Abbas Kiarostami, 1940-2016: Iranian director whose films knew no borders

Abbas Kiarostami, speaking at the 65th Cannes Film Festival, in May 2012. Vincent Kessler/Reuters

Iranian film director Abbas Kiarostami has died aged 76, following a battle against cancer. The news appeared in my Twitter feed, alongside many other reports of death – bomb blasts in Iraq, suicide attacks in Saudi Arabia – yet among all this destruction I feel Kiarostami’s death personally. His passing is a huge loss to filmmaking, and we must acknowledge the impact of his work. Not only did he help us see the world, but also to become aware of what we don’t see.

Many directors have contributed immensely to the ways in which we create and think about film – Federico Fellini, Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock to name but a few have influenced others that came after them. Yet there are other directors, fewer in number, whose impact goes beyond the film industry; Kiarostami was one of them.

He entered our worlds, triggering an everlasting conversation with ourselves and others through his images. He made poetic films that asked questions about life and death. He did not make judgements on behalf of his audiences. He “saw” and showed what he saw, but also made clear that there was always something outside the frame that was equally important.

As one of only a few directors who made films in pre- and post-revolutionary Iran, Kiarostami became an influential figure in the early 1990s with his customarily self-reflexive Close-Up (1990), which film theorist Laura Mulvey lists as one of her top 10 films of all time. Close-Up tells the story of a character who is in between fact and fiction, while employing techniques that resulted in a film that presents itself as in between – merging documentary techniques with drama. The philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy captured Kiarostami’s in-between style as “evidence”: not fiction, not a documentary, but perhaps a fiction of a documentary.

His interest in stories led by characters, rather than events, created an oeuvre that through glimpses of other lives shows what unites us as humans. His influence and drive was never “to put a human face on Iranians” as is often said, but his Iranian heritage shaped his stories and the ways in which he told them.

Due to the political situation in Iran he had to manoeuvre through heavy and often arbitrarily-enforced censorship imposed at every stage of filmmaking. This shaped the way he worked, but Kiarostami’s films cannot and should not be solely discussed through the cliché of artists finding creative solutions to limitations forced upon them. Looking at his filmography, including recent films Certified Copy (2010) and Like Someone in Love (2012), neither of which are set in Iran, it seems to me that his interest was always in human struggles, regardless of their background or location.

Beginnings

Born in Tehran in 1940, Kiaostami started out making educational films for children at the Institute for Intellectual development of Children and Young Adults, of which he was a founder. He made his first film here, The Bread and Alley (1970), a black and white short about a boy’s encounter with a hungry dog. He continued producing films at the institute, including his first feature film, The Report (1977), about a tax collector accused of corruption.

It was Where Is The Friend’s Home (1987) that brought him to the attention of international audiences. The film follows a little boy in a small village who tries desperately to return his friend’s homework book that accidentally ended up in his bag. Afraid of the growing darkness but with a sense of responsibility, the boy tries to find his way through the winding roads and dark alleys that represent the baffling adult world.

Recognition

Kiarostami’s focus – and that of Iranian cinema in general – on children is often thought of as a direct result of government censorship, as through children the issues Iranians must negotiate daily can be more safely explored. What may be censored can change depending on many factors, but in general showing women in domestic settings or taboo issues such as suicide are areas to be avoided. Of course, Kiarostami explored these issues, creating controversy along the way. Taste of Cherry, his 1997 meditation on life and death which won the Palme D'Or at Cannes, follows a man who wants to kill himself but wishes first to ensure there is someone to bury him in the grave that he dug for himself.

One frequently criticised aspect of his filmmaking is the lack of female characters. In response, his 2002 film 10 spends most of its running time focused on the female lead and her face, shot in medium close up. It is a film that takes place almost entirely in a car with people, mostly women, whose stories we hear but whose faces we rarely see.

In 10 and in Kiarostami’s other films, many of his stylistic obsessions are clearly observable. Long takes, lengthy conversations with characters who enter the story (but not necessarily into the frame) only as passers by, mundane details of everyday life, long scenes that take place in cars, and a masterful use of landscape.

Over decades of filmmaking, Kiasrostami made films that not only explored the nature of film and the boundaries between different styles of filmmaking, they also explored humanity, philosophy, and the relation between images, words and poetry. Hardly surprising, then, that he also expressed himself through painting, poetry, and photography.

His films were about “life and nothing more” to borrow the title of one of his films, and as a director he was always fascinated by the mundane details of life: friendships, relations, obstacles, beauty, suffering, selfishness, helpfulness, kindness and vulgarity were all explored – often through the same character, acknowledging that we are all of them at the same time. The human face of his films made us more aware of the ways in which we rob each other of our humanity in order make matters less complicated for ourselves.

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