everything will be done to attempt to move the trial date forward. Is that it?

“If you could give a message to Mr. Makhmalbaf,” Sabzian states more than asks, “Tell him The Cyclist is a part of me.” We can’t see Kiarostami’s face, and throughout Close-Up we won’t. “I’ll tell him,” he agrees. It isn’t until an hour has passed in the film that we get any sort of evidence that Kiarostami actually did what he said he would.

Like the incident at the heart of Close-Up—Sabzian’s betraying of the Ahankhahs’ trust—the film itself is something of a well-intentioned fraud. Hoping only to clarify, and never exploit, Kiarostami hybridizes the documentary form, asking the people embroiled in an odd bit of tabloid fodder to play themselves. He doesn’t particularly make Sabzian look any better than this sounds, giving the man the opportunity to speak his own truth from an elevated public altar, and the rest of the players, including the Ahankhah family and the newspaper reporter (Hossain Farazmand) who first wrote the article that grabbed Kiarostami’s interest, don’t fare much better. Sabzian is the milquetoast dreamer, his love for art trampled beneath the utility of people like the Ahankhahs, people who like to watch movies but will forever choose some semblance of normality over the passion of real art. Or truth. Or whatever it is that bewitches Sabzian, driving him to pathetically pretend he’s a famous filmmaker instead of a broken divorcée.

Kiarostami often lingers on Sabzian’s eyes, etched oneirically in a milky half-stare, as if he’s trying to glimpse life from behind a shroud of surreality. Similarly Kiarostami slips in his infamous long take of the spray can rolling down an urban street, kicked by the cab driver (Hooshang Shamaei) who, outside of the Ahankhahs residence, waits to see what unfolds as Sabzian’s lie is resolved with a visit from the police. We want to see what’s happening inside the house, not here with a bored cab driver, and yet we’re briefly, maybe even subconsciously, entranced by the revolutions of the can, because Kiarostami has convinced us that the beauty in such a moment is more fascinating than what’s happening inside the Ahankhah’s private gates. This, it seems, is the beauty of real life—of monotony and physical grace and the existential suffering of ordinary life required of every human being—Sabzian feels impelled to express.

Of course, we eventually do see what happens inside the Ahankhah house, but Kiarostami frames it as an obvious re-enactment, dancing through a variety of implied viewpoints, whereas at the beginning of the film, during which Farazmand relates the basic plot of the film to the cab driver, Kiarostami’s camera bears the hallmark of a documentarian’s tool. By staying outside with the cab driver while Farazmand and two police escorts go inside the house to arrest Sabzian, choosing to film a can clacking down a paved hill rather than follow the drama inside, Kiarostami simultaneously admits he was unable, as a documentary filmmaker, to take the audience’s attention where he should have, and implies that, as an experimental filmmaker toying with the form (a conceit increasingly apparent in the scene’s aftermath), he could have gone inside, but just finds this can so much more interesting.

When we engage with art, Kiarostami asks—truly relate to it—aren’t we making it a part of ourselves? Through the film, Kiarostami allows Sabzian to finally make the art he never thought he could. For Sabzian, this means expressing his suffering as clearly as he endures it, to communicate his pain in a way which he believes will truly transform the audience, to make them, in some small manner, suffer as well. It takes a remarkable amount of trust on Sabzian’s part—on the part of everyone in the film, really: They expose themselves so willingly to Kiarostami’s lens, one cannot help but, watching the mundane drama play out, search for the feelings in oneself to understand how they could so rawly lay their lives bare at the foot of the director. Which is why the film bears witness to a rare depth of authenticity in cinema—and against the film’s only diegetic piece of music, one whose notes bend and swoon to the empathy of the film’s finale, an authenticity that feels beautifully complete. This is as close as I can imagine to a film finding perfection. —Dom Sinacola


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