Director Abbas Kiarostami (1940-2016) is the most significant representative of modern Iranian cinema and one of the most respected auteurs worldwide. He also received considerable international acclaim as a painter, photographer, and poet. His early films have only recently been restored and become available with English subtitles, which we are taking as the impetus to present a comprehensive retrospective of his oeuvre.
With WHERE IS THE FRIEND’S HOUSE? (1987) and AND LIFE GOES ON (1992), Kiarostami put Iranian film back on the map of world cinema, as the country’s production had drifted into irrelevance following the Islamic Revolution. Moving far beyond official images of the country, Kiarostami has enabled audiences to see Iran in ways as surprising as they are profound from the 1970s onwards. Quite apart from their visual qualities, his early shorts and medium-length films in particular function as documents of their time. They record everyday life and social change in Iran, exploring the interrelationships between art and reality in boldly original fashion.
Abbas Kiarostami stands for a cinema that is free in so many different ways, both in terms of form and content. In a totalitarian country, in the midst of state dictated, religious fundamentalist rules, it is a cinema that puts something else at the center of attention: discourse, discussion, and the questions that life brings with it. This liberal stance pervades his cinema, extending as far as the very details of his images; for Kiarostami, openness has always also meant that the frame is porous. His preferred frame to this end is a wide shot filmed from a fixed camera position, which is still very far from being static. Many of Kiarostami’s films take place inside cars. Seen in motion through the car window, the landscape, villages, and passers-by become a sort of film in film in the process.
His preference for working with non-professional actors may have something to do with the fact that the self-taught Kiarostami worked nearly exclusively with children at the start of his career. After completing his studies at the School of Fine Arts in Tehran, he started off working as a designer and illustrator in the advertising sector in the 60s, designing posters and shooting over 150 advertising films. In 1970, he began to establish the film division of the “Institute for the Intellectual Development for Children and Young People” (Kanoon) in Tehran. Educational films and short films were produced here initially, whose dramas were derived from everyday situations and living conditions and narrated from the point of view of children.
With their extensive, unpredictable, and sometimes very humorous conversations and discussions, Kiarostami’s films create a flowing rhythm of speech and narration. It is a flow that carries the opinions, beliefs, and world views of his characters along with it, allowing them to retain their individual meaning and never playing one off against the other.
Are Abbas Kiarostami’s film social parables, philosophical metaphors, stories from the realm of Persian discourse, insights into the everyday? The only thing certain here is that they never impose any one reading on the viewer, a tendency that is a major reason why his cinema is so free. In calm, composed, and often cheerful fashion, his cinema explores existential questions with the casualness of a taxi ride, a trip to buy bread, or a wander through an olive grove. Abbas Kiarostami makes great cinema, which never forces its greatness upon us.
The retrospective was curated by Anke Leweke and will be accompanied by introductions and video messages from friends and colleagues of Kiarostami’s from Iran. We are also happy to welcome David Streiff, former director of the Locarno Film Festival, Kiarostami’s translator and artistic collaborator Massoumeh Lahidji, and director Mani Haghighi. On October 10th, a short film program of Kiarostami’s films will be show as part of the Sunday afternoon program for children and their families “Big Cinema, Small Cinema”.
NAN VA KOUTCHEH (The Bread and Alley, Iran 1970, 2. & 6.10.) “My first film is about a boy that must pass by a dog on his way home with a piece of bread in his hand. The protagonist was a seven-year-old boy and wasn’t a professional actor, the dog wasn’t a professional dog, and I wasn’t a professional director.” (Abbas Kiarostami)
KHANE-YE DUST KOJAST (Where is The Friend’s House?, Iran 1987, 2.10., with guest David Streiff) A little boy dedicates his full efforts to returning the homework book belonging to his classmate that he accidentally put in his bag. This will eventually produce an act of solidarity. On his way to the neighboring village, the boy battles with the narrow-mindedness and ignorance of the world of adults. The camera accompanies his mission with great calm, as if nothing in the universe were more important. The fundamental stance of Kiarostami’s cinema comes to the fore here: finding the universal in the seemingly simple. WHERE IS THE FRIEND’S HOUSE? is the first part of a trilogy that was continued in 1992 and 1994 and has the northern Iranian provincial town of Koker as its central location. Balanced between fiction and documentary, comedy and tragedy, it exudes Kiarostami’s profound humanism and cheerful ingenuity. With each new film, Kiarostami takes us further behind the scenes of the “reality” of the previous one. Perhaps there is only one reality in this game of appearances anyway: the human relationships that carry both the film and the village.
