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In dialogue with Kiarostami, By Ali Akbar Mahdi, August 25, 1998Edit

text source The Iranian[1]

In dialogue with Kiarostami

By Ali Akbar Mahdi

August 25, 1998

The Iranian

Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami's films seek to uncover the deepest human emotions in the most ordinary events in life. His works are a demonstration of the significance and relevance of these emotions to the restless, captive, and tormented individuals of the twentieth century.

With a profound understanding and a sharp view of the fate of the modern individual, he searches for the good and bad among a constellation of events and structures which are neither under human control nor of human service.

The protagonists of his films are the ordinary people who surround us. Their lives represent no more and no less of what constitute ours. Their presence in films provides us with an opportunity to think about the everydayness of our existence and relationships; an opportunity to see them as a mirror that reflects the depth of our human feelings and thoughts.

On March 3, 1998, Kiarostami was invited to Columbus, Ohio, to open the screening of his celebrated "Taste of Cherry" as the guest of the Wexner Center for the Arts, Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio.

He attended a public forum in which he engaged in a conversation with Bill Horrigan, the curator of media at the Center, Ali Akbar Mahdi, associate professor of sociology at Ohio Wesleyan University, and the audience present in the meeting.

Kiarostami spoke in Persian and Mahdi translated his responses for the audience. The following is the full transcription of this dialogue.

Bill Horrigan: Let me start with a funny story. This afternoon Mr. Kiarostami came to the Wexner Center and we went through the four galleries, one painting, two sculpture and one architecture. When we bring filmmakers to the Center, we usually have them visit the galleries. They often seem more interested in what is in our video production studio but you, on the other hand, seemed quite interested in the visual arts.

Abbas Kiarostami: First, I would like to thank the audience for their enthusiastic presence here. I am extremely happy to be here and I don't know if I should call me your guest or you mine. Well, most of the success of the Iranian movies outside the country depends on the relationships between Iranians inside and outside of the country. This relationship is very important, especially when it connects two generations of Iranians who are living abroad. Their appreciation of the films makes the connection stronger and makes me feel good to be here. I am very happy and thankful to Wexner Center, for having me here and for establishing this relationship between us, a relationship not limited to art and cinema alone. In response to your question, I like to say that I started painting before I moved to cinema.

Horrigan: Could you describe to me the paintings you still do?

Kiarostami: I studied painting in graphic school, but I do not call myself a painter even though I do painting. It is more important to engage in painting than to label one a painter -- I simply feel comfortable painting. When people ask me to judge their paintings, I decline and remind them that what is important is that they have been engaged in the activity of painting. The Qajar king, Nasiruddin Shah, used to write poetry. It really did not matter what the king has written. What was important is that he, as a politician, was engaged in poetry. Engaging in the art of painting itself is the worthwhile activity and so I paint.

Akbar Mahdi: I like to convey an observation to our audience. Prior to our arrival to this meeting, Mr. Kiarostami, Mr. David Filipi (associate curator of media at the Center), and I went to the bookstore. Mr. Filipi and I saw Mr. Kiarostami looking for something through the store. We thought he was looking for some souvenirs from Ohio State University. To our surprise, he was looking for painting markers.

Horrigan: It is funny, though you say you aren't a painter, one of the extraordinary things about your films is the way you picture and frame the landscape. You visualize the perspective first from one point and then a second much like a painter. But painting is a solitary activity. You couldn't find something more culturally opposite than filmmaking. It involves so many people, and a big metaphorical canvas as opposed to a real one. How did this come to be?

Kiarostami: I have gotten used to looking at reality in an artistic way, especially through the viewpoint of painting. When I look at nature, I see a frame of painting. I see everything from an aesthetic angle. Even when I am in a taxi looking out of the window, I put everything in a frame. This is the way I see painting, photography and film -- all interrelated and connected. The movie industry captures reality in frames. For me particularly, painting is a source of diversity, and refuge from daily life. When tired, everyone seeks refuge in something. For me painting is that form of refuge -- a place to go and entertain myself and perhaps recreate reality in an aesthetic sense.

Horrigan: "Taste of Cherry" is your most recent film and we will talk a little bit about that. Maybe we should begin with the amazing spectacle when the film won the award at the Cannes festival. There was the issue of the uncertainty about the film getting shown. What was that all about?

Kiarostami: When I was at the Cannes festival and was awarded the prize, Catherine Deneuve came forward to give it to me. As a tradition in that ceremony, she hugged and kissed me. As you can imagine, such a demonstration of affection in public would have been an absolute disaster in Iran! Immediately after that event, I called my son in Tehran. He told me that I should not come back for a while because things did not look good after that disastrous kiss. So, I stayed for a week and when I went back I had to avoid the welcoming audience and go out of the back door. One of the fortunate things, though, was that this event coincided with the elections of President Khatami and so the political atmosphere was changing in Iran. As a result, it didn't take on the kind of significance that it could have without the political and social changes at the time. Nevertheless the film has not been shown in Iran yet, but it will be soon!

Horrigan: Is that primarily because it is about suicide?

Kiarostami: Partially so. It is partially due to the subject of the film, which is suicide. This could have been an issue but fortunately it did not become as problematic as it could have been since all religions view it as a taboo, a sinful act. The movie should be viewed, as I have been talking about it in many hours in the past few months, as a way of discovering taboos and dealing with them. Why are they there? The opportunity to talk about these taboos, explore what they are and why they exist, has given me a new outlook. It is the role of the art to discover, question, and expose these taboos for what they are and what they are worth -- what we are told as a child not to do and what we consequently do not do as an adult.

Horrigan: This is a good entry into showing the film clips. This is a film essentially about a man who is trying to convince people to abet him in his attempt at suicide and the various conversations revolving around that.

Mahdi: It is often said that there is a negative tone to the Iranian culture emphasizing the negative aspects of life like death and fatalism. But this clip despite its apparent subject of death displays a positive of thinking about life. Mr. Badie seems to be as much concerned about the way he is going to die than whether he could die. This represents a lot more positive thinking than we can expect from a man ready to die. To what extent is this way of thinking becoming widespread in Iran? Are we seeing a change?

Kiarostami: What you are referring to is basically the Islamic culture. The Iranian culture does not have that kind of emphasis. This negative emphasis has a permanent place in the Islamic culture where the crying and grief, in which Muslim people have been historically engaged, are very significant. These elements have carried the religion through time and are part of what keeps Islam alive.

It should be said that this positive way of looking at things is not necessarily related to culture -- I see this as an intrinsic issue in one's individual outlook. Happiness and sadness are intricately tied. Beneath any layer of despair, there is hope and a reach out for happiness.At the same time, beneath any kind of happiness there is a layer of anxiety and despair. So I see this as a cycle of life, happiness and despair go with one another and not as separate. This man could not have enjoyed that fruit so much if it wasn't for the despair connected with the experience. As you saw in the film clip, the man had indicated that in the depths of darkness he saw the light at the end of the tunnel. So thus, he came to discover that life is beautiful when he was so desperate and exhausted of options. This is not connected to culture, this is a universal phenomenon. Realities generate their own opposite and this must be viewed in a dialectical way. At the depth of sadness one seeks for happiness and at the height of happiness one has to court the reality of sadness.

Horrigan: Have you been surprised by how well received this film has been world over?

Kiarostami: This is a very difficult film and the reaction is, of course, much better than I expected, and although I can see how people can resign half an hour into the film, I have also seen enthusiastic responses where the film strikes a chord with the audience. The latter group connects with the movie well and it gets them to think about the issue. I have witnessed a situation where I have lost 200 people, 100 walk out, 50 admire and clap, and 50 look at them and wonder what the fuss is about! But the fact is that this film is one of the works I have done as part of a larger series. It has its own place in that series.

Horrigan: Do you tend to work with the same crew?

Kiarostami: I try my best to keep the same crew but it becomes very difficult because while the people who work for me enjoy it, they find it difficult. Son when they find an opportunity, they usually run away from me. It seems in some way simple to work with me, but at the same time the kinds of roles I develop in my films are demanding. For instance in "Taste of Cherry," the protagonist had to maintain his frame of mind for two months no matter what difficulties he faced outside of the production process. Such an experience is emotionally difficult and not too many people can guard themselves against the normal ups and downs of daily life. I even had a discussion with my camera man who did not like where I had asked him to position the camera. I had asked for the camera to be put in a fixed position attached to the side window of the car or on the hood. He did not like this because it did not give him much control and the reflection from the window partially obscured the faces and hid the feeling. In some other situations the actors were not engaged in dialogue with each other. I had asked them to speak to the camera. They were engaged in conversation with me rather with other actors in a real situation.

Horrigan: Then it must take time to develop trust in order to have this illusion of improvisation. A lot of it feels like a real conversation that we are eavesdropping on.

Kiarostami: This is inevitable in making this kind of film. Since I do a lot of things spontaneously, we have to control a lot of things and this leaves both my actors and my cameramen with little control over their functions. Because they do not know what the totality of the scene looks like, they have to do only what I ask them to do. For parts of the film, the man who is working on the sound did not know where pieces were going to fit and where I would be using them later. I don't have a person to record the scene and this causes a lot of problems. Since I make most of my movies this way, the technicians have a very difficult time working with me. They have to trust me and be comfortable with how I would use the various scenes and where they would fit.

Question from audience: The actors in the clip we just saw were involved in a conversation. Was this an spontaneous dialogue or were they following a script developed prior to shooting? How much of what goes on in the movie is spontaneous and how much it is planned by you?

Kiarostami: Sometimes that is how it goes. Some of the actors had to follow the script but some could be spontaneous. For example when we talked to the soldier it was a spontaneous conversation between him and myself. It was later that we told him that our conversation would be in a movie. I had told him that if he would come to the top of the hill and agree with our work for him he would get paid. On the top of the hill, he was getting really frustrated and tired. The fact that he ran away that day was all natural, because we hadn't paid him and since no movie was forthcoming he ran away.

The case of the seminarian was different. He really got involved and was engaging me in discussion continually. He thought I was really going to commit suicide and wanted to change my mind. He even forgot that there was a camera against the window of the car. So that was an entirely different story.

In case of the Turkish man, we had a different situation. He wasn't a professional. I actually found him on the scene. We had given the script to different people to try and test it because for the parts that actors have to follow the script we generally have them practice several times. In his case none of the people tested were coming across successfully in my view. What was particularly important in this scene was that the actor engages in the dialogue and poses the issue in such a way that it doesn't look too serious. This would reduce the philosophical burden of the discussion. He would be a more real folkish ordinary person. We found this man all of a sudden on the scene. I liked the natural tone and expression of his accent. The accent was constant and there was no sense of imitation to it. He was being himself and this gave us an opportunity to rely on the naturalness and constancy of his accent.

It might be interesting for you to know how we found him. We ran into him up on the hills. He asked us "What are you doing here?" and we asked him what he thought we were. He said "You are a bunch of thieves!" We asked him why he thought we were thieves and he said "because you are probably speculators from the city who come in with their cameras and instruments to measure and divide up the land to sell to developers who will sell it to the people and suck the blood out of them, that's what you've come here to do!" It was that kind of dialogue that made us think this man was a natural selection for this film. We gave him the script, he worked through it, sat in the car, and all worked beautifully.

Question: I have two questions. The ending of this movie, "Taste of Cherry" had me very baffled. Even in your other films, which I love, there are parts that I do not understand. But this part in particular bothered me because I didn't understand it. What is supposed to happen? Your ending leaves us in a blank. Why do you have a scene in which Mr. Badie is smoking cigarette after he committed suicide? That is my first question. My second question is related to politics. Obviously a lot of films have been made about Iran that have become the great films of the nineties just like Chinese movies were the greats of the eighties. It seems to me like a lot of great art is coming out of oppressive cultures or regimes so that while the Westerners can praise their art they condemn their cultures. How much of this factor influences your work and would you be the same person, would your films be the same, if you were making films in the West?

Kiarostami: I start with the second part of your question. I like to use the phrase restrictive to describe the conditions I work under rather than oppressive and I understand that oppressive means many different things under different contexts but for us as artists and filmmakers what we are dealing with are the realities of restrictions and I like to approach it from that angle. I look at these restrictions not in the context of the film alone but in the broader context of life. For me these restrictions exist everywhere and have always been there. Life in the East has never been without them. We have to always live within certain boundaries. Life is the combination and movement between restriction and freedom -- the field of action is limited, the field of power is limited, when we were kids we were always told what we could do and what we couldn't and how far we could go in doing things we could.

