Abbas Kiarostami: A Cinema of Poetry, Life and Death

Photo of A. J. Samuels
14 October 2016

A multi-faceted artist and skilled storyteller, Abbas Kiarostami has enchanted Iran and the world with poetic films that have earned him international critical acclaim. Helena Cuss describes the main aspects of his rich career, exploring the filmmaker’s recurring themes as well as his relationship with Iran – a country where he has remained despite tight restrictions on artistic freedom since the 1979 revolution.

Still from Shirin released in the UK in 2008 | © BFI

Kiarostami’s films are strongly informed by both his nationality: while most of his contemporaries fled to the West seeking intellectual asylum, he remained in Iran after the 1979 revolution during which the increasingly Westernized and secular Iranian monarchy was overthrown and an Islamic Republic set up. Kiarostami maintains it was one of the most significant decisions of his career, saying:

‘When you take a tree that is rooted in the ground, and transfer it from one place to another, the tree will no longer bear fruit. And if it does, the fruit will not be as good as it was in its original place. This is a rule of nature. I think if I had left my country, I would be the same as the tree’.

This evident love for his country is manifested in his films by his use of Persian poetry; characters often recite or quote lines from the classical poet Omar Khayyám or from modern poets such as Sohrab Sepehri and Forough Farrokhzad. In doing so, Kiarostami emphasizes the connection between past and present, tradition and modernity, continuity and change. More subtly argues Sima Daad, he seeks to ‘give visual embodiment to specific image-making techniques in Persian poetry’, which not only involves an obvious inter-textuality, but declares a deeper philosophical stance on the kinship of poetry and film. However, his films also frequently have a social conscience, many of them dealing with narratives of life in rural Iran, for example Where is the Friend’s Home? which uses the story of a child’s friendship to explore the traditional beliefs of rural Iranians as well as elegiacally showcasing the rural landscape.

His most celebrated work is perhaps the early Koker trilogy, which Kiarostami did not in fact conceive as a trilogy. The three films, Where is the Friend’s Home, And Life Goes On, and Through the Olive Trees, which earned the filmmaker critical acclaim in Western Europe, are so described by critics as they all feature the northern village of Koker. The 1990 earthquake that killed 40,000 people in Iran served as a catalyst for Kiarostami, who used this event to explore themes such as life and death, change and continuity.

Life and death are in fact key themes in Kiarostami’s work: he has been lauded for discussing them but also for showing that, rather than being polar opposites, one can see them as a partnership, a cycle of life in which death therefore does not need to be negative even if it is tragic. Critic Jean-Luc Nancy has explained this by describing Kiarostami’s films as ‘evidence of existence’, particularly the film, Life and Nothing More; Nancy also suggests that Kiarostami’s films in general, and this one in particular, demonstrate that lying is the only way to truth. Indeed the boundary between fiction and non-fiction becomes hazily blurred in many of Kiarostami’s works, partially because he mixes fictive and documentary elements.

More recently, in 2008, Kiarostami made the film Shirin, which not only stars internationally renowned French actress Juliette Binoche but also marks a significant moment for Iranian cinema for it explores a definitively female spectatorship, and its relationship with image and sound. Binoche and other notable Iranian actresses watch a film partly based on a mythological Persian romance, which has a clear theme of female self-sacrifice, but Shirin’s most ground breaking aspect is that it forces the audience to consider its own spectatorship. The film marks the latest phase of Kiarostami’s career, in which he has become more experimental, causing his Hollywood halo to slip a little as critics and contemporaries note that his unusual techniques can confuse or isolate the audience.

Neverthless, Kiarostami remains one of Iran’s most prolific and successful filmmakers, with an impressively long list of eminent awards to his name, including a Palme d’Or and a Golden Lion, and the adulation of filmmakers and critics over the last four decades.

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