ZENDEGI VA DIGAR HICH (And Life Goes On, Iran 1992, 5.10., with an introduction by Ulrich Köhler) A director, Kiarostami’s alter-ego, travels through the north of Iran, a region that has been destroyed by an earthquake. In search of the two child actors from his previous film WHERE IS THE FRIEND’S HOUSE?, he comes across a couple who married immediately after the earthquake and have set up home in a house that is barely habitable. He meets people trying to set up a TV antenna so they can watch a football game. Found scenes and invented ones alternate and merge, a rhythm develops from the questions posed by the driver asking for directions, conversations in cars, and the brief stops in the silence of destruction.
ZIR-E DERAKHATAN-E ZEYTUN (Through the Olive Trees, Iran 1994, 8. & 16.10.) The third part of the trilogy is about the shoot of the previous part. Now an account is given of the “real-life” background of Hossein and Tahereh, the two non-professional actors who play the newly married couple in AND LIFE GOES ON: an illiterate bricklayer and a woman from a more educated family, with him trying to woo her. Class differences openly addressed in conversation come up against the oppositions between the rural population and the film crew from the city. The energetic production assistant collects flower pots to create a decent background, while feelings seek their own truth between each clap of the clapperboard.
GOZARESH (The Report, Iran 1977, 3. & 24.10., with an introduction by Mani Haghighi) Looking at Abbas Kiarostami’s first feature, it’s hard not to think about how his filmography might have ended up being if the Iranian Revolution had never taken place. THE REPORT shows a married couple from the secular middle class who appear infected by agony and a lack of direction. Financial official Mahmoud moves through the offices of the different authorities, pubs, bars, and the small apartment in which he lives with his wife and child like a stranger in his own life. The tensions in society on the eve of the revolution are reflected in the couple’s endless quarrels. The film always remains at a distance, retaining the sober tone of a report. This film, which wasn’t produced by Kanoon, has not survived in its entirety. On 24.10, it can be seen with an audio commentary by the director for the very first time.
TADJREBEH (Experience, Iran 1973, 6.10.) 14-year-old Mohammed skillfully juggles a tray of tea glasses across a busy street to the photo studio where he works. The photos he sticks into albums show a world that is not the one he inhabits. He falls in love with a girl from an affluent neighborhood, has his battered shoes polished, brings his oversized suit to the cleaner’s, and tries to get employed in her parents’ house. A melodrama plucked from everyday life in Tehran before the revolution.
OÙ EN ÊTES-VOUS, JAFAR PANAHI? (Jafar Panahi, 2016, 6.10.) A short tribute to Abbas Kiarostami in the aftermath of his death: Jafar Panahi, who learned filmmaking as Kiarostami’s assistant director, sits with a colleague and friend in the car. They want to take flowers to his grave, memories come to the surface, the sun shines, and the cellphone just won’t stop ringing.
MOSSAFER (The Traveller, Iran 1974, 6. & 16.10.) and LEBASSI BARAYE AROSSI (A Wedding Suit, Iran 1976, 6. & 16.10.) From the perspective of children, life can become an action film, road movie, thriller or drama. 10-year-old Ghassem from THE TRAVELLER is in constant movement. To fulfill his dream of travelling to Tehran for a football game, he lies and cheats. He manages to get the money together for the trip, but further obstacles emerge.