The best example I can give for this concept is when our teachers told us to do a composition for the class. When he gave us a topic, we would write about that topic and come up with something worthwhile. But when he did not specify the topic and left us free to choose our own, we usually couldn't come up with something worth writing about. We needed to be told what the boundaries and restrictions were. This has been the nature of our society and has been replicated in the realities of our film industry. For instance, during the first four years of the Iranian revolution, there was a great deal of chaos in the film industry because not many rules were set yet. Interestingly enough, most of the Iranian movie-makers didn't produce much during this time though a great deal could have been done. No one used the opportunity because everyone was waiting to find out what the restrictions were!

Most of the time we seek an excuse for running away from the responsibility. Restrictions give us this kind of excuse. Therefore, unfortunately, we seek energy from these boundaries set for us. I don't want to imply that these limitation are good and should be there, but we have been brought up with these and it is in our mentality. This is not limited to my profession -- it's in every profession, creativity is a necessity and limitation makes people more creative. I have a friend who is an architect. He tells me that he is at his best professionally when he designs structures for odd lots because these lands do not fit into the normal patten and he has to work within a great deal of limitations. So, he must be creative and he enjoys this. It is these restrictions that provide an opportunity for people to be creative.

Now, I like to answer the first question: I understand how difficulty you have comprehending the last scene of this movie. I sympathize with you. But this has been deliberate on my part. In "Taste of Cherry" I have tried to keep a distance between my spectator and the protagonist. I didn't want spectators emotionally involved in this film. In this film, I tell you very little about Mr. Badie, I tell you very little about what his life is about, why he wanted to commit suicide, what his story is I didn't want the spectators get engaged in those aspects of his life. For that purpose I had to keep Mr. Badie away from the audience. So he is a distant actor in a way. First I thought to end the movie at the point when he laid down on his grave but later I changed my mind. I was uncomfortable to end it at that point because I was very concerned, and am always concerned, about my spectators. I do not want to take them hostage. I do not want to take their emotions hostage. It is very easy for a flim-maker to control the emotions of spectators but I do not like that. I do not want to see my audience as innocent children whose emotions are easily manipulable.

I was afraid that if I ended the movie where Mr. Badie laid down on his grave the spectator would be left with a great deal of sadness. Even though I didn't think the scene was really that sad, I was afraid that it would come out as such. For that reason I decided to have the next episode where we have the camera running as Mr. Badie was walking around. I wanted to remind spectators that this was really a film and that they shouldn't think about this as a reality. They should not become involved emotionally. This is much like some of our grandmothers who told us stories, some with happy and some with sad endings. But they always at the end would have a Persian saying which went like this "but after all it is just a story!"

Horrigan: That's actually the second clip we have which has just been described as a kind of epilogue after the ambiguous ending. So we'll do the second clip now. This is basically the epilogue to the film.

Kiarostami: The very last episode reminds me of the continuation of life, that life goes on, and here the audience is confronted with the reality they had hoped that Mr. Badie would be alive and there he is a part of nature and nature still continues and life goes on even without Mr. Badie. And if one could really think about being or not being present in life, or if one thinks about it in terms of the real implication of such presence, one might not in fact engage in committing suicide at all. The person committing suicide might think that s/he is taking revenge from the society, nature, life, powers to be, and so on. But s/he don't realize that after a suicide life still goes on and things stay the way they are. I could interpret this in a different way. If my audience is as creative as I imagine them to be, they can take this in a variety of interpretations and I can sit here and every time make a different interpretation of it, as every time one can creatively reinterpret the reality.

Horrigan: What is the significance of the music you have used in the end at this part?

Kiarostami: I was looking for a different kind of instrument but I found that this music extremely attractive because it has been used in both occasions of funeral and happiness. Since I wasn't sure myself for which purpose I wanted this music to be used here, I found it a excellent piece for this moment of the film. It could fit in here because depending on how you interpret the situation you could take the music in that sense.

Mahdi: Your movies represent a reflective form of cinema. You consciously try not to end the movie with a predetermined conclusion. Often in some of the scenes and episodes at the end, you leave your actors to basically improvise. Your films are often un-concluded. What is your expectation from your audience by leaving them with a blank and what do you want to get from this kind of expectation? Do you want the spectator conclude your story or you generally see the reality in this unending format?

Kiarostami: The idea not to end movies with some kind of conclusion occurred to me several years ago. I have always thought that the audience is much more creative than we credit them to be and I feel they can do a lot with the stories we pose for them. The only difference between my spectators and I is that I have a camera in hand and they don't. I don't see the spectators as any less creative that I am, and believe that sometimes, left to themselves, they can come up with a better ending than I can! Often people go to see a film with the expectation that a story will be told. I do not like this arrangement where there is a dichotomy between me, as the storyteller, and the spectator, as the one sitting there and watching the story as such. I prefer to believe that the spectators are much more intelligent and actually see it as unfair that I get the chance to captivate them for two hours telling them the story, ending it the way I say it must end and so on. So I actually want to give them more credit by involving them and distributing the sense of belonging between myself and the spectator, so I leave it open and that way s/he could end it the way he/she wants to end it.

This idea of leaving a great deal of open space for the spectator is not limited to the end of the film. I have always had the desire to have the kind of film where I have created a great deal of spaces inside the film, where, like a puzzle, the spectator has to fill in the spaces -- I like to create those kinds of spaces where the personalities in the film begin to engage with one another and at the same time leave room for their spectator to connect them in a way in which they would like to see them connected. Some people like their movies to be perfect as they describe it, but I don't seek that kind of perfection. To me perfection is defined by how much the spectator can engage in the movie, and so a good movie is one that involves the spectator as a part of it and not as a captive person.

Question: From the beginning of the flim it becomes clear that Mr. Badie is not the kind of guy who is going to commit suicide because he is so involved with life. He wants to know what is going to happen to him after committing suicide. He is concerned with covering all the details. He is not the kind of guy who would commit suicide. The episode in which he goes back to Mr. Bagheri and gets assurances that he would through two stones at him in order to make sure that he is dead indicates that he was not actually that serious about it.

Kiarostami: I have the same kind of interpretation of this scene in the film as you have. As a spectator I see this too. There is actually a scene where he says egg is not good for him even though he is going to kill himself. Also as you can see through the window of his home prior to his departure for his final project, he goes and checks his own temperature. Statistics show that these are the typical actions of those who contemplate suicide. About 12,000 to 14,000 people a day intend to kill themselves and about 13,000 fail by finding some kind of excuse to hang onto life: such is the powerful the need to seek survival.

There are actually more indications in the movie that reveal this fact. He goes to pick up the people who might help him commit suicide, and if you look carefully, a number of those who approach him in the beginning were aggressive. No only would they have buried him but would have hammered on his head as well. But he didn't choose them. He felt that belligerence. He went for the types of people who were soft and gentle toward him, those who he could connect to, those who would understand him, those that have characteristics to show they were the kind of people who would provide him with some kind of excuse, some kind of reasoning and some kind of engagement whereby they might actually change his mind. These are not black and white realities, and are open to some kind of interpretation and empathy, by putting oneself in the shoes of others and understanding in that context what people do. I did investigate this thoroughly, because I had to worry about censorship. I wanted to make sure I got all the information -- the kind that would get through the filter.

In Japan, when they showed this movie they wanted me to give them some kind of message as it is customary there to ask the director what his message is and post that in front of the cinema hall for the people to read before they go in. So they came to me and wanted me to write up something indicating what my message. I talked about those 13,000 people that intend to kill themselves and reminded them of the 1000 people that are successful; I said today is November 10th and 1000 people have exited life. Those who have existed tell us to those who are left on November 11th that "since you have chosen to stay, you have taken the responsibility to live better, and thus your life has to be better today than November 10th."

Question: After the Iranian Revolution we have seen a number of movies coming out of Iran in which actors are amateurs and ordinary people. Interestingly, we often see that these amateurs perform much better. Are there financial reasons for this trend or there are some other reasons?

Kiarostami: Acting is a profession and requires specialization and training. As a good actor you have to know a lot and good actors are those who do a great deal of work. On the other hand ordinary people don't know a lot and this gives us the opportunity to work with them. Mediocre actors are actually the worst because they have some knowledge but don't know how to do a good job with it. Mr. Badie was recruited for two more films after his participation in my film but he wasn't successful in either of them, at least not as successful as in mine. This was because for my movie he didn't know anything. But for the following two he knew a little and that was his problem!

Question: Can you explain more about your choice of these spaces you talked about in your films, especially with the landscape, the backdrop, the inside and outside, say, of the car, etc.?

Kiarostami: Every selection has its own reasoning and we do not include anything without reason, even if there is no reason for the spectator there has to be a reason for us, for it to be on camera. So we are very careful. I'm not sure about which scenes and space you are specifically talking about but generally I can say that in any dialogue we make the selection of the spaces and their framing so that they are appropriate to the dialogue and contribute to the totality of the picture created.

Still, I have to say that what we produce is subject to interpretation, taste, and preferences. Movies, like other cultural objects, are interpretive objects. There is a meaning in them intended by the author, a meaning understood by the audience, a meaning generated as a result of the interaction of these different meanings. For instance, a critic did not like "Taste of Cherry" because he didn't see the grave and he wanted me to actually focus on the concrete grave. But he missed the point that I had so many scenes in which I depicted the grave in a symbolic way. Every time the soil was being poured down by the truck, Mr. Badie was seeing his own grave. In every down pouring of the soil and gravel, he was imagining himself under their weight.

Question: At the end of the movie there is a blackout, what is the purpose of this blackout? What did you want to imply by it?

Kiarostami: The reason I included this blackout was because I wanted to show death, but I didn't want to show the person actually experiencing the tortures of the process although that would have been the easiest for me to show, with the actor tormenting himself in preparation for death. So I took out the voice and the light, as that is the deeper way about thinking of nothingness and death, for death is lack of voice and light and that's a better way to express it than actually showing a person experiencing it.

Question: In two of your movies, "And Life Goes On," and "Taste of Cherry," we see the relationship between life and nature and you constantly show symbolically that life and nature reproduce themselves. Now in the industrialized world this connection between nature and life is becoming strained. How do you view this relationship?

Kiarostami: I can only answer part of your question the other part neither relates to the issue at hand nor to my work. I'm very sorry to hear that in the Western world this relationship between nature and life is getting weaker and blurred. It's an unfortunate reality of modern life and there is nothing one can do about it. The existential and personal aspects of this for me is that as I gradually step into my old age I slowly have to separate from a great deal around me and replace those losses with nature. Every time I leave a relationship or lose a belonging, I have to replace it with something else. It is very unfortunate that we lose a lot of things as we age. We lose friends, relatives, our appetites, our strengths -- there were days I thought if I didn't see my son for two days it was the end of the world, then it became two months and nothing happened, now two years and still nothing happens.

My solution for this problem has been to establish or strengthen my relationship with nature. This is the nature of human beings. I go out of Tehran several times in a week and try to visit some scenes of natural splendor. Film and painting are both ways of connecting with nature. I actually wonder, and this is a difficult time for me to think about, how it would be if I leave this life and what will happen to nature. And my friend tells me, that he can see from my films what will happen, and that there are different kinds of nature, and hopefully, as I show in my films, a time will come when soldiers will have flowers in their hands as opposed to guns. I go on with that hope.

Mahdi: Western culture is so accustomed to background music, and there was an absence of any kind of soundtrack in this movie. Is this a practice you employ often in your films or just this one?

Kiarostami: Music is a perfect art by itself. It's very powerful and impressive. I dare not try to compete with music in my films. I can't engage in that kind of activity as the use of music has a great deal of emotional charge and burden and I do not want to place this on my spectator. Music plays on the spectators' emotions, make them excited or sad, and takes them through a veritable emotional roller coaster like ups and downs and I respect my spectator too much to do that.

An interview with Abbas Kiarostami, director of Taste of CherryEdit

text sourceWorld Socialist Web Site[2]


An interview with Abbas Kiarostami, director of Taste of Cherry

The following interview with Iranian film director Abbas Kiarostami and the review of his film, Through the Olive Trees, first appeared in October 1994. These articles discuss the specifics of that film, but give an indication of Kiarostami’s general outlook and his attitude toward film-making. He is unquestionably one of the contemporary world’s greatest film artists.

David Walsh: How can film or art in general contribute to the lives of ordinary people?

