The Los Angeles Times
By Judy Stone, Special to The Times
Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami doesn't have a fixed message--he wants to get you thinking.
April 27, 2001
Paris, Tokyo, Uganda, New York, Cannes, Montreal, Beirut, Rome, Washington, D.C., and Durham, N.C., are just some of the stops Abbas Kiarostami has made during an incredible year for the unique Iranian director.
Now at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which has held a three-week retrospective of his films, Kiarostami will be honored Saturday. (The director had been scheduled to attend the tribute, but he had to cancel because of illness.)
Kiarostami's signature dark glasses are a medical necessity, but they also serve as a kind of metaphor for the enigmas behind his films, poetry and, yes, his almost paternal photographs of the same lonely stand of trees, shot over 21 years. Only a sudden dazzling smile suggests the warmth of this director who paved the way for the emergence of Iranian cinema internationally.
He showed this quality with a generous and unexpected gesture when he received the Akira Kurosawa Lifetime Achievement Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival last year. The great Japanese filmmaker considered his films extraordinary, so it was a prize that meant a great deal to Kiarostami. But to the astonishment of the audience, Kiarostami called up to the stage Behrouz Vossoughi, a once-popular star who has not acted in Iranian films since 1978, and handed him the Kurosawa prize.
Kiarostami pointed to Vossoughi as someone who committed "career suicide" when he chose not to return to Iran and act in third-rate films, although acting parts were few and far between during the 17 years Vossoughi lived in Los Angeles.
Earlier this month, Kiarostami, who was in Tokyo for an exhibition of his photographs, flew to Washington, D.C., for a three-day tribute April 19-21 at the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery of Art, the National Gallery of Art and Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced Studies. The conversation there focused not only on his films (including his Cannes Festival 1997 Palme d'Or-winning "Taste of Cherry" and his last feature, "The Wind Will Carry Us") but also on his poetry and photography.
At the DoubleTake Documentary Festival on May 4 and 5 at Duke University in Durham, the focus will be on his short documentaries. And his United Nations-sponsored film "ABC Africa," about children with AIDS in Uganda, will have its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival later in May. A few people attending the Fajr film festival in Tehran in February had a sneak preview of the not-quite-finished documentary on the editing table at Kiarostami's home studio.
In Uganda, he said, "I saw people who are poverty-stricken but extremely rich within. I asked why these people were so happy. I was told it was because of the three things they do not have: pollution, tension and competition."
However, Kiarostami noted, "The competition they do have 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 are happy just to be alive."
Life and death are Kiarostami's frequent themes. In "The Wind Will Carry Us" (1999), strangers visit a remote village in Kurdistan to record a ritual that would follow the death of a 100-year-old woman. While the wait drags on, the frustrated leader, Behzad, holds conversations with a little boy who keeps him informed of the old woman's condition. (The title is from a line of poetry by the late Farough Farakhzad.)
The boy asks Behzad, "Where do good and evil go on judgment day?" He is told, "Evil goes to heaven and the good to hell." Then Behzad twists the answer around: "Good goes to heaven and the evil to hell."
"It's a play in his mind," Kiarostami explained quietly through an interpreter, "because he doesn't have any idea where heaven is and where hell is, because it's so uncertain and so impossible that it's one or the other."
When Kiarostami, 60, is bedeviled by too many questions about the exact meaning of his oblique films or about censorship in fundamentalist Iran, he answers, "I was very much influenced by Kurosawa. When he was asked a lot of questions, he answered, 'I don't know.'
"A movie maker is not a philosopher, but even a philosopher may just have his or her own philosophy and not know how to tell someone else about it. Movies are not to tell you one thing or another. They are a way to start you thinking about different aspects of life."
International appreciation of Kiarostami's films began in 1989, after the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, when the Locarno Festival introduced his third dramatic feature, "Where Is the Friend's House?" (Again the title is from a poem, Sohrab Sepehri's "Address.") That question is repeated again and again by 8-year-old Ahmad, when he accidentally takes home the notebook of a classmate who has been threatened with expulsion for not having done his homework. Ahmad does not know his friend's address but sets out on a maze-like journey determined to find him--quests are another signature of many Kiarostami films.
His concern for simple people is always apparent: for instance, when the director, played by an actor, tries to find out what has happened to Ahmad and his friends after an earthquake levels their village in "And Life Goes On" (1992). In "Through the Olive Trees" (1994), which will be shown in a new print Saturday at the LACMA salute to Kiarostami, survivors talk about the devastation of an earthquake and an extra suffers romantic complications.
Kiarostami's childhood was similar to that of most of the children in his films--"not too poor, not too rich," he said. But his father, he recalls, had "the spirit of an artist" and was a lover of literature and poetry, so the boy grew up under that spell. For years, he has written poetry, but his first collection of haiku-like verse, "With the Wind," was only recently published in Farsi, followed by a French edition illustrated with his photographs, which share his films' visual poetry. The book will be published in the fall by the Harvard Film Archive.
After university art studies in Tehran, Kiarostami began making commercials and designing film credits, as well as writing children's books. In 1969, he was invited to help found the cinema department of the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults. The day he started work, his first son was born. When that child was 12 and the younger boy was 4 1/2, Kiarostami was divorced and agreed to take care of the youngsters.
"They influenced my work a lot," he said. "I learned about life from my children." But those early years were a time of doubly intense turmoil for him, as the Islamic Revolution gained power in Iran and he thought his career as a filmmaker might be over. Happily, that was not the case.
Instead of writing a formal script, Kiarostami works intensively to achieve dialogue that seems to spring naturally from his characters.
"I do not approve of debasing or exciting the spectator. I do not wish to prick the conscience of the viewer and create a sense of guilt in him," Kiarostami said. He hates narration and literature in cinema. What he likes is to leave a film's interpretation to the viewer, often allowing gaps for the audience to explore. He told a conference in Paris: "I believe in a cinema which gives more possibilities and more time to the viewer--a half-fabricated cinema, an unfinished cinema that is completed by the creative spirit of the viewer."
In "Taste of Cherry," a man contemplating suicide is trying to find someone willing to pour earth on the body of the grave-like hole he has dug for himself. A soldier and an Afghan religious student are reluctant to help him. Finally an old man agrees: He had once thought of suicide himself but abandoned the idea when he enjoyed eating some berries. The ending shows Kiarostami, his film crew and a group of soldiers relaxing around the empty grave site. It was, after all, just a movie.
"The emphasis is not so much on suicide," Kiarostami explained, "but the Omar Khayyam type of philosophy that we have a choice whether we want to live or die. We who are alive have a choice as to whether to be alive, and since we choose to be alive, we might as well enjoy it."
Quoting the late Romanian philosopher E.M. Cioran, who wrote, "Without the possibility of suicide, I would have killed myself long ago," Kiarostami added, "I'm a strong believer that God is kind to us because we have the possibility of suicide. That's one of the kindnesses of God, and that's why I'm a believer."