In Memoriam        ABBAS KIAROSTAMI

Abbas Kiarostami (1940-2016):
Cinema's Modern Mystic

Abbas Kiarostami

Comprising features, shorts and documentaries, Kiarostami was involved in over forty films in his long career. He was foremost a film director, screenwriter, photographer and film producer but he also worked extensively as a film editor, art director, poet, painter, illustrator and designed credit titles and publicity material. All this gave him full artistic control of his films to ensure a unique individual style which elevated him to the status of one of the most innovative and masterful directors of world cinema in the last 30 years Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami (Persian: عباس کیارستمی) died of gastrointestinal cancer in a Paris hospital on July 4th. First diagnosed in March this year, he had undergone a series of operations before travelling to Paris at the end of June for treatment. Born in Tehran in 1940, Kiarostami was from a humble background and originally studied painting at the University of Tehran. After working as a graphic designer he went on to shoot many commercials for Iranian TV. In 1969 he joined Kanun (the Centre for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults) in Tehran and ran the film department there, so able to make his own films with a focus on subject matter that dealt specifically with childhood problems. Dariush Mehrjui's landmark film The Cow (Gāv) was made that year so Kiarostami had caught the contemporary zeitgeist of the Iranian New Wave. Meanwhile, the department would become one of Iran's most noted film studios in the 1970s with Kiarostami working with them for 20 years.

Kanun's debut production, and also Kiarostami's first film, was the twelve-minute The Bread and Alley (1970), a neo-realistic short film about a schoolboy's confrontation with an aggressive dog. Foretelling his career perfectionism, one shot took around forty days to complete, until Kiarostami was satisfied. Kiarostami would succeed the golden generation of filmmakers from Persia in the late 1960s, including Masoud Kimiai, Sohrab Shahid Saless and Dariush Mehrjui. These pioneering directors shared many approaches including poetic dialogue and allegorical storytelling to detail political and philosophical issues. Kiarostami took facets of traditionalism versus natural change for stories that were mainly set in rural villages, crafting an individualistic cinematic style of slow pacing, fiction versus non-fiction, themes of life and death, visual and audio techniques, spirituality, imagery and poetry. Indeed, he was renowned for incorporating contemporary Iranian poetry into the dialogue, titles, and themes of his films. From 1972-76, Kiarostami progressively developed his own style in shorts and his first feature film was Report (1977). It revolved around the life of a tax collector accused of accepting bribes with suicide among its themes; following this with First Case, Second Case (1979). After the 1979 revolution Kiarostami was one of the few directors who remained in Iran as he believed this very important for his career and vision as a filmmaker. In the early 1980s, after experimenting with short films again, he directed Fellow Citizen (1983), but it was not until Where Is the Friend's Home? (1987) that he became recognized outside Iran. A simple account of a compassionate eight-year-old boy's quest to return his friend's notebook in a neighboring village, and prevent his friend being expelled from school, the film is made from a child's point of view and invokes sympathy while creating a tension which is at odds with its slow pace and poetic use of the Iranian rural landscape to depict the ways and traditional beliefs of Iranian rural people.

The films Kiarostami made in the 1990s account for his high standing in world cinema. Close-Up (1990) concerns the real-life trial of a man who impersonated film-maker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, deceiving a family into believing they would star in his new film. The film was released across Europe and received praise from critics and fellow directors like Akira Kurosawa, Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, Jean-Luc Godard, and Nanni Moretti. And Life Goes On (also known as Life, And Nothing More..., 1992) follows a father and his young son as they drive from Tehran to Koker in search of two young boys who they fear might have perished in the 1990 earthquake. It won Kiarostami the Prix Roberto Rossellini for director, the first professional film award of his career. Where Is the Friend's Home?, And Life Goes On and Through the Olive Trees (1994) are considered by critics as the Koker trilogy, because all three films feature the northern Iranian village of Koker as well as the constant shadow of the 1990 Manjil–Rudbar earthquake, where 40,000 lost their lives. Through the Olive Trees expands a peripheral scene from And Life Goes On into the central drama, arguably drawing formal comparisons with the overlapping but detached stories of Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colors Trilogy (1993-94).