Abbas Kiarostami: First of all, the people in the village are very distant from the cinema or the artistic world. When they only see a couple of films a year, it cannot have an impact on their lives as such. The biggest impact of cinema on the viewer is that it allows his imagination to take flight. There are two possible results of this. Perhaps it will make his ordinary day-to-day life more bearable. On the other hand, it may result in his day-to-day life seeming so bad that as a result he may decide to change his life. We become more aware of the day-to-day hardships. As Shakespeare says, we’re more like our dreams than we are our real lives.

DW: You are choosing to make films about ordinary people, poor people. That itself is quite rare today.

AK: I get my material from around me. When I leave my house in the morning, those are the people I come into contact with. In my entire life I’ve never met a star—somebody I’ve seen on the screen. And I believe that any artist finds his material from what’s around him. Human beings and their problems are the most important raw material for any film. So as a result, when I’d made the film before this, I couldn’t put out of my mind the problems of the lead actor. Which is why I returned to make the third film. I had many interviews in Cannes and people asking me why I had made a trilogy. I gave many answers every day. But I found the most important answer on the final day: my link to these people never was cut off.

And every time I finish a film in the village and I leave, I realize that there are dozens of other subjects that I haven’t covered. It’s difficult for me to forget these people. So that initially when I finished this film, I thought that it was a trilogy and that was that, but in the past few months, I’ve thought about it and I’ve decided to make the next film there.

DW: What was the interest in making a film about a film?

AK: It wasn’t my intention to make a film about a film, I just wanted to tell a story. Because I knew that it was very dangerous to make a film about a film. This is very familiar to people, and many, many filmmakers have done it before. But I couldn’t find any other means for telling this story. And afterwards I wasn’t at all dissatisfied with the way it worked out.

DW: How does the presence of the film crew change the lives of the people in this village, or does it?

AK: I’ve made three films over a period of five years in this village. All in all, these are very intelligent people, and they soon realized that cinema is just this created world, that it’s not real. Initially, it was hard for them to believe that local people like themselves could be in a big film. It was very hard to come to terms with that. They always thought that actors had to be from the big city. Two days before I came here, I showed the film to the actors. Initially, they would laugh at themselves on the screen. But once the film was over, they behaved just like all other actors or viewers. And they were saddened by what they had seen.

DW: Is there any ambiguity in the final sequence?

AK: Yes, it is both ambiguous and it is not. Because if you follow the story you see that the situation in the film is so complex, it’s not possible for the couple to get together. Because the social norms and customs are very powerful and ingrained, and they cause a problem. But I didn’t want to have a very bleak ending to the film. So I added in my own dreamlike ending. And in a way I was wishing for something brighter. I’m reminded of this sentence of [screenwriter] Jean-Claude Carrière’s: we should continue dreaming until we change real life to conform to our dreams. So the ending of the film is more dreamlike rather than something that is possible in reality. Because those two people have become very close to nature. And they’ve metamorphosed into small white flowers. And they grow slowly closer together and they almost become one.

Abbas Kiarostami, Guardian UnlimitedEdit

text source Guardian Unlimited[3]

Acclaimed Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami spoke about working with non-actors, losing enthusiasm for digital video and why his car is his best friend, before receiving the Fellowship of the British Film Institute from Anthony Minghella. Here's a full transcript

Thursday April 28, 2005

Guardian Unlimited

Abbas Kiarostami, NFT interview 'Ultimately, everything belongs to the actors - we just manage the situation' ... Abbas Kiarostami.

Geoff Andrew: Thank you, Abbas, for coming here again. It's wonderful to have you back. And thank you Vali for translating. I chose Close-Up [for the screening] because it's one of your great movies. One thing I've always wanted to ask you about Close-Up: towards the end, when Sabzian meets Makhmalbaf, the sound goes off. Did it really go off?

Abbas Kiarostami (speaking through interpreter Vali Mahlouji): I would like to welcome everybody here, especially my very good friends who I've just seen in the audience. Close-Up is a very particular film in my oeuvre. It's a film that was made in a very particular way; mainly because I didn't really have the time to think about how to go about making the film. I'll give a lengthy response to Geoff's question here, and maybe I'll cover some other questions that may crop up later.

Article continues I had intended to make another film, called Pocket Money, which was to be about children at a school. The first group was ready, but then I read a report in the newspaper about the incident. I was very much intrigued by the story - it came into my dreams and I was very much influenced by it. So I called my producer and asked that we put aside Pocket Money and start something else, and he agreed. So we decided to take the cameras to the prison instead of to the school and started shooting. It was a 40-day shoot, with many difficulties, because the people who were in the original, real story, agreed to basically re-enact the negative roles they had been playing. So I was really expecting, everyday, to be told by these actors that they wanted to pull out, because it's a really difficult thing to get people to play such negative roles and be documented on film. I did not have a script. I made notes in the evenings and we filmed during the day over 40 days. Maybe you won't believe me but I didn't sleep a wink for those 40 nights. You saw the beginning of the film, when I have a conversation with Sabzian. I have a picture from the end of the shoot, and in it I have lost all my hair.

Believe me, I am still very surprised that I managed to make that film. When I actually look back on that film, I really feel that I was not the director but instead just a member of the audience. Because the film made itself, to a large extent. The characters involved were very real, I wasn't directing the actors so much as being directed by them. So it was a very particular film. One of the very worrying aspects of the film is exactly what Geoff has asked about. I asked Makhmalbaf, the director, to come and meet Sabzian on his release from prison. Sabzian had no idea what was going to happen on that day and who he was going to meet. That moment is very real, when Sabzian meets his idol [and Sabzian bursts into tears]. They got on the motorcycle and we followed them in the car without Sabzian's knowledge that we were filming. I was listening to their conversation. What was very difficult was that one of the characters did not know that he was in front of a camera whereas the other one did. And the one who did was ready with his "script". Makhmalbaf discussed many issues that he had intended to bring to the film, so he was very much an actor. We shot this sequence, and obviously we couldn't repeat it. Sabzian embraced Makhmalbaf very affectionately and expressed what he really felt; Makhmalbaf in essence was repeating slogans or whatever he wanted to say, so I removed my headphones and stopped listening.

So after a sleepless night, I came to the conclusion that what I should do is say that there was a problem with the sound. So I very much thank Makhmalbaf for being the cause of the situation that arose and which forced me to eliminate the sound. And this is something that has affected the films and the way that I've made films since. I take my lead from Renoir, the painter, who says that if you drip paint on your canvas, don't get too worried about it; instead try to use the drip as an element and evolve something else out of it. All our film-making is dedicated to all the mistakes that we make.

GA: You've answered about five of my questions. I was going to ask you about your films growing out of one another, but you've answered that because you've obviously learned something from Close-Up that you've continued with. I mean, for instance, a film like Ten is one where you've encouraged the people in it to make the film for you. You've abandoned all normal notions of scriptwriting and indeed the distinction between documentary and fiction.

AK: That's a very good point, and it's very much related to the way Close-Up has affected later films that I've made. I think the freedom that I allowed my actors in Ten very much goes back to my experience making Close-Up. In this type of cinema, whether working with actors or non-actors, as much as you do direct them, if you allow yourself to be directed by them, then the end result will be much more pleasing. The real and individual strengths of the actors is allowed to be expressed and is something that does affect the audience very deeply.

GA: The next clip that we saw was from And Life Goes On, which was also a film that grew out of another film - in this case, Where Is The Friend's House? But it's also the first of your films that deals with the very big question, the relationship between life and death. I tried to show that in the clip, where we see a man who says, "Whatever happened in this earthquake, we still need a toilet." And it seems to me that most of your films since have been dealing with this relationship between life and death.

AB: I haven't a ready answer to this question. I thought that I had been asked every kind of question possible, but this is pretty new, so I haven't a prepared answer. It is a very important film, Life And Nothing More, in that what was filmed was inspired by a journey I had made just three days after an earthquake. And I speak not only of the film itself but also of the experience of being in that place, where only three days before 50,000 people had died. For the survivors, it was as if they were reborn, having experienced death around them. The earthquake had happened at four or five in the morning, so in a sense everybody could have been dead and it was almost accidental that they hadn't died. So I didn't just see myself as a film director here, but also as an observer of people who had been condemned to death. So this was a very big influence on me, and the issue of life and death from then on does recur in my films. There is also the fact of my age [65]. It isn't so much a worry on my mind but it is an issue that has come up in my films - I have to go back and see where it crops up. But this is a question that has taken me aback and I have to think about it.

GA: Well, it crops up in A Taste Of Cherry and The Wind Will Carry Us, which we saw next. The latter is quite an interesting film because many of the characters are heard, but not seen. For instance, in that clip, the woman [teashop owner] is talking to someone parking a car, who we never see. And there are about 13 or 14 characters in the film who remain invisible. Why did you make a film with so many invisible characters?

AK: I've been asked this question before...

GA: By me.

AK: And I have an answer. My films have been progressing towards a certain kind of minimalism, even though it was never intended. Elements which can be eliminated have been eliminated. This was pointed out to me by somebody who referred to the paintings of Rembrandt and his use of light: some elements are highlighted while others are obscured or even pushed back into the dark. And it's something that we do - we bring out elements that we want to emphasise. I'm not claiming or denying that I have done such a thing but I do believe in [Robert] Bresson's method of creation through omission, not through addition.

GA: The other thing that's quite interesting about that clip is that the main character seems to be working on a film or something - you're never quite sure what he's up to. He wears slightly tinted glasses and he takes photos and seems to be perhaps a self-portrait. Some people have said that there's a strong element of self-critique in your work; there are surrogate Abbases in your films.

AK: That may very well be true. I think it's the sort of question I should be responding to in a psychoanalyst's chair. But I do think that we are sometimes, as directors, guilty of portraying or asking our actors to behave in certain ways that are perhaps not very morally acceptable. I'm not the only one.

GA: One more thing about The Wind Will Carry Us. This scene takes place in a teashop. That's not a real teashop. You actually set this scene in a real village which you then changed quite a lot. And this brings us back to the Close Up thing of cutting off the sound. You've often said that in order to get to the truth, you have to tell lies. Can you say why you believe that?

AK: It is very true because in the actual village where we shot, the people work very hard during the day and when they return home in the afternoon, they don't actually sit around at a coffee shop as you see in the film, so we did set up the shop to provide a scene for our characters to strike up a dialogue with the people. We found that it was very difficult to have conversations with village people because they were not willing to stay put long enough to talk to us. So we built this set so as to have this chance. In fact, the lady in the film was not even from that location - she came from another village; we couldn't find anyone in the village who would actually do it. And you would probably be interested to know that after two days she told us that she would not be able to continue with the shoot and that she would send her daughter instead. And there was no way we could make her understand that her daughter was of no use to us, and that it was her that we needed. I think that her brilliant acting was because she really did not understand this, how indispensable she was to our shoot. Perhaps if she had understood this, she might not have worked so beautifully.

GA: Obviously, people felt that The Wind Will Carry Us was a fiction film, but a lot of that stuff was pretty real. And with Ten, people did actually believe it was a documentary. Yes, it was partly inspired by the true lives of Mania Akbari and her son, but there was an awful lot of fiction in there as well. Now, at one point you seemed very taken with digital technology - you not only made ABC Africa but you also made Five and 10 on Ten. Do you still feel as favourably towards digital cinema as you did when you were making those films?

AK: It's a big question and I feel that I ought to say a lot about it but [addressing the audience] I know that you're tired and you've seen the film, so I'll try to condense my answer. I think this comes up a lot in discussions about fiction versus documentary, but I believe there's only good cinema and bad cinema.

Good cinema is what we can believe and bad cinema is what we can't believe. What you see and believe in is very much what I'm interested in. And it's not so much a question of whether we've shot it through 35mm or digital video; what is important is whether the audience accepts it as real. It's very true that non-actors feel more comfortable in front of a digital camera, without the lights and the large crowd around them, and we arrive at much more intimate moments with them. So I do believe that a film like Ten could never have been made with a 35mm camera. The first part of the film lasts 17 minutes, and by the end of that part, the kid has totally forgotten the camera. Others would look at the camera, even drivers in neighbouring cars would look at the camera, but the kid himself was not noticing the camera at all. So a digital camera does have many advantages and I was a believer that digital video would be a big influence on film-making.

But I have somewhat lost my enthusiasm in the last four or five years. Mainly because film students using digital video these days have not really produced anything which is more than superficial or simplistic; so I have my doubts. Despite the great advantages of digital video and the great ease of using the medium, still those who use it have first to understand the sensitivities of how to best use the medium.

GA: I should point out that Five is opening here and it's a real exploration of what you can do with digital cinema. But after that Abbas went to make an episode for the film Tickets, which he shot on 35mm. So you did go back to 35mm, but would you make more digital films?

