A Book Review by Ali Moosavi.
The collection, edited by Monika Raesch, is really two books under one cover – an extensive critical introduction to Kiarostami, authored by Raesch, and roughly 100 pages of interviews in which the filmmaker proves to be surprisingly open and eminently quotable.”
Though the renowned Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami’s movies have been universally admired since the nineties and won a multitude of prestigious awards worldwide, including Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or in 1997 (For Taste of Cherry) and the Grand Jury Prize in Venice Film Festival in 1999, (for The Wind Will Carry Us), there were scarcely any books about him until Abbas Kiarostami by Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa and Jonathan Rosenbaum (2014; expanded edition in 2018) was published. Lessons With Kiarostami (Ed. Paul Cronin, 2015), which appeared before the great master’s death in 2016, consists of nuggets of advice and guidance that he passed on to those who attended his many workshops held at various locations around the globe. That book starts by these words by Kiarostami to his “students”: “I have nothing to teach you. I never refer to what I do at meetings like these as teaching because I don’t like the word.”
Since the master passed away, a number of books about him have appeared, including In the Time of Kiarostami by Godfrey Cheshire (2022), unread by me, who is a well-known scholar on Iranian cinema. Meanwhile, Abbas Kiarostami: Interviews (ed. Monika Raesch, 2023, University Press of Mississippi), is really two books under one cover. The 60-page Introduction by Raesch is divided into a number of sections, each with a different heading. In “The Unfinished Cinema,” Raesch analyses Kiarostami’s ideas for the role of the cinema audience and discusses the much debated ending of Taste of Cherry. “A Brief Overview of Kiarostami’s Career as a Filmmaker” is exactly what the heading states. In The Question of Reality in Cinema, Raesch discusses the ambiguity between reality and staged pseudo-reality in Kiarostami’s film, focusing on Close-Up (1990) and Ten (2002). The section “Advancing the Art Form That is Film vs. Working with Established Practices” examines Kiarostami’s experimentation in some of his films. For example he had planned to have seven minutes of black at the end of Taste of Cherry when Mr. Badii enters the grave, but had to settle for just under one minute; he later achieved the seven minute black sequence in ABC Africa (2001). Another example cited here is Shirin (2008) where Kiarostami filmed the facial expressions of a number of actresses who were told by him to imagine that they were watching a movie based on the old Persian fable. (one of the participating actresses told me that they were not told that this will end up as a movie!). Kiarostami was also a renowned photographer with many photographic books and exhibitions to his name. The influence of Kiarostami’s photographic background on his movies is discussed in “The Importance of Framing – Reality through and in One’s Own Frame.” The Introduction also includes a Chronology and a comprehensive Filmography.
The interviews which occupy most of the remaining 100 pages are presented in chronological order, starting in 1991 and ending in 2011. I interviewed Kiarostami in 2009 at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, where he was the president of the jury. I found him to be surprisingly open and eminently quotable. Both these attributes can be seen in the interviews in this book. I found the explanations that Kiarostami provides for his films quite enlightening and not at all limiting the interpretations of his movies by various individuals. For example, in an interview with Cineaste in 1991 on Close-Up, he says:
If you look at the Sabzian affair from a distance, …you’d say that he’s a crook, a charlatan … But when you come nearer to him, when you have a close-up of him, you see that it isn’t true. That’s why I called the film Close-Up.”
In the same interview he confesses: “Sometimes I do the same thing as Sabzian – when I’m unhappy with myself; I’d like to be someone else. I’ve even copied someone else’s poems and said that I’m the one who wrote them. That’s why I know him so well.”
In an interview with BOMB in 1995 Kiarostami says:
Our work starts with a lie on a daily routine basis. When you make a film you bring elements from other places, other environments, and you gather them together in a unity that really doesn’t exists. You’re faking that unity.
This strong belief that we are faking reality in films also manifests itself in the ending of Taste of Cherry. I interviewed Juliette Binoche recently. She professed to having loved the working experience with Kiarostami on Certified Copy (2010) but interestingly added: “What intrigued him is that when I’m crying when playing a scene, for him the tears were false. I would say how can you define tears being false? there’s no way it can happen, you know emotion is emotion. But he said no you’re creating this.”
In an interview with UNESCO Courier in 1995, Kiarostami is asked why he makes films. He replies:
While they’re in prison, convicts dream of the world outside. Blind people see by means of dreams. Life is impossible without dreams, and thanks to cinema I can give shape to some of mine and let others share them….. The cinema can provide a window looking out from the mediocrity of life on to the world of dreams. Reality is the launching pad for dreams. Everything must start from reality.”
Kiarostami always believed strongly in making the audience a partaker, and not just an observer, in his movies. In 1998 Jonathan Rosebaum and Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa interviewed Kiarostami in preparation for Rosenbaum’s book Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinema. In an answer to a question Kiarostami said: “One of the most important [factors] is a participating audience that is active, not passive. The filmmakers aren’t the only spokespeople; spectators also have the role and the right to create part of the film.”
Kiarostami loved poetry. He published a number of compendiums of poems by Persian classical poets such as Hafez and also books of his own haiku poems. In an interview with Revolver-Film in 2003 Kiarostami expounds:
I read philosophy and poetry, but not prose. I can’t stand it when someone needs multiple pages to explain something, such as the winter is over, and needs again multiple pages to elucidate that spring is nearing…. I read the first letter of the word mother and know it’s about a mother. I don’t need an explanations that spans multiple pages. That’s why I hate novels.”
It is a well known fact the title Where is the Friend’s Home comes from a poem by Iranian poet Sohrab Sepehri and The Wind Will Carry Us from a poem by the Iranian poetess Forough Farokhzad. Less well known, at least for me, is that Taste of Cherry was inspired by a poem by the great classical Persian poet Saadi in which he says that true love can be learned from a butterfly, who circles around a candle so many times that the heat eventually kills her. The same way that Mr. Badii circled around a wasteland until he is buried.
In his interview with me Kiarostami said: “I believe that prizes, critics and box office receipts do not define the quality of a film; the passage of time does. For example, whether after thirty years from its premier, a film is still worth seeing and the viewing experience rewarding.” Close-Up was made 33 years ago. In the 2012 Sight & Sound poll of The Greatest Films of All Time, Close-Up was ranked at 43. In that year the film had not reached the “30-year” watershed cited by Kiarostami. In the new Sight & Sound poll published recently, Close-Up has risen up 26 places to number 17.
Abbas Kiarostami: Interviews is full of information and explanations that the great Iranian master divulges. For example, in another interview with Cineaste in 2010 he states that the couple in Certified Copy could be the same couple as in The Report (1977). Kiarostami fans will find much to savour in this book.
Abbas Kiarostami: Interviews will be released in May 2023. You can preorder copies here.
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).