Too often the West views its cultural adversaries simplistically: As flat-track oppressors or red-eyed zealots – clinging onto power in corrupt theocracies whilst cronies line their pockets, and artists flee for their lives.
But Abbas Kiarostami stayed in Iran – and furthermore – he kept making profoundly humane films to international acclaim right up to his death on July 4th. He was a director whose career managed to sustain great integrity well after the Islamic Revolution of 1979: An event that turned Iran from a pro-Western monarchy to an anti-Western authoritarian theocracy.
The (first) Iranian New Wave took place in the late 60s and early 70s, and is a cinema of romantic realism driven by practitioners such as Darius Mehrjui, Nasser Taghvai and Sohrab Shahid Saless. Often revolving around themes of poetic isolation, the movement tends to share the documentary characteristics of Italian Neorealism, the German New Wave, and – to a lesser extent – Tarkovskian spirituality: the metaphysicality of solitude.
The imagery of Kiarostami himself is no different, but often feels informed by themes of life and death. In 1997’s Taste of Cherry, a man drives through a Tehran suburb looking for someone who can carry out the task of burying him after he commits suicide. The film – which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes – is a quiet hymn on intimacy and integrity.
Visually, the film mostly exists in the main character’s car and focuses around the discussions he has with the various men he tries to enlist for the grisly burial. Its unabashed photographic discipline makes demands of the unordained viewer’s patience, with the vast majority of the film being simple locked-down medium shots. Indeed, commented Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times:
‘Kiarostami’s style here is an affectation; the subject matter does not make it necessary, and is not benefited by it. If we’re to feel sympathy for Badhi, wouldn’t it help to know more about him?’
It wouldn’t. Kiarostami’s characters must be blank spaces to Iranians and Westerners alike. Only then can they convey the raw humanity at the heart of this auteur’s oeuvre. It’s the specific unspecific with Kiarostami – a naturalist integrity with which a Ken Loach or John Schlesinger might identify, and which – photographically – requires a quiet distance; a lack of artifice.
Indeed, in his essay on Kiarostami, French writer Jean-Luc Nancy claims the director’s imagery is pointedly placed between the real and unreal – a Herzogian space that posits evidence ahead of reality.
‘It’s a slow thought, always under way, fraying a path so that the path itself becomes thought. It is that which frays images so that images become this thought, so that they become the evidence of this thought – and not in order to “represent” it.’
Perhaps the final word should go to Mania Akbari – the actress & director who worked with Kiarostami on his Palme d’Or nominated Ten in 2003 (it lost out to Gus van Sant’s Elephant) and who herself was forced to flee Iran in 2012.
Akbari says: “Abbas Kiarostami’s passing saddened many people for whom such artists provide rays of hope. Particularly in these troubled times, where daily news [is] dominated by killings and violence, […] works of an artist like Kiarostami taught us about love and life instead.
“His works were a gateway to brightness and optimism in our darkened world. Therefore the overwhelming sense of sorrow that followed his loss is not surprising. His loss is akin to losing someone who was bringing hope and beauty into our lives.
“At a time when numerous filmmakers were concerned with box office or spreading their religious and moral beliefs, he was casting around his deeply penetrative and humane eye in the Iranian villages and outskirts. [It’s] an innocent look, and one which signifies the essence of being a human… and these days that is hard to find.”
See more images of Kiarostami here.