AK: It very much depends. I think that if you're a digital thinker, you can use a digital camera. It would have been impossible to create Five without a digital camera. Five was shot with one camera in moonlight with no other equipment. If we're not going to take full advantage of digital, then 35mm is a better medium. Especially for shooting dramas - I have no problem with 35mm. It seems that film-makers are being divided between those working in digital and those who are not. I think it's not something predetermined - it all depends on what project we have in mind, and on that basis we choose the medium.

GA: We've sort of moved forward in your career, so at this point I'd like to go back to your beginnings. The photographer Dorothea Lange said, "It's no accident that the photographer becomes the photographer, any more than the lion tamer becoming a lion tamer." But knowing about how you started in film, do you think it was an accident that you became a film-maker?

AK: I'm sorry, I didn't understand the question. My mind was very much on you [addressing the audience], whether you're tired or whether you want to ask questions. [After interpreter repeats the question] It's a simple question but it has a difficult answer. I think I'm no different to my friends who are doctors or businessmen or architects - we all started watching films of the golden age together. But whether I'm making films or writing poetry or doing photography, it's very much rooted in my sense of unease. And that's really where everything goes back to.

GA: Unease about what? Or is it more to do with uncertainty?

Interpreter: Unsettled.

Member of the audience: The word is restlessness.

GA: Your cinema seems to be a cinema of questions - you don't offer answers, you make us think about questions all the time, and in fact your photography is like that, and so are your poems.

AK: I'm only going to repeat myself here. Nothing of what I've done started from an intention as such. I never intended to write poems, nor to be a photographer, nor to be a film-maker. I just took many, many pictures and I would put them in an album, and then some years later I decided to show them and suddenly I was called a photographer. Same thing with my poetry. They're notes that I'd written in a book and it may be considered poetry. And I would remind you that if you visit the V&A, you can see my photography there.

GA: Why did you take so long to let us see your photography, or indeed to read your poems? You've been doing both for a very long time but it's only been in the last five or six years that we've been able to see that work.

AK: As I said, I never thought that they were being produced to be shown. They were really just an excuse for me to spend time in nature.

GA: When you came here the last time, it was with A Taste of Cherry, which won you the Palme d'Or. And The Wind Will Carry Us went on to win a major prize in Venice. And it really seemed that you had become an internationally-famous film-maker in a way that you had never been before. It's not like it's stopped you being an Iranian film-maker; you still live and make films there, but you're regarded more as a world film-maker. Would you agree with that assessment and also, how have you dealt with the fame and pressures that has brought?

AK: We don't arrive at anything easily and often there's a high price to pay, and maybe in our country the price is even higher. Film is very much a universal and common voice, and we can't limit it to one particular culture. My last experience of film-making was Tickets, a three-episode film in Italy, the third of which is directed by myself. It's not for me to judge whether it's a good film or a bad film, but what I could say is that nobody had a cultural or linguistic issue with what was produced. If I do continue to have the opportunity to work in Iran, that's very much what I'd prefer to do. And having an international voice is not really about whether we speak Persian or any other language. I think, just as footballers play better at home, maybe film-makers, too, create better at home, even though the rules of football are the same wherever you go.

GA: I know nothing about football, so I'll hand over to you, the audience, now.

Question 1: Did you stay in contact with Mr Sabzian after Close-Up?

AK: The last time I was in contact with him was three days ago. I hadn't heard from him for six or seven months. We were meant to attend a festival in Korea together, but they didn't invite him to attend. He accused me, and he was right to, because I had asked them not to invite him. Because it's very difficult for people like him if they leave the country. I told him that I would be back, and that we would shoot a short film together. He was very happy, so I'm now wondering what I'm going to shoot with him. Nothing has changed in his life; he's still living as you've seen. Sometimes he trades in foreign DVDs in the black market. I thought I would see my films at his stall. In fact, he is more recognised than me in Tehran these days. At a festival where a [Sergei] Parajanov film was being screened, there was no room for me, and he saw me from within the crowd and he came out so that I could go into the auditorium.

GA: Perhaps you should make a film about somebody impersonating Sabzian.

Question 2: How do you get these non-actors to be so natural? Do you have a script? How does the Iranian government feel about the issues raised by your actors in your films?

AK: I don't have very complete scripts for my films. I have a general outline and a character in my mind, and I make no notes until I find the character who's in my mind in reality. When I find the character, I try to spend time with them and get to know them very well. Therefore my notes are not from the character that I had in my mind before, but are instead based on the people I've met in real life. It's a long process, it may take six months. I only make notes, I don't write dialogues in full. And the notes are very much based on my knowledge of that person. Therefore when we start shooting I don't have rehearsals with them at all. So, rather than pulling them towards myself, I travel closer to them; it's very much closer to the real person than anything I try to create. So I give them something but I also take from them.

There's a Rumi poem that helps to explains this - it goes something like this: You are like the ball subject to my polo stick; I set you in motion, but once you're off and running, I am the one in pursuit. Therefore, when you see the end result, it's difficult to see who's the director, me or them. Ultimately, everything belongs to the actors - we just manage the situation. This kind of directing, I think, is very similar to being a football coach. You prepare your players and place them in the right places, but once the game is on, there's nothing much you can do - you can smoke a cigarette or get nervous, but you can't do much. While shooting Ten I was sitting in the backseat, but I didn't interfere. Sometimes, I was following in another car, so I was not even present on the "set", because I thought they would work better in my absence. Directors don't always create, they can also destroy with too many demands. Using non-actors has its own rules and really requires that you allow them to do their own thing.

GA: Do you think you prefer this method because of the way you started out at Kanoon [Iran's Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults], working very often with children, where you probably had to work that way?

AK: This is very much rooted in that period of my life. If I hadn't stated with children I would never have arrived at this style. Children are very strong and independent characters and can come up with more interesting things than Marlon Brando, and it's sometimes very difficult to direct or order them to do something. When I met Akira Kurosawa in Japan, one question he asked me was, "How did you actually make the children act the way they do? I do have children in my films but I find that I reduce and reduce their presence until I have to get rid of them because there's no way that I can direct them." My own thought is that one is very grand, like an emperor on a horse, and it's very hard for a child to relate to that. In order to be able to cooperate with a child, you have to come down to below their level in order to communicate with them. Actors are also like children.

Question 3: Can you talk about your relationship with cars.

AK: My car's my best friend. My office. My home. My location. I have a very intimate sense when I am in a car with someone next to me. We're in the most comfortable seats because we're not facing each other, but sitting side by side. We don't look at each other, but instead do so only when we want to. We're allowed to look around without appearing rude. We have a big screen in front of us and side views. Silence doesn't seem heavy or difficult. Nobody serves anybody. And many other aspects. One most important thing is that it transports us from one place to another.

Question 4: I'm an American and I'm sometimes appalled with the anti-Iranian bias in American media. I'd like to think that your films can create more understanding between Americans and Iranians, but I fear that US media encourages Americans to think in somewhat simplistic ways. I wonder if they can appreciate the subtlety of Iranian culture and of your films in particular. What are your thoughts on this?

AK: Thank you for your very positive view on the issue. Unfortunately, cinema critics are very few in America, 400-500 people, but there are more critics of Iran. As film-makers, it is very important for us to find common ground between cultures, and maybe that's less the case for politicians who benefit more from finding the conflicts and differences between us.

Question 5: What's wonderful about your films is that they depict the reality of the Iranian people after the revolution. How does the current government in Iran react to your films?

AK: The Iranian government as a whole has no relationship with my films. They're not particularly interested, perhaps this kind of cinema is not very interesting to them. And I'm not sure that my films show the reality of life in Iran; we show different aspects of life. Iran is a very extensive and expansive place, and sometimes, even for us who live there, some of the realities are very hard to comprehend. But on the whole, the government grapples with more important issues and we can maybe say that these films don't really exist for them. It's not about whether they like it or don't; it's just not very important to them.

Question 6: I have a question about the quote which appears at the front of the Alberto Elena book. Jean-Luc Godard famously said: "Film begins with DW Griffith and ends with Abbas Kiarostami." What do you feel about this?

AK: This is a very good opportunity for me to talk about this, and I think that Jean-Luc Godard would be very happy for me to make a comment about what he said. This comment was made six or seven years ago after I had made Life And Nothing More. So, therefore, if this book had been published six or seven years ago, he would have been very happy. But he doesn't believe this any more. And in every interview now, with no provocation, he makes a sly comment about me, so I don't think he believes that statement any more. So I correct, on his behalf, what has been said, and hope that he's happy about what I've said. I do think I'm diverting cinema off its course a little bit, especially with Ten.

GA: I should point out that a colleague of mine interviewed Jean-Luc Godard last week and asked him this question, and as it turns out, I don't think Godard has seen one of your films for several years. He's not been keeping up, but he really should. At this point, we'll have to stop the questions and welcome the chair of the British Film Institute, Anthony Minghella.

Anthony Minghella: When I became the chair of the British Film Institute, I didn't understand how much of my time would be taken up with trying to make a case for the British Film Institute: what it's for, why it exists, why it needs its money. And then there are things like tonight, where we see an extraordinary film and listen to a master of the cinema, and it all becomes very clear. I wish that all the people who should be giving us money could have been here this evening, but instead we welcome all our Iranian friends.

The BFI exists to celebrate all poets of world cinema, of the past and present. Clearly we have a great cinema poet with us this evening. There's a great tradition at the BFI of giving fellowships and I thought one of the great jobs that I'd have at the BFI would be to give them out on a regular basis, but this is the first one that I'm giving out in my tenure. I'm giving it not by myself, but on behalf of the BFI board of governors who voted unanimously to award Abbas Kiarostami the Fellowship of the British Film Institute. It's a great honour and a great privilege, and I do it on behalf of all of us who work at the BFI, who care about film and world cinema, and the great artistry that exists in world cinema. He is a great artist and a poet. I sometimes think that if Samuel Beckett made films, he'd make them like Kiarostami makes them. So it's my honour to give you this, Abbas.

AK: Thank you so much. This is a very great pleasure, a great honour, to get such a valuable prize, especially from you.

INTERVIEW: Films Without Borders: Abbas Kiarostami Talks About "ABC Africa" and Poetic CinemaEdit

text source indieWIRE[4] From the "People" Archives:

INTERVIEW: Films Without Borders: Abbas Kiarostami Talks About "ABC Africa" and Poetic Cinema

by Scott Foundas

"This interview originally ran in indieWIRE in May 2001."

Last Saturday, Abbas Kiarostami's "ABC Africa" screened at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival -- a fitting international launch for a mostly English-language documentary made by an Iranian filmmaker amidst the war-torn, AIDS-ravaged orphanages of Uganda. The screening's special, out-of-competition status was equally appropriate, given that Kiarostami has said he no longer wishes to enter his films into competitions.

However, this was not "ABC Africa'"s world premiere. Kiarostami chose to bestow that honor on the 2001 DoubleTake Documentary Film Festival, held in Durham, North Carolina the weekend prior to the Cannes showing. Kiarostami attended the premiere in Durham, as well as a festival-long retrospective of his earlier works. And as the capacity crowds indicated, people all over the map finally seem to be catching on to Kiarostami.

As for the film itself: it is among Kiarostami's greatest works. Documentaries can serve many purposes: to inform, educate, shock and inspire. But Kiarostami manages to accomplish all of those functions at the same time that he transcends them. Though it is his first overtly "international" production (and his first fully non-fiction work in over a decade), "ABC Africa" is essentially, like all of Kiarostami's films, a breaking-away from specific national and cultural orientations to speak in a more universal tongue: a film without borders.

"ABC Africa" will likely mean something different to each viewer who sees it. And while one suspects that the content and structure of the film will tempt critics to use the word "accessible" as a catch-all adjective, Kiarostami has acted out of no need to narrow the gap between those who do and don't "get" his work. It is, in short, the closest he has yet come to his ideal of a "poetic cinema," indebted more to the qualities of poetry and music than to the prosaic storytelling of theatrical-novelistic tradition.

In a Q&A following the film's DoubleTake premiere, Kiarostami told the audience that Africa is the only area he has visited that caused him to consider trading in his Iranian passport and moving there permanently. Watching the film, you understand why: Despite offering up, in nearly equal doses, the unfettered beauty of the land where civilization began and the horror of the modern plagues that threaten to wipe out its people, Kiarostami is ultimately awestruck by the mysterious affirming of life that exists amid even such ostensibly desperate circumstances. As the film's final images play from the window of a departing airplane, we realize that part of Africa will always be with Kiarostami, and with us.