The flashback of the zigzag path in And Life Goes On guides the spectator back to the previous film, Where Is the Friend's Home?, shot before the earthquake, then transposes forward again to the post-earthquake reconstruction in Through the Olive Trees.

Kiarostami linked all three films with the running themes of life, death, change, and continuity but did not consider them a trilogy, suggesting the last two titles plus Taste of Cherry (1997) as a more accurately trilogy, given their common theme of the preciousness of life. Coming after a short intermission from filming (writing the screenplays for The Journey (Dir. Ali-Reza Raisian, 1994) and The White Balloon (1995), for his former assistant Jafar Panahi), Taste of Cherry involved themes such as morality, the legitimacy of the act of suicide, and the meaning of compassion. It won the Palme d'Or (Golden Palm) award at the Cannes Film Festival. The Koker trilogy films were successful in countries such as France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany and Finland and elevated Kiarostami's stature to one of the greatest living directors.

In 1999, Kiarostami directed The Wind Will Carry Us, a film contrasting rural and urban views on the dignity of labor.

It addressed themes of gender equality and the benefits of progress through the centralizing of a stranger's presence in a remote Kurdish village. The film is notable for the unusual feature of at least thirteen to fourteen speaking characters that are heard but not seen, always being off screen. This original approach, demanding active viewing, won Kiarostami the Grand Jury Prize (Silver Lion) at the Venice International Film Festival.

At the San Francisco Film Festival award ceremony in 2000, Kiarostami was awarded the Akira Kurosawa Prize for lifetime achievement in directing, and then surprised everyone by giving it away to veteran Iranian actor Behrooz Vossoughi for his contribution to Iranian cinema. The following year, along with his assistant, Seifollah Samadian, Kiarostami was invited to Kampala, Uganda by the United Nations International Fund for Agricultural Development, to film a documentary about programs assisting Ugandan orphans, the high number of which resulted from the deaths of parents in the AIDS epidemic. He spent ten days there and made ABC Africa. Although Kiarostami's visit there was originally intended as a research in preparation for the filming, he ended up editing the entire film from the video footage shot there, underlying his resonance and enthusiasm for completing projects quickly.

Ten (2002) was notable for Kiarostami's unusual method of filmmaking, abandoning many scriptwriting conventions, and re-inventing his formal style, focusing on the socio-political landscape of Iran as seen through the eyes of one woman as she drives through the streets of Tehran over a period of several days. Kiarostami's new direction, towards a digital micro-budget filmmaking practice, used digital cameras to virtually eliminate the absent director. The (also digitally shot) meta-film 10 on Ten (2004) was a journal documentary comprising ten lessons on filmmaking as Kiarostami drives through the locations of his past films. The movie uses a stationary camera mounted inside the car, echoing of Taste of Cherry and Ten. In 2005, Kiarostami contributed (alongside Ken Loach and Ermanno Olmi) to the central section of Tickets, a portmanteau film set on a train traveling through Italy.

Later, Kiarostami collaborated with French actress Juliette Binoche for Shirin (2008), a partly mythological Persian romance tale of Khosrow and Shirin with themes of female self-sacrifice; and Certified Copy (2010), made in Tuscany and Kiarostami's first film to be shot and produced outside Iran. The story of an encounter between a British man and a French woman was entered for the Palme d'Or in the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, where Binoche won Best Actress Award for her performance. While dividing critics, Roger Ebert praised the film, noting that "Kiarostami is rather brilliant in the way he creates off screen spaces." Kiarostami's final film, Like Someone in Love (2012), set and shot in Japan, also received mostly positive reviews by critics.

Comprising features, shorts and documentaries, Kiarostami was involved in over forty films in his long career. He was foremost a film director, screenwriter, photographer and film producer but he also worked extensively as a film editor, art director, poet, painter, illustrator and designed credit titles and publicity