A WEDDING SUIT is set in a shopping arcade, where the taciturn Hassan works for a tailor. The finishing touches are being put on a new wedding suit for a boy from a rich family. Two of Hassan’s friends borrow the suit for a night out, will they be found out?
KLOSE AP, NEMA Y-E NAZDIK (Close Up, Iran 1990, 4. & 15.10.) is about the longing to be someone else and the fictions that make life livelier. Unemployed printer and passionate cinemagoer Sabazian pretends to be famous director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. When he tells the affluent Ahankhah family about his idea to shoot a film about them, they feel honored and receive Sabazian with suitable generosity. But the truth eventually emerges, and Sabazian must justify himself in court. Kiarostami received permission to shoot the trial and was able to convince those involved to play themselves – including Mohsen Makhmalbaf. The boundaries between art and the world in which it is created remain in flux in this hybrid work.
MANAM MITOUNAM (So Can I, Iran 1975, 15.10.) A boy imitates a jumping kangaroo, a crawling worm, and a burrowing mouse – shifts in identity as child’s play.
ROADS OF KIAROSTAMI (South Korea/Iran 2005, 7.10., with guest Massoumeh Lahidji) “I have taken photos of considerable numbers of roads in the most varied of landscapes, without ever being aware of the theme that connects these images.” (Abbas Kiarostami) Photographs and short film sequences of roads in different landscapes and at different time of year fade into one another. In voiceover, the director reflects on his passion: in Persian poetry, his first source of inspiration, the road is a leitmotiv: “It is exile, wind, music, travel, and restlessness.”
GHAZIEH-E SHEKL-E AVAL, GHAZIEH-E SHEKL-E DOU WOM (First Case, Second Case, Iran 1979, 7.10., with guest Massoumeh Lahidji & 25.10.) A school pupil continually disturbs lessons. As his friends don’t want to denounce him, they are suspended from lessons for a week. Kiarostami shows this film about the school prank to educators, mullahs, government officials, and men without a formal education and interviews them about their observations. An everyday classroom situation leads to the question of which roles these adolescents will play in society later on. What is more important, solidarity or obedience?
MASHGH-E SHAB (Homework, Iran 1989, 8.10.) A schoolchild is standing with his back to the wall, while Kiarostami asks his assistant to set up the lighting for the scene. He wants to know why the boy didn’t do his homework. Other children arrive and new faces appear before the camera. Their parents are overworked or illiterate, their older siblings take care of the kids, there is seldom praise, if at all. The director morphs into an investigative reporter, revealing the flaws of a school system that overlooks the everyday reality of the children.
HAMSARAYAN (The Chorus, Iran 1982, 8.10.) An elderly man is tired of the noise in his neighborhood and turns off his hearing aid. The world goes silent. Back in his apartment, he doesn’t hear his granddaughter ringing the doorbell. Schoolgirls gather before the old man’s window, cry, shout, sing, while he simply drinks his tea. When will he finally look out of the window?
TA’M E GUILASS (The Taste of Cherry, Iran/France 1997, 9. & 18.10., with an introduction by Katja Nicodemus) A man who has decided to commit suicide gives a variety of different people a lift in his car. Would any of them be prepared to bury him after his death? As the curving stretch of road through the ochre-colored hills moves into green, the philosophical conversations in the car also take different turns – between small talk, quasi-Socratic dialogues and reports from everyday life. The pros and cons of living and dying remain unresolved, yet the descriptions of impressions and sensations begin to throw doubt on the suicide plan, not least when an old man goes into raptures about the taste and consistency of fresh mulberries.
RAH HAL-E YEK (Solution, Iran 1978, 9.10.) A man smoking a cigarette is standing by a busy street holding a repaired car tire. He’d like to go back to his car, but no one is going in his direction. Music starts up, birds fly through the frame. The man gets moving on his own and rolls the tire in front of him. A road movie on foot through an exquisite snowy landscape.