In Durham, Kiarostami graciously agreed to sit down for an interview with indieWIRE the morning of the "ABC Africa" premiere to speak about his latest work, digital video, poetic cinema, and "seeing with borrowed eyes."

[A large debt of gratitude is owed to Dr. Jamsheed Akrami, both for his translation services and invaluable assistance in making this interview happen. Akrami's own superb, critical survey of post-Revolution Iranian cinema, "Friendly Persuasion," will premiere this summer on the Sundance Channel.]

"A good movie is made by an initial burst of energy, the way that, when you are in school, your class exercises are always better than your final projects. Because it contains that initial energy, and that contributes to the quality of the work."

indieWIRE: As a rule, I don't like to talk too much about a film I haven't seen yet. But because it's required of this interview that I ask you a few questions about "ABC Africa," I'd like to start by talking about how the project originated.

Abbas Kiarostami: The UN, since they knew that I had made films for children for so many years, decided to invite me to make a film about the orphaned children in Uganda. Their intention was a sort of general mobilization to attack this problem, and this movie is an invitation to the rest of the world to help with these orphaned kids and their plight.

iW: Was this an invitation you were eager to accept, or did you have initial reservations about making the film?

Kiarostami: I didn't quite officially accept the invitation, but I accepted to go to the area for a visit. So, it was a sort of location scouting, but we had cameras with us and we started shooting -- not for the purpose of making the actual film. Then, when we finished shooting, we looked at the footage we had and decided that maybe we could make the movie out of this footage.

iW: This is hardly alien to you: this idea of making a movie on-the-spot, as you did in "Homework" and "Close-Up" previously. And yet, most movies endure long and arduous pre-production processes -- only to produce an end result that is, in terms of clarity and sense of purpose, frequently inferior to your own impromptu films.

Kiarostami: I agree with you about this style of working. A good movie is made by an initial burst of energy, the way that, when you are in school, your class exercises are always better than your final projects. Because again, it contains that initial energy, and that energy contributes to the quality of the work.

When I talk to some of the younger filmmakers, they are so worried about their films that, eventually, this state of being worried reflects itself in and helps the final work. Whereas, with projects that are meticulously planned, you look at the end result and it is full of emptiness.

iW: Certainly, the issue of the AIDS epidemic in Africa has been one of the two or three international news stores that has received the most media attention here in the US. Is it a subject that is of any interest or concern to an Iranian audience?

Kiarostami: They have kept the whole question of AIDS under the rug in Iran; it is like a secret illness. There was an attempt a few months ago to bring it out to the public arena for discussion, but this attempt was aborted. To me, AIDS is an international epidemic and every country can be affected by it. Therefore, it can be discussed on an international level. Unfortunately, AIDS doesn't require a visa.

iW: "ABC Africa" is the first of your films to be shot entirely in a video format (specifically, mini-DV), and I was wondering if you could speak a bit about both the logistical and philosophical reasons for shooting on video this time around.

Kiarostami: I didn't use this new digital camera as a serious work tool. I took it with me more like a still camera, to take some notes with it. But when I actually started using it -- and when I realized its possibilities and what I could do with them -- I realized that I have wasted, in a way, 30 years of my career using the 35mm camera, because that camera, for the type of work that I do, is more of a hindrance than a communication tool. When I say "35mm camera," I'm not just referring to the machine itself, but to what it brings with it -- the whole crew. That's the kind of thing that's not for me or the kind of movies that I make. I like to work with this much smaller camera, which is more intimate and more immediate. For example, for people who appear in front of it, they are not intimidated by it. They are more comfortable in front of the digital camera and so, in every way, it facilitates communication.

I think that the best writers really are the ones we came to know as the best writers over the past hundred years. But the best filmmakers are not necessarily the ones that we've come to know as the best filmmakers of the century. Because of the requirements of the 35mm camera and the mode of production that comes with that camera, there were a lot of people who just couldn't afford to use it. Now, this digital camera makes it possible for everybody to pick it up, like a pen. If you have the right vision, and you think you're an instinctive filmmaker, there's no hindrance anymore. You just pick it up, like a pen, and work with it. I predict that, in the next century, there will be an explosion of interest in filmmaking, and that will be the impact of the digital camera.

iW: Which makes the journey for you between making "The Wind Will Carry Us" and making "ABC Africa" not unlike the journey of The Engineer in "Wind Will Carry Us" who goes from a big crew to capturing snapshots, surreptitiously, with his still camera.

Kiarostami: Yes, actually. I was lucky that this new medium appeared to me between these two films. Because I also had that same sense of exhaustion that The Engineer has in "The Wind Will Carry Us," this new camera appeared to me, in a sense, like an angel and saved my life. Not necessarily in terms of my mental approach to making a film, but in terms of the ease of operation.

iW: Yet, do you not find that there is a fundamental difference in the way a video camera perceives an image versus the film camera? For example, in "Taste of Cherry," we have a 35mm feature that is followed by a brief, shot-on-video coda -- a juxtaposition of the two media that would not have been possible had you shot the entire film on video.

Kiarostami: I'm caught by surprise by this question, and I need to think about a response. Sometimes, I will have to go back to 35mm, if it's a complicated work. But for that movie ("Taste of Cherry"), to have the two cameras there was a tremendous help to me --the same way that in "Close-Up," I had the journalistic aspect of the 16mm, which I used to do the courtroom scenes, compared to the 35mm. The graininess of the 16mm camera was very helpful to me there. I still have this strong inclination to continue to use the digital format, but I'm not committed to it in a way that, if a project required me to go back to 35mm, I wouldn't do it. But again, you picked up on a very fine point.

iW: In the past, you have spoken of the concept of "seeing with borrowed eyes," a Persian expression which you define as your desire to have the audience see both what is in a given scene, and what is outside that scene. I'd like to offer an elaboration on this phrase, which is that in your films we are frequently exposed to images that are at once of a deeply personal meaning to you as an artist, but also of a profoundly universal recognition. In a way, you seem to be borrowing our eyes, and we seem to be borrowing yours.

Kiarostami: This is my objective. As I have said repeatedly, I make one film as a filmmaker, but the audience, based on that film, makes 100 movies in their minds. Every audience member can make his own movie. This is what I strive for. Sometimes, when my audiences tell me about the mental movies they have made based on my movie, I am surprised, and I become the audience for their movies as they are describing them to me. My movie has only functioned as a base for them to make their movies.

"When I talk about 'poetic cinema,' I'm not talking about sending a humanistic message. I'm talking about the cinema being like poetry, possessing the complicated qualities of poetry, and also having the vast potential of poetry."

I am lucky as a filmmaker that my films have found audiences such as yourself, because otherwise my work has gone to no purpose. Unfortunately, we don't have too many audiences of this kind in the world. Maybe I shouldn't have used the word "unfortunately." Just the same amount that exists right now is OK, the same limited number of audiences that appreciate my work. But that number is on the increase right now, and I've been witnessing that myself. It seems that something is changing very rapidly, and the sort of film that used to not have a great audience is now gaining one.

iW: I think the mere fact that we are here, in Durham, amidst capacity crowds for the screenings of your films, is evidence of that. But even in major U.S. cities, the films of yours that have been released commercially have come and gone in the blink of an eye. And it's puzzling when you consider that there was a time when the films by the great filmmakers of the world -- Bergman, Fellini, Godard -- regularly received healthy international distribution, and caused crowds to line up around the block. You might be the first of an entire generation of similarly great filmmakers whose work will be known almost exclusively within the world of film festivals.

Kiarostami: Thank you for comparing me with those filmmakers. I think they were making greater films, but at the same time, the Hollywood cinema wasn't as dominating then as it is now. In earlier years, when you had a dragon in a Hollywood movie, it only had one head. But now, those same dragons have seven heads! So, it's a more formidable competition, and that's why those movies don't leave any audience for us. The fact is that movies train the eyes of their audiences, and when they have been trained on these types of Hollywood movies, it is very difficult to then convert them to our movies. But, sort of unknowingly, the Hollywood cinema is going into a direction that may end up helping our kind of cinema. Audiences are being left dissatisfied now.

Some movies bring out the creativity in you. Every single audience member can become creative in the face of a particular movie. If you happen to like my films, it's because my films provide a bed for you on which you can find your creativity. The Hollywood movies do not provide that for you.

iW: You've spoken in the past about a desire to make a kind of "poetic cinema" -- more indebted to poetry than to novels or theater.

Kiarostami: Well, the cinema has been referred to as "the seventh art," and you can interpret that in two ways: either it includes the other arts and is some sort of summation of them; or, maybe it is the most complete art form. But unfortunately, there is so much reliance on storytelling in cinema, this makes it unlike the other art forms. The other art forms do not take it upon themselves to tell you a story; it is only film as a medium that has assumed that function.

I remember a poem by Rumi that my father taught me and, since I was a child, I've been reciting it. That poem is like a mirror in which I have been able to see myself throughout the different stages of my life, and I have found it to always be true to where I was at a given point. But a movie is not like that poem. A movie is something fixed, and when you look at it you see the same thing. It doesn't grow with you, whereas the poetry has the potential to grow with you, and to change with you.

But going back to the idea of cinema as the seventh art, it's ironic that all the other art forms, such as painting and music, have gone through stages of evolution and have changed. But for cinema, this has not happened yet; the cinema is the same as it always was. When I talk about "poetic cinema," I don't mean that it has something to do with poetry. When I talk about "poetic cinema," I'm not talking about sending a humanistic message. I'm talking about the cinema being like poetry, possessing the complicated qualities of poetry, and also having the vast potential of poetry. To have the capabilities of a prism.

This kind of cinema -- the prism-like cinema -- has a lasting capability and, in any given situation, in any given time period, you can relate to it in a different way and people can discover themselves in it. I think cinema should follow the other arts, go through the same process and assume the same outlook that they do. But the viewers have to make a concession, in the sense of not expecting only entertainment from the films, in the same way that, when they don't understand poetry, they don't fault the poetry for being bad poetry. They live with it. And when they go to hear music, they don't expect to hear a story. And when they're looking at an abstract painting, it brings other things to their mind; it is through association that they "get" the meaning of it, not through immediate reality. I wish they would do the same in front of a movie screen.

iW: Part of me came here today wanting to ask you, out of sheer curiosity, specific questions about what is real and what is staged in such films as "Through the Olive Trees" and "Close-Up," which so skillfully confuse our notions of documentary and narrative filmmaking. But I think that a larger part of me chooses not to know the answers to those questions, for risk of spoiling the special magic of those very films.

Kiarostami: I thank you for not asking those questions! You know, when I was watching "Close-Up" last night, I couldn't remember which lines I gave to the actors and which ones they gave to me, and I like that. I think the ideal is for the two sides to fall into a unified whole. That's why I think filmmakers should stay at a distance from their films, and that was the experience that I had last night. I was able to view the film more like a viewer.

Taste of Kiarostami by David SterrittEdit

text source sense of cinema[5]]

Taste of Kiarostami

by David Sterritthttp

A shorter version of this interview appeared in Film Comment vol.36, no.4 July-Aug 2000, and has been re-published here with the kind permission of the author of the interview and the editor of Film Comment.


David Sterritt is film critic of The Christian Science Monitor, chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle, Professor of Theater and Film at Long Island University, and author and editor of books on Jean-Luc Godard, Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Altman, and the Beat Generation.

Abbas Kiarostami deserves more credit than any other single director for fueling the recent rise of Iranian cinema, arguably the most dramatic film development of the past dozen years. The excitement started when his slyly reflexive Close-Up (1989) reached the international circuit in the early '90s, and crested when his extraordinary Taste of Cherry (1997) shared the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1997. While a handful of his Iranian colleagues have also achieved a fair share of Western recognition-including Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Jafar Panahi, both of whom have collaborated with him-he has remained the most highly visible figure, thanks to films like the so-called Koker trilogy (Where Is the Friend's Home [1987], And Life Goes On [1992], Through the Olive Trees [1994]) that have earned ecstatic reviews and drawn enthusiastic art-house audiences in Europe and the United States.

All of which explains why a touch of the Enthronement Syndrome has crept up on Kiarostami, with the worshipful attitude of some devotees sparking a backlash from others who question whether this emperor is wearing as impressive an outfit as his admirers claim. A surprising amount of debate surfaced over the ending of Taste of Cherry, wherein the film's fascinatingly discursive story-centering on a man's long discussions with three strangers about his wish to end his life-is followed by a video epilogue showing the actors and filmmakers preparing their final take in the pleasant hillside location where the suicide scene is set. Supporters saw this as a bold extension of Kiarostami's self-referential complexity, but detractors labeled it a confusing cop-out that dodges narrative issues instead of resolving them. The latter group was back in action when The Wind Will Carry Us premiered at the Toronto festival last fall, complaining that its reliance on familiar moves-driving scenes, front-seat talkathons, God's-eye views of Iranian countryside--prove the director is literally spinning his wheels.

