Abbas Kiarostami: a profoundly political film-maker, 1940-2016

by Yassamine Mather

The film director, painter, poet and photographer Abbas Kiarostami, who died on July 4 2016, was one of Iran’s most important contemporary artists.

He always said he wanted to be a painter, but he “stumbled accidentally into film making” and was known principally for his achievements in this area. He gained international recognition with three films known as the ‘Koker trilogy’ (1987-94), named after a small village in Mazandaran province in the north of Iran, although his first film was Where is the friend’s home? (1987). This was followed by Life, and nothing more (1992), when he tried to blend fiction and documentary in the aftermath of the devastating 1990 earthquake in northern Iran. In 1994, Kiarostami directed Through the olive trees, which revolved around the making of a fictional second instalment of Life, and nothing more.

Although Jafar Panahi is rightly credited for directing the award-winning film White balloon, it was Abbas Kiarostami who wrote the screenplay. Filmed in a working class district of Tehran, it takes a subtle look at a number of social and political issues, including the accidental encounter of the two main characters – a seven-year-old girl and her younger brother – with a conscript soldier.

His most celebrated film is Taste of cherry, which brought him international recognition and the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1997. It is the story of a middle-aged, middle class man, determined to commit suicide in Tehran. Driving in and around the city, he is looking for someone to fill the grave he has already dug for himself. We do not know why he wants to commit suicide or indeed how he plans to do this and in fact you soon realise that this is not the point. Kiarostami uses amateur actors to tell a complicated story and the camera captures the fear of those approached by the middle class man: a young Kurdish soldier, an Afghan student in a religious seminary, an Azeri worker, desperate for money to pay for the medical treatment of his sick child.

Any other country would have celebrated the winning of a Palme d’Or by one of its directors, but Iran’s Islamic authorities were furious with Kiarostami and on his return from Cannes he was interrogated by security forces at Tehran airport. They accused him of “unIslamic” behaviour in shaking hands with women in Cannes. Kiarostami was smuggled out of the airport through a back exit after the authorities claimed that his “opponents” were demonstrating outside. This was untrue: those who had gathered outside Tehran airport were in fact there to congratulate the director.

Iranian political activists have criticised Kiarostami for creating “escapist” or “apolitical” films. In response to such criticism he said:

Politics in my films lies partly in my choice of subject matter or location – the rural poor, or Kurdish Iran – and I believe cinema should ask questions, not answer them … As long as we try to touch this truth, it’s essentially and profoundly political.1

His film Ten (2002) certainly fits in with the above definition. Using only two cameras, mounted on the dashboard of a car, we see life in Tehran, as a woman drives through the city discussing important issues with a series of passengers, including “rotten laws in this society [that] don’t give any rights to women”.

In one scene the passenger is a prostitute and the driver, a middle class woman, moralises about getting paid for sex. In response the passenger asks her how she got her necklace. Her response? “My husband bought it for me.” In one short scene Kiarostami breaks all the illusions about the sanctity of the family.

Kiarostami was concerned about Iran’s image abroad and hoped his films would give a better understanding of the Iranian people:

The demonised image of Iran is related to the government, not the people. What we have inside – pain and sorrow – are universal. My toothache is the same as an American’s or a Palestinian’s. We all share the same relation to emotions and personal life.2

In 2003, Kiarostami staged the play Ta’ziyeh in Rome. This is a complicated story about the martyrdom of the third Shia imam, Hussein, son of Ali, in 680AD. The story is all the more complicated because of its origins in pre-Islamic Persian culture and is considered an integral part of the ‘iridisation’ of Shia Islam.

When I went to see the play, it seemed to me that the screens above the hexagonal open-air theatre were central. On these screens could be seen the faces of Iranian spectators, filmed as they watched – and cried – during a previous performance ofTa’ziyeh. According to Kiarostami, that was the main point: “Ta’ziyeh is strictly linked to its audience – the event is actually created by the rapport between actors and spectators.”3

This was the year of student protests in the Iranian capital and in interviews with the press Kiarostami did not hesitate making the connection with the unrest at Tehran University. He commented: “Hussein is the spiritual leader of the dispossessed.”4

His advice to young filmmakers was: “A suggestion that I often give is if you have a special taste or a special style you have to be independent of capital and of industry and you have to keep your independence. Otherwise the industry will only produce more of itself.”5

For the last two decades, for reasons unknown to me, Abbas Kiarostami decided to adopt my family in Iran as his own. Being in exile, I am not sure of the circumstances that brought this about. All I know is that he attended all my family’s weddings and funerals, sharing our celebrations and our sorrows. Two years ago, when some members of my family decided to celebrate Nowruz, the Iranian new year, in Rome, none of us were surprised when he changed his travel schedule and turned up at the event a few hours before it started. As one relative put it, “He spent most new years with us, so he probably didn’t want to make an exception!”

It was inevitable that in the last few months of severe illness he relied on my cousin to be at his bedside, together with his son, Bahman. So for us, his adopted family, his death is tragic. We were privileged to have him as a close friend (almost a relative) and we will miss his company, his wit and good humour as well as his honesty and humility.

The above tribute is taken from the July 7 issue of the British Weekly Worker, here.

One comment

  1. I will be writing up a survey on Kiarostami before long but want to mention a film omitted from Yassamine’s article that is key to understanding how political he could be. Directed by Jafar Panahi, someone who does make political films (to the point of being arrested for un-Islamic behavior), “Crimson Gold” was written by Kiarostami. My review is here:

Comments are closed.