BAD MA RA KHAHAD BORD (The Wind Will Carry US, Iran/France 1999, 9. & 15.10.) A stranger from the city visits a remote mountain village to document a rare mourning ritual. Yet the old woman whose death he’s waiting for doesn’t seem to want to die. While she remains invisible behind a small window, her state continues to be produce new signs of life: relatives coming and going, the son who waits in the yard, neighbors who bring by soup. This film by Abbas Kiarostami is also much more than the story, which is composed of different situations and encounters: a dialectic whole, a flowing composition, always in motion, keeping each moment in balance with the others. A man comes from a different place and learns how to see.
ABC AFRICA (France/Iran 2001, 10.10.) At the invitation of the UN, Kiarostami and his assistant director travel to Uganda to get to know the work of the organization “Uganda Women’s Effort to save Orphans”, which takes on children whose parents have died of Aids. The filmmakers have brought their first digital cameras along with them. Back in Tehran, they start preparing the shoot, but the material they’ve brought back is already so convincing that no further trip is necessary. “I had the feeling”, commented Kiarostami, “that a 35mm camera would restrict both us and the people there, while the video camera shows truth from every perspective, and never a fake one.”
DAH (Ten, France/Iran 2002, 13. & 28.10.) The overflowing streets of Tehran as seen from the perspective of a female taxi driver. The young son with his patriarchal confidence, a prostitute, a devoutly religious woman, friends, and random passengers all enter the frame of the camera mounted on the dashboard. What all the women have in common is their dependance on their husbands and fiancés, their need to wait for the reaction of a man. The driver becomes a comrade, sister, therapist, she spurs on, calms, mollifies. Between city motorways, parking places, and traffic jams, the image of a woman comes into view who is some way ahead of her sisters in suffering and yet sfully aware of how limited the possibilities for subversion still remain, even inside the car.
DO RAH-E HAL BARAYE YEK MASSALEH (Two Solutions For One Problem, Iran 1975, 13.10.) A mini-tribute to Laurel & Hardy, a game of tit for tat in an Iranian classroom; a torn exercise book, a black eye, a bandaged head. This educational film shot for Kanoon flirts with anarchy and subversion, before calling for reconciliation.
COPIE CONFORME (Certified Copy, France 2009, 14.10., with an introduction by Patrick Wellinski) Juliette Binoche visited Kiarostami in Tehran, where the idea emerged for Kiarostami’s first feature to be shot outside Iran: In a café in a small town in Tuscany, a man and a woman (Juliette Binoche) who have just met are mistaken for a couple. The woman takes on the role of the wife and simulates the love that she maybe already feels. He does much the same, but stays at a distance, questioning his feelings in a world of appearances, skeptical of love. Kiarostami stages this fake truth with a wonderful sense of the casual, as the “couple” wanders through narrow alleys and sunny squares. Maybe the director is also playing a game with the audience: did the two of them used to be together? Is love an optical illusion?
FIVE DEDICATED TO OZU (Iran/Japan/France 2003, 17.10.) A piece of wood bobbing among the waves, cackling ducks waddling through the frame, the wild dogs waking up in the light of dawn, stretching and shaking themselves – five snapshots of the Caspian Sea, shot with a fixed camera. A contemplative rhythm is created that allows us to see and hear the world in a different way.
RANG-HA (Colours, Iran 1976, 17.10.) Red like made-up lips or the inside of a pomegranate, black like the veils of three women and the blackboard in the classroom. Objects or everyday impressions are associated with each color in this high-spirited educational film.
76 MINUTES AND 15 SECONDS WITH ABBAS KIAROSTAMI (Seifollah Samadian, Iran 2016, 17.10.) Abbas Kiarostami in action. His friend and collaborator Samadian looks over his shoulder and films what he sees: Kiarostami getting out of the car, aiming his camera at a lonely tree in the landscape; how he gives existing reality a frame or uses elements of staging. We see how Kiarostami and his team train and choreograph the ducks from the contemplative video essay FIVE. To create the fitting sound effects, they bang their hands against a pile of sand they themselves set up – the waddling of ducks can indeed sound as beautiful and authentic.