Such arguments notwithstanding, it's plain to anyone who has seriously engaged with Iranian film in general or Kiarostami's work in particular that Taste of Cherry and The Wind Will Carry Us are full-fledged masterpieces, and that the master who created them deserves any throne he might choose to occupy. Far from repeating a series of trademarked gestures, The Wind Will Carry Us finds Kiarostami weaving one of his most suggestive philosophical webs around the deceptively simple tale of a filmmaker who barges into a rural town, hoping to record a folk ritual that will take place after an old woman's impending death. One of the movie's feet is planted firmly in the earthbound world of the village and its inhabitants, while the other roams as freely as the protagonist's ever-present cell phone-which isn't so freely, it turns out, since the phone refuses to function unless he climbs into his car and races to the top of a distant hill. There he chats with a ditch-digger whose face is never seen and finds a human bone that becomes his talisman, signaling that while the wind may carry us, the earth remains our home and our destination.

The Wind Will Carry Us takes its title and a small but crucial part of its screenplay from a poem by the late Foroogh Farrokhzaad, an Iranian feminist and poet of the modern Persian style. This is fitting, since the cultivation of a deeply poetic cinema has been a driving force behind Kiarostami's career, as he acknowledges in the following interview. I first met Kiarostami at Cannes three years ago, and caught up with him again at the San Francisco festival this spring. He speaks some English but preferred to conduct our interview in Farsi through interpreter Nazli Monahan, listening closely to her translations and occasionally jumping in with corrections. Since he was in San Francisco to receive the Akira Kurosawa Award for lifetime achievement, and since Kurosawa spoke highly of his work, I began by asking if he felt a particular kinship with Kurosawa's films. His answer was refreshingly frank.

No. But I think a filmmaker of a certain mold can enjoy movies by a filmmaker of a very different mold. For example, one of the movies I really like and enjoy is The Godfather, and people are shocked by that: "If you make movies like you do, how can you enjoy a movie like that?" But that's the beauty of it! [laughs]

Is it still appropriate to speak of national cinemas today, or has film become too internationalized for that kind of labeling?

Each movie has an ID or birth certificate of its own. A movie is about human beings, about humanity. All the different nations in the world, despite their differences of appearance and religion and language and way of life, still have one common thing, and that is what's inside of all of us. If we X-rayed the insides of different human beings, we wouldn't be able to tell from those X-rays what the person's language or background or race is. Our blood circulates exactly the same way, our nervous system and our eyes work the same way, we laugh and cry the same way, we feel pain the same way. The teeth we have in our mouths-no matter what our nationality or background is-ache exactly the same way. If we want to divide cinema and the subjects of cinema, the way to do it is to talk about pain and about happiness. These are common among all countries.

Often your films don't provide us with complete information about the characters or the story, and you've been quoted as saying that one reason is because-I'm paraphrasing--the viewer is part of the creative process. It's up to us to make sense of the material, and each of us will do that differently. How does this idea-each individual coming to his or her own understanding of a film-match with the idea that we're all basically the same since we share a common humanity?

It's a difficult question. People do have different ideas, and my wish is that all viewers should not complete the film in their minds the same way, like crossword puzzles that all look the same no matter who has solved them. Even if it's "filled out" wrong, my kind of cinema is still "correct" or true to its original value. I don't leave the blank spaces just so people have something to finish. I leave them blank so people can fill them according to how they think and what they want. In my mind, the abstraction we accept in other forms of art-painting, sculpture, music, poetry-can also enter the cinema. I feel cinema is the seventh art, and supposedly it should be the most complete since it combines the other arts. But it has become just storytelling, rather than the art it should really be.

There are some filmmakers who say what you just said and proceed to make films that don't tell stories-that really are abstract, with form and color and movement but without pictures conveying a narrative. Has that approach ever interested you?

Every movie should have some kind of story. But the important thing is how the story is told-it should be poetic, and it should be possible to be seen in different ways. I have seen movies that didn't attract me or make a lot of sense while I was looking at them, but there were moments in them that opened a window for me and inspired my imagination. I have left many films in the middle because I felt I already had an ending. I felt quite complete and fulfilled with the movie, and if I stayed longer that feeling would be ruined, because it would keep telling me more and forcing me to judge who is the good guy, who is the bad guy, and what's going to happen to them. I prefer to finish it my own way!

Much of what you say describes how poets work more than how novelists work. It's interesting that your most recent film, The Wind Will Carry Us, draws its title and some of its text from poetry. Are you trying to move farther in that direction-toward cinema as poetry rather than cinema as novel?

Yes. I feel the cinema that will last longer is the poetic cinema, not the cinema that is just storytelling. In my library at home, the books of novels and stories look brand new because I just read them once and put them aside; but my poetry books are falling apart at every corner, because I have read them over and over and over! Poetry always runs away from you-it's very difficult to grasp it, and every time you read it, depending on your conditions, you will have a different grasp of it. Whereas with a novel, once you have read it, you have grasped it. Of course, this doesn't encompass all novels. There are stories that do have a poetic essence to them, just as there are poems that are much like a novel, and once you have read it, that's enough, you don't need to read it again. The poetry we had to memorize at school was all that kind--dialogues between a caterpillar and a spider, and that sort of thing. They weren't trying to teach us poetry in the true sense of poetry, they were trying to train us and develop us through poetry.

One of the differences between a film and a poem is that most people assume they can see a film once or twice and "get it," which is very different from the attitude you describe toward poetry, which we return to over and over again. Will there always be problems reaching audiences with a poetic form of cinema, since people aren't accustomed to returning to a film again and again? Do you expect people to see a given film of yours many times, or do you at least hope they will?

I would be too selfish if I said everyone should see my movies more than once. To say that would mean I'm just marketing my work! I can't really say why I make movies this way, it's just the way I know how. When I'm in the process of making a movie I'm not thinking about the finished result, and whether people have to see it once or more than once, and what the reaction to it will be. I just make it, and then I live with the consequences, some of which may not be as pleasant as I'd like! I know one thing, however. Many viewers may come out of the theater not satisfied, but they won't be able to forget the movie. I know they'll be talking about it during their next dinner. I want them to be a little restless about my movies, and keep trying to find something in them.

You're one of a small group who-by consistently making films according to certain principles and ideas that you believe in-are educating your audience, teaching them how to appreciate a more challenging kind of cinema. With each movie we understand a little better how to engage with your work.

I believe the chance that exists for this type of cinema today did not exist 20 years ago. Audiences are tiring of the kinds of movies they see nowadays, and they're wanting to see something different. Of course, in Iran this [poetic] type of cinema is shown in only one theater, and here [in the United States] it's shown in two theaters, compared with the stereotypical movie that's played in a couple of thousand theaters. But I'm satisfied. Most people want simplicity, they want to get excited, cry, laugh.and we can't expect the same level of enthusiasm for [poetic] cinema. I'm not comparing my works with theirs, but if you had the paintings of Kandinsky or Braque or Picasso on auction in a park, how many people would buy them, even at $100 apiece? One must have a realistic expectation for art that is real art, as opposed to what is entertainment. The general public won't pay for a picture if they can't quite understand what's in it and what it says.

I sometimes think of this issue in terms of works that close off thought-like the poetry we had to learn in school, which hands us the answers and ideas it wants us to have-as opposed to works that open thought and serve as a place for us to start our own thinking.

I agree. The poetic film is like a puzzle where you put the pieces together and they don't necessarily match. You can make whatever arrangement you yourself would like. Contrary to what the general public is used to, it doesn't give you a clear result at the end. And it doesn't give you advice!

Turning to your latest film, The Wind Will Carry Us, one theme that interests me is a striking tension, or dialogue, between that which is physical, material, rooted in the earth, and that which is ungraspable in physical ways. This operates on a number of levels, but to choose one, we have communication within the village-where people speak to each other and give things to each other-and opposed to this we have the cell phone, which is carried on the wind, so to speak. I'm interested in your view of how the abstract or ungraspable relates to the limitations of our physical lives-to the fact that we are material, mortal beings. Is there a tension in your film between what we might call the physical and the spiritual?

I haven't really seen the movie yet. I looked at it as a technician for a year, and I'm still too close to it in that way, so I can't really judge it. But one of my viewers told me it's about souls, about people who are gone, who don't exist-for example, the man digging the ditch, or the old woman who is dying. We don't see their lives. Just as you said, the movie does have a physical essence to it, but it also has a nonphysical or spiritual side. We don't see some characters, but we do feel them. This shows there is a possibility of being without being. That's the main theme of the movie, I think.

"Being without being"? Would you elaborate on that?

With this type of movie, we as viewers can create things according to our own experiences-the things we don't see, that aren't visible. There are 11 people in this movie who are not visible. At the end you know you haven't seen them, but you feel you know who they were and what they were about. I want to create the type of cinema that shows by not showing. This is very different from most movies nowadays, which are not literally pornographic but are in essence pornographic, because they show so much that they take away any possibility of imagining things for ourselves. My aim is to give the chance to create as much as possible in our minds, through creativity and imagination. I want to tap the hidden information that's within yourself and that you probably didn't even know existed inside you. We have a saying in Persian, when somebody is looking at something with real intensity: "He had two eyes and he borrowed two more." Those two borrowed eyes are what I want to capture-the eyes that will be borrowed by the viewer to see what's outside the scene he's looking at. To see what is there and also what is not there.

Different viewers will approach this challenge in different ways, but ideally-with your best viewers, perhaps-what do you hope they will imagine? Is it a question of filling in details that you're not showing-details of the story, the characters, the situations-or does it have to do with souls, with the spirit, as you mentioned earlier? What is it we're being invited to provide from our own imaginations, from those two extra eyes?

It depends on the experiences and the mental capacity of the viewer. I myself don't know for sure. It depends on what the viewer's urge is-to fill out the gaps in the story, or to think about something more spiritual. Many viewers have found my movies much more beautiful than what I actually made, and that comes from themselves, from the way they approached the film. They have used my movie to bring out information they have inside themselves. In my movies I want to tap that inside, hidden information that you probably didn't even know existed inside you.

Who are some other filmmakers you feel might be working on a similar wavelength?

Hou Hsiao-hsien is one. Tarkovsky's works separate me completely from physical life, and are the most spiritual films I have seen--what Fellini did in parts of his movies, bringing dream life into film, he does as well. Theo Angelopoulos's movies also find this type of spirituality at certain moments. In general, I think movies and art should take us away from daily life, should take us to another state, even though daily life is where this flight is launched from. This is what gives us comfort and peace. The time for Scheherazade and the King-the storytelling time-is over.

The main character of Taste of Cherry seems to want a total escape from the physical, the material. A conventional director would make this into a psychological tale, but I don't think your movie is a psychological tale, because we don't understand the way this man thinks any better at the end than at the beginning. So this film also seems to concern a quest to somehow get beyond the physical, even if the means have to be very negative, and it relates again to the tension between the material and the spiritual.

Different viewers have different opinions about that movie. Committing suicide is forbidden in Islam, of course, and is not even spoken of. But some religious people have liked the film because they felt that, just as you said, it shows a quest to connect with something more heavenly, something above physical life. The scene at the end, where you see cherry blossoms and beautiful things after he's died, has that message-that he has opened the door to heaven. It wasn't a hellish thing he did, it was a heavenly transition.

When Taste of Cherry was due at Cannes, there was speculation that Iranian authorities might stop it because it dealt with suicide. But afterward some reports said its subject matter had not been a problem. Did that film run into difficulties with the censors because of its subject?

There was controversy about the movie, but after I talked with the authorities, they accepted the fact that this is not a movie about suicide-it's about the choice we have in life, to end it whenever we want. We have a door we can open at any time, but we choose to stay, and the fact that we have this choice is, I think, God's kindness: God is kind because he has given us this choice. They were satisfied with that explanation. A sentence from [Romanian-French philosopher E.M. Cioran] helped me a lot: "Without the possibility of suicide, I would have killed myself long ago." The movie is about the possibility of living, and how we have the choice to live. Life isn't forced on us. That's the main theme of the movie.

Beyond this particular film, are you aware of the censorship situation in Iran influencing or shaping your work?