TALAYE SORKH (Crimson Gold, Jafar Panahi, Iran 2003, 19.10.) From a script by Abbas Kiarostami: in Iran, the men who fought in the Iran-Iraq war are honored as martyrs. But what do their everyday lives look like? Hossein is a pizza delivery man and lives in the poor southern part of the city, his job takes him to the affluent north. It is a world foreign to him, impossible to reach. A former comrade gets rid of him with a vastly exaggerated tip. He is unable to afford the jewelry he’d like to buy for his fiancé. The film tells the story leading up to a robbery as a social, topographical excursion through Tehran with surreal seeming tableaus of empty luxury flats whose owners have settled abroad.
KARGARAN MASHGHOOL-E KARAND (Men at Work, Mani Haghighi, Iran 2006, 20.10., with guest Mani Haghighi) An SUV drives along a bending road in the hills, those inside are a doctor, an engineer, and a businessman in the midst of a mid-life crisis. By the side of the road, they come across a phallic cliff that they feel is provoking them. They decide to throw it into the abyss, attacking it with towing cables and improvised battering rams. In this amusing set-up, men from the Iranian middle classes have nothing better to do than to waste their energy on a lump of stone. Mani Haghighi worked for a year as Kiarostami’s personal assistant and was rewarded with the idea for this story.
BE TARTIB YA BEDUN-E TARTIB (Orderly or Disorderly, Iran 1981, 25.10.) and HAMSHAHRI (Fellow Citizen, Iran 1983, 25.10.) Both films were made just after the Iranian Revolution, when hardly any films were being shot in the country. ORDERLY OR DISORDERLY is an educational film on the theme of order and disorder and an attempt to film the chaos of life. Again and again, the film team can be heard arguing in voiceover, while the two versions of the same plot are shown: first, the boys rush into the school bus, then they line up in rank and file. No one follows the rules, a mirror image to reflect order cannot be found. In HAMSHAHRI, the camera shows the perspective of a street police officer. Only people with a permit are allowed to enter the center of the city, with forgery, lies, and negotiations ensuing. Some cars are allowed to pass, others have to turn around. The arbitrary rules on the streets as the description of the current state of the country?
10 ON TEN (Iran 2003, 27.10.) Abbas Kiarostami sits down in his favorite position and pursues his favorite activity. He sits behind the steering wheel and drives – through the landscape of his film THE TASTE OF CHERRY. Like in TEN, the camera is mounted on the dashboard. In ten chapters, the director introduces us to his specific way of making films and emphasizes: “This is my way”.
SHIRIN (Iran 2008, 30.10.) 113 women’s faces in close-up. The women are famous Iranian actors, with French actress Juliette Binoche also among their number. The women seem to be sitting in a cinema auditorium, watching a film that only we hear. We notice their reactions and feelings. Whether these are being performed or real or being staged by the director is ultimately unimportant: they still create an authenticity that allows the audience to imagine their own film.
LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE (France /Japan 2012, 30.10.) A set-up relating to the philosophy of the everyday in Tokyo: the “like” in the title suggests that the people we come across here over an afternoon are playing roles in their lives and are just acting “like” something – like us all? The poet Kiarostami, who himself loved writing haikus and revered director Yasujiro Ozu, looks around in the realm of signs. He observes a student who works as a call girl, her boyfriend, and a retired professor who employs the girl’s services. He observes the foreign city, its light, and its buildings that are reflected in the girl’s face in the car window on a long taxi ride
24 FRAMES (Iran/France 2017, 31.10.) Kiarostami’s last film. A dialogue between his work as a filmmaker and his work as a photographer. 24 images – a classical painting and his own landscape photographs – become the basis for a reflection on the before and after of the photographic moment. (anl)
This retrospective was made possible thanks to funding from the Capital Cultural Fund.