It's a difficult question. Over the years of working in Iran I have been sensitive to this, and it has influenced my work to a certain extent. However, my films have escaped the sharp censorship scissors.probably because the censors did not quite understand what they should censor in them! A movie is good, I think, when the censor does not understand what should be censored. If a film is made so a censor cuts some parts of it, then those parts should have been cut, because he understood them!

One more question. You are known for working not from a screenplay but from an outline of perhaps a few pages, and for making up much of the acting and dialogue at the last minute. What's the advantage of working this way?

On-the-spot creation of dialogue has been necessary because it's the only way I could work with people who are not professional actors, and some of the moments you see in my movies have surprised me as well as others. I don't give dialogue to the actors, but once you explain the scene to them, they just start talking, beyond what I would have imagined. It's like a cycle, and I don't know where it starts and ends: I don't know whether I'm teaching them what to say, or they're teaching me what to receive! There's a very old poem that talked about this 1000 years ago, when cinema didn't exist. The metaphor is about a game they played in olden days that's a little similar to polo. In this kind of creative work, the actor is like the ball that I'm following with my stick: I run after him constantly, but he's making me run too!

© David Sterritt 2000

A conversation with Abbas Kiarostami by David WalshEdit

text source World Socialist Web Site[6]

A conversation

Later in the afternoon I had the opportunity to speak one-on-one with the Iranian director, through an interpreter. He began generously by explaining that the review of Taste of Cherry posted on the WSWS had been translated into Farsi and published in a film magazine in Iran.

David Walsh: I have so many things to ask, I don't know where to begin.

Abbas Kiarostami: We have an hour, we can take our time.

DW: Can you feel that you have a great deal of support in this country?

AK: I am very happy about that. I'm happy that this support comes from within one of the powers. This is the place whose films dominate the world's cinemas. And it's perfectly possible that films such as mine would not be seen at all. The very fact that the films are being seen is an affirmation and a sign of support, never mind that they're praised.

DW: The American people have been told by the government and the media for years that Iran is a country of terrorists. Do you think that if American people were able to see Iranian films they would have a different impression?

AK: This is a policy that is conducted basically to separate people and create rifts as opposed to bringing peoples together. Through film we're able to see another reality that does not resemble the one being propagated by the media.

For example, I've seen films, documentaries, about Africa on television that have no similarity whatsoever to my impression and my experience in the time I spent there. Therefore one of the manifestations of art cinema is to show reality beyond the headlines.

DW: Could you speak a bit about this African film?

AK: Everything there is very green and plentiful. I saw people who are poverty-stricken but extremely rich within. They're very happy people. Something I've almost never seen. I asked my friend why these people were so happy. He said it was because of the three things these people do not have: pollution, tension and competition.

The competition that they do have, however, is a big one, between life and death. And that's why their lives have so much meaning, because death is so close at hand. They're happy just to be alive.

DW: This is in Uganda?

AK: I went to Uganda because it had less civil strife. Have you ever been to Africa?

DW: No. Well, I saw a bit of it from a boat.

AK: It's a very strange experience. We drove for hours at night without there being a flicker of light. And people would be lining the road, dressed in white. There was no light at all. No electricity, no candles, no light at all. But sometimes you see a bonfire. The land was completely empty. Clumps of trees. I cooked bananas for the first time. They make various things with the bananas. And with fruit I didn't know. Carefree and happy.

DW: Are you going back?

AK: I'm hoping that the filming I did will not be satisfactory so that I'll have to go back.

DW: I saw The Traveler for the first time here. I found the last few minutes, the dream, especially disturbing. It showed a brutal, harsh situation. I wondered what the response in Iran was at that time to the film.

AK: I remember when we came out of the theater at the first screening there was a child crying and his mother said, “Look, this man made the film.” And the kid said, “You're very bad, why didn't you let the boy see the game?” And I still don't know if I were to remake that film if I would or wouldn't have the boy see the game. I find it hard to believe that I would end it a different way.

I believe that if there's any poetry there's some sadness in it, that in all beautiful things there's some sadness. But I think the critical thing is that it shouldn't be imposed upon a film, it must be part of it, an experience that occurs to everyone.

There's a Van Gogh painting of a beautiful woman sleeping and a man, whose arms are long and weary, sleeping next to her on a farm. They're lovers asleep on that farm, but it's clear that exhaustion has created a huge difference between them.

DW: There is a lot of money and corruption in the film industry, and the artistic results in general are not very good. What can we do to oppose this?

AK: You're obviously doing your part because you point out the films that are made with smaller budgets, smaller films. It's not possible to change this situation dramatically because the wheel of film is being turned by industry, by business. Many people are workers who work within that film industry. A lot of people go to see films just to be entertained. That sort of film exists and that is as it should be. And that is the cinema that allows our films to be made because otherwise there would be no reason to show our films. What you do, pointing a finger at the films that are different, is all that can be done.

DW: Can you envision artists organizing some kind of alternative structures as well?

AK: I think is going to happen, little by little. This year there are three Iranian films at Cannes and they are films from this sort of cinema, which is an exception, because Cannes does not usually showcase that kind of films. And there seems to be an appreciation for films from Asia, as far as Cannes goes. There is no choice for cinema other than to become a little bit more internalized, more intimate, more profound. To begin with, the technique and the facilities created by technology are going to self-destruct eventually. The bombastic film will destroy itself, because it is so full of itself, it will become so full that it will implode. So there will be a return, a reference to a past cinema at that point.

I was channel-surfing last night with the remote control in the hotel room and the two times I paused anywhere and focused were on black-and-white films. And that wasn't even a conscious choice. One was a Tarzan with Johnny Weissmuller. It was at least watchable, even though it was just entertainment, it felt like a healthier thing. The other, newer films I couldn't even watch, because there was so much going on and they were moving so fast that it just disturbed my vision, disturbed me. Therefore I believe that even the eyes of the commercial viewership is going to need some serenity, some calm. This itself will increase the opportunities for independent films. And of course your finger pointing at this as well.

DW: You feel sometimes that people are hungry for something, but they don't know yet what it is.

AK: The viewers leave a film today unfulfilled, hungry and uncertain as to what happened, this is where the filmmaker has the chance to ensnare them, to win them.

DW: My feeling is that people don't expect very much today. They don't expect great pleasure. They expect action, whatever.

AK: It's because the films have gotten them used to expecting action and not pleasure, because the technicians are making the films, not filmmakers. We're going to get to a point where that will become clear and it will have to change.

DW: Doesn't the future of cinema also depend on an improvement in the social and political atmosphere?

AK: I don't think so, I don't think we should depend that much on what happens politically. I actually sometimes think that at least in our country art has grown the most when the social situation has been the worst. It seems to me that artists are a compensatory mechanism, a defense mechanism in those kinds of unfavorable circumstances.

DW: Humanity has suffered a great deal in the past and continues to suffer. How do artists treat that honestly without surrendering to fatalism or pessimism?

AK: It's a difficult question and I can't answer precisely how artists do that, but the ones who do are the artists, the ones who accomplish the task of turning that painful experience of humanity into art. Without becoming cynical. Making it possible for everyone to get some pleasure out of pain, to make beauty. The same question arises when people ask how does carbon turn into diamonds, and not all the pieces of carbon turn into diamonds; some do and some don't.

DW: There is an idea in many of the Iranian films that I've seen that art is for everyone, and I think that's entirely healthy and democratic. But sometimes with some directors, in my opinion, the artistic problem is presented too simply, as though art were an automatic reflection of life. Don't we have to defend the idea that art requires a special study and knowledge of the artistic process?

AK: Yes, because the exact imitation of life is not art. There is a comment by Godard that life is a film that is not well-made. When you make a film you have to make it well, you have to edit it, you have to choose, you have to eliminate. You have to create its essential truth, not what is.

DW: Oscar Wilde said that life is a failure from the artistic point of view. Is there always in poetry, in art, a utopian element?

AK: There's another quote from Oscar Wilde that doesn't relate to this discussion. Would you like to hear it?

DW: Yes.

AK: He said that when the critics start arguing, the artists can breathe a sigh of relief. [Laughter.] Could you repeat the other question?

DW: Does serious art always create in the spectator the desire for some other reality?

AK: Yes, I believe so, because otherwise art would have no purpose. Should religion not prove successful at accomplishing that mission, art always can attempt it. They both point in the same direction. Religion points to another world, whereas art points to a better existence. One is an invitation, an offering to a faraway place, the other to a place that is close.

DW: In some of your films there is the figure of an intellectual, whom we take to be somewhat autobiographical. Does that figure appear, from your point of view, accidentally, or are there certain stories appropriate for that figure? Or, why does he appear in some films and not others?

AK: I wouldn't know the answer to that in any exact detail. In a general way I feel a compulsion to do that, that is my instinct. Then I look for those characters who have emerged from within me and I find them and direct them and present them.

DW: It seems difficult for many artists today to treat individual psychological truth, social reality and artistic form with equal seriousness, those three aspects, with commitment. Is that a reasonable statement?

AK: I completely agree. The focus is on the excitation and manipulation of the audience. The question to which I don't know the answer is whether or not the viewer wants to be manipulated. I don't know. Not simply in the cinema, but in encounters between people I have observed someone pleased at being manipulated. Someone saying, “Instead of letting me see reality, manipulate me. I would prefer it.” It's an illness that comes from somewhere in society. And that addresses the question about the artists not focusing on the psychological truth or the social and political realities—it's an escape.

DW: We've just come to the end of the century, at least according to the Western calendar, a century in which it has proven more difficult than people would have thought one hundred years ago to solve some of the great social problems, inequality, injustice. Do you retain confidence that those questions can be solved in the next century?

AK: Who knows? In my short lifetime I have not, even in my own country, experienced a reduction of injustices, never mind a solution. People keep referring to the ‘global village,' but I've just come from Africa where people put the corpses of their children on the back of their bicycles as they pedal away, barefoot. And at the same time on the television all they talk about is Elian Gonzalez.

It's coincidence that the two events were taking place simultaneously, but I was in a hospital in Africa and, on the one hand, I could see CNN on the television monitor and through the window I could see parents putting the corpse of a kid in a box and tying it to the back of a bicycle they were going to push.

I'm quoting an author I don't know who said that in the year 2000 humanity will only be four years old. I think that applies. Humanity today is just about at the stage of a four-year-old. So we'll have to wait a long time before humanity even reaches adolescence.

DW: What is the artist's central responsibility?

AK: People are or aren't artists, and I don't know that you can establish a duty or a responsibility for an artist, as you would for certain occupations. The artist has been given the task of being an artist.

Interview with Kiarostami by Jamsheed AkramiEdit

text source Facets Multi-Media[7]


Interview with Kiarostami

The Power of Movies: Abbas Kiarostami on Close-Up

By Jamsheed Akrami

Introduction by Ray Privett

How do people relate to characters in the movies they watch? This question dealing with the power of movies is at the base of many debates in film culture, including those related to "positive images" and how film functions in education. Close-Up, a film on the Facets Video Label, offers a provocative case study of the power of movies in ingenious cinematic form.

The simple story of Close-Up is this: One day while riding the bus, a woman sits down next to a man who identifies himself as the filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Ms. Ahankhah is surprised that such a famous filmmaker would take public transportation, and suspiciously questions him. But the man's answers are earnest and plausible. Soon she introduces him to her family. They are flattered as "Makhmalbaf" develops a film featuring them, and try to accommodate his every wish. Soon, however, they become suspicious. Ultimately they have the impostor, revealed to be a poor obsessed cinephile named Sabzian, arrested and tried for fraud. Abbas Kiarostami, another well-known filmmaker, learns about the case from a newspaper report and films the trial. Kiarostami then follows Sabzian as he tries to make amends.

Close-Up presents the story by juxtaposing scenes shot during the actual trial and its aftermath with reconstructions of earlier events featuring their actual participants. We see the family playing themselves as they are duped, with the real Sabzian once again duping them. But we also see actual footage from the jail and the courtroom where Sabzian compellingly tells his story, and from the outside world as he encounters the real Makhmalbaf, revealing a life shaped by its interaction with cinema.

Sabzian's impersonation is disturbing, for sure, but it is also beautiful and instructive. It is beautiful because it shows the deep patterns linking the life of a humble man and the art he encounters. It is instructive in that it shows that such a thing is possible. It's worth noting, however, that Sabzian undoubtedly encountered countless characters and filmmakers beyond those with whom he bonded. So there must have been something about the characters that he was drawn to that attracted him specifically to them. That's worth remembering as we deal with questions about how movies - and other artforms - function in the broader world.

The following is from an interview Jamsheed Akrami, a Professor of Communication at William Paterson University, recorded with Abbas Kiarostami for Friendly Persuasion, a documentary about Iranian cinema that he directed. The video interview is included on Facets' DVD release of Close-Up. It has been slightly edited for its appearance here.

Jamsheed Akrami: Unlike most of your previous films, Close-Up is not a film about children or for children. How did you decide to make this film?

Abbas Kiarostami: Although Close-Up seems to have nothing to do with children's issues, I remind you of what the actor Hossein Sabzian says in the film. He says, "I am the child from the film Traveler who's left behind." And I would say the child from Traveler is somewhat like the kids from Homework. Those kids are all like the kids from Where is the Friend's Home? I think these kids are somewhat alike, and they just grow up. The 30-something Hossein Sabzian is one of the Homework kids who has grown up and is a product of the same type of education and society.

Close-Up moved me deeply. It started with a magazine account of the story that I read. I was getting ready to make another film, and my crew was ready to begin shooting at a school. But this story had such an impact on me that I could not sleep for a couple of nights. Then, I got my producer to agree that I make this film first, and the other one, which was going to be called Pocket Money, later.

Close-Up turned out to be a very inexpensive production. Everything was in place, and instead of taking the camera into a school to shoot Pocket Money, we took it to the court to shoot Close-Up. That's how we started.

Close-Up is the only film I really like among my films. Not because I made the film - I actually have no opinion about my films. But to me this was a different film. Everything happened so quickly. The subject matter was so strong, and I put so much effort into making it during 40 days of shooting. When the film was done, I went to its opening night in the festival. Right before the film was to start, I went to the projection room to check the sound. I stayed there for a while, and then quietly found a seat in the theater and watched the whole film. This was something I had never done before. I didn't pay attention to when the audience left the theater. I was not aware of who came in, who laughed, who didn't. I had turned into a viewer myself. I lost sight of the importance of the audience at that very moment, which is something I care about and I get upset any time anyone walks out of any of my films. I tend to think the film is no good. But I watched this film as a mere viewer without caring about other peoples' opinions.

What appealed to me was mainly what was going on inside Sabzian, and this film was like a form of therapy that helped us explore that. As a result of this, I realized I was so much like Sabzian and the Ahankhah brothers at the same time. I also cheat and get cheated; I also need respect. This identification I sensed with Sabzian was something I thought I alone felt due to the fact that we shared the same social background. But whenever a festival shows the film, people who have nothing in common with him relate so deeply to him that they approach me and ask about how he is doing today. They are deeply concerned about him. This is the best a way a film can affect its audience. You see a viewer has developed an emotional tie to your anti-hero character. It's easy to like the kids in Where is the Friend's Home? It doesn't take much to do so because the kid looks really adorable and does something adorable as well. But in Close-Up, it is important that you develop an interest in someone like Sabzian. You find yourself pondering about what happened to him and where he went.

I like Close-Up a lot, because it's such an anti-cliché film. Something nice just happened in the film that was inspired by the subject matter and the characters involved. I was just lucky to have the chance to gather these people together and re-enact what had happened.

JA: The film was made under particular social circumstances where Iran and Iranians seemed to be going through an identity crisis. A radical change with great political and social consequences forced people to begin asking questions about who they really were. Close-Up poses some poignant questions about the collective identity of a nation.

AK: This can be an appropriate interpretation by an intelligent viewer or a film critic. But this could not have been something I was thinking about as I was shooting the film. Actually, I was not. But now that we are revisiting the film, I tend to agree that the film can be seen in different ways, if not about the identity, then about a state of collective depression after a big revolution, in which someone like Sabzian did not find a thing he was looking for, and people like the Ahankhah family lost some things. But these people have somehow come together.

This was pointed out to me once by a non-Iranian viewer, and I found it to be so true. This viewer thought these were people from the opposite ends who come together under some particular circumstances similar to those of an earthquake or apocalyptic conditions. A common problem has brought these people closer together. It's true that the Ahankhahs are suing Sabzian, but I don't think that's as important as what attracted them to each other in the first place. That attraction, in my mind, is more important than the lawsuit. It's the same thing you are referring to. You may call it an identity crisis, a depression, or a common problem.

JA: Most of your characters, beginning with the boy in Traveler, seem to be living in a no man's land between reality and illusion. That may explain why the goals they set for themselves are practically out of their reach.

AK: What they perceive (as their goals) is right and normal, but the circumstances do not accommodate them. Someone told me once the reason I was drawn to these characters was the fact that they were all abnormal. They all get out of line, from the child in Traveler, to Mr. Firooz Koohi in The Report, Hossein Sabzian in Close-Up, Hossein in Through the Olive Trees, Hossein in The Experience, and the boys in The Wedding Suit. I realized that unknowingly I was drawn to special people.

It seems to me since we cannot put every single person in front of our camera, we need to look for either special people or for ordinary people in special circumstances. What does this being special do for us? It's a reminder to us that we are of the same nature as those characters. That's why you have one person acting the role and one person making the film, but thousands of viewers can relate to the film. In other words, all these people, the filmmaker and the actor and the audience, have something in common. This commonality is an indication that if there is something abnormal about a character, everyone watching would have the same abnormality. Otherwise, if they did not have it themselves, how could they recognize it in others? You don't have to be an expert to draw that conclusion. I think the abnormal people who go to great lengths and break the boundaries and cross the lines, in a sense, do us a service by telling us, "the limits you have set for us are too confining for us and we need more space."

We should look at abnormal people from an artist's point of view. We should not act like a court and put them on trial. We should never want to display their shortcomings. We should show them as examples of people who didn't receive proper and timely care. Despite all the laws designed for the protection of deprived people, they were somehow left uncared for and started using their imagination at a point where there was no room for using one's imagination.

The poetry of everyday lifeEdit

text source cineurope[8]

Abbas Kiarostami November 22, 2002

The poetry of everyday life Following its premiere in Cannes and being released in France, Belgium and the United Kingdom, Abbas Kiarostami’s new film, Ten is about to be released in Italy. The Batìk Film Festival in Perugia is holding a retrospective of this Iranian director’s work beginning on 21 November. Kiasrostami is one of the living legends of world cinema; an expert in portraying everyday life and giving it universal appeal despite the critics who accuse Kiarostami of making films as stylistic exercises for fans of all things exotic. Ten is based on a narrative structure that portrays facts that are valid for every single human being on this earth. The location is a car, the protagonists, five women and a child. Ten characters alternate between ten sequences. They talk with each other about their lives. There is no real storyline that unites the parts into a unit. And faced with this exhibition of reality, the spectator tries to reconstruct and link the events. Tiny fragments in which the women talk about marriage, divorce, betrayal, religion, sex and much else besides. Ten was never screened in Iran because the censor ordered Kiarostami to cut 30 minutes. As well as talking about this film, Kiarostami addressed the issue of European cinema and its financial problems. They, he believes, are the reason for the current stagnation and what has stopped cinema developing as an art.

Your films are also co-produced by European companies. What is your relationship with Europe from the economic point of view? “Many of my films were funded by Europeans as well as others. All the same, that is just a detail that I consider to be of secondary importance, in the sense that when I make a film, I only take care of the artistic aspects of the process. When filming is complete, I delegate others to find the money in Europe. I work in total independence. I am an independent director who follows his own personal path. I don’t even worry about how many people will actually go and see the film. I am only too well aware of the fact that my films are light years away from their European and American counterparts in terms of spectacle and action. And so I know that the audience may well find a feature like Ten less appealing. You must however remember that ten seconds of Star Wars cost as much as one of my films so I don’t try to make films that will lose money and remain free to experiment, and try to find alternative cinematographic solutions. Moreover, with Ten, I used DV. That allowed me to keep costs down and have a smaller crew. All the actors are amateurs. The point I’m making is that money and production does not influence the genesis or the execution of my films. The important thing is having the courage to experiment adn to take risks without being intimidated by the fact that only three people may go to see my film. Unfortunately, from the artistic point of view, cinema –when compared to disciplines like painting of music - has stalled. Too much depends on money. And Europe, like the US, has accepted to transform cinema into a mere monument for entertainment.”

You recently experience problems with the Mexican authorities when they failed to issue you with a visa to visit New York for the presentation of Ten. Putting the political issue to one side for a moment, does this totally unjustified hostility encourage you to distinguish between the US and Europe where you have always received a warm and positive reception? “All I want to say from the political point of view is that my personal case is not so important if we examine the context in which it took place. Even if Bush were a huge film fan and loved my work and had known that I cannot be compared to the Fundamentalist, I would still never ever had got the visa. We are at war and there no exceptions are possible. As far as cinema is concerned, the distinction I make is between independent directors and those who are not independent. Unfortunately the American point of view prevails and even Europeans are subject to it. There are few filmmakers who can work in conditions of total freedom and it’s got nothing whatsoever to do with nationality. Moretti and Angeloupoulos are amongst the handful of directors who really make independent films but they are not the only ones. There are people in China and even in the US who do too.”

By Mazzino Montinari

An interview with Abbas Kiarostami, director of Taste of CherryEdit

An interview with Abbas Kiarostami, director of Taste of Cherry by David Walsh[9]

"Human beings and their problems are the most important raw material for any film"

The following interview with Iranian film director Abbas Kiarostami and the review of his film, Through the Olive Trees, first appeared in October 1994. These articles discuss the specifics of that film, but give an indication of Kiarostami’s general outlook and his attitude toward film-making. He is unquestionably one of the contemporary world’s greatest film artists.

David Walsh: How can film or art in general contribute to the lives of ordinary people?

Abbas Kiarostami: First of all, the people in the village are very distant from the cinema or the artistic world. When they only see a couple of films a year, it cannot have an impact on their lives as such. The biggest impact of cinema on the viewer is that it allows his imagination to take flight. There are two possible results of this. Perhaps it will make his ordinary day-to-day life more bearable. On the other hand, it may result in his day-to-day life seeming so bad that as a result he may decide to change his life. We become more aware of the day-to-day hardships. As Shakespeare says, we’re more like our dreams than we are our real lives.

DW: You are choosing to make films about ordinary people, poor people. That itself is quite rare today.

AK: I get my material from around me. When I leave my house in the morning, those are the people I come into contact with. In my entire life I’ve never met a star—somebody I’ve seen on the screen. And I believe that any artist finds his material from what’s around him. Human beings and their problems are the most important raw material for any film. So as a result, when I’d made the film before this, I couldn’t put out of my mind the problems of the lead actor. Which is why I returned to make the third film. I had many interviews in Cannes and people asking me why I had made a trilogy. I gave many answers every day. But I found the most important answer on the final day: my link to these people never was cut off.

And every time I finish a film in the village and I leave, I realize that there are dozens of other subjects that I haven’t covered. It’s difficult for me to forget these people. So that initially when I finished this film, I thought that it was a trilogy and that was that, but in the past few months, I’ve thought about it and I’ve decided to make the next film there.

DW: What was the interest in making a film about a film?

AK: It wasn’t my intention to make a film about a film, I just wanted to tell a story. Because I knew that it was very dangerous to make a film about a film. This is very familiar to people, and many, many filmmakers have done it before. But I couldn’t find any other means for telling this story. And afterwards I wasn’t at all dissatisfied with the way it worked out.

DW: How does the presence of the film crew change the lives of the people in this village, or does it?

AK: I’ve made three films over a period of five years in this village. All in all, these are very intelligent people, and they soon realized that cinema is just this created world, that it’s not real. Initially, it was hard for them to believe that local people like themselves could be in a big film. It was very hard to come to terms with that. They always thought that actors had to be from the big city. Two days before I came here, I showed the film to the actors. Initially, they would laugh at themselves on the screen. But once the film was over, they behaved just like all other actors or viewers. And they were saddened by what they had seen.

DW: Is there any ambiguity in the final sequence?

AK: Yes, it is both ambiguous and it is not. Because if you follow the story you see that the situation in the film is so complex, it’s not possible for the couple to get together. Because the social norms and customs are very powerful and ingrained, and they cause a problem. But I didn’t want to have a very bleak ending to the film. So I added in my own dreamlike ending. And in a way I was wishing for something brighter. I’m reminded of this sentence of [screenwriter] Jean-Claude Carrière’s: we should continue dreaming until we change real life to conform to our dreams. So the ending of the film is more dreamlike rather than something that is possible in reality. Because those two people have become very close to nature. And they’ve metamorphosed into small white flowers. And they grow slowly closer together and they almost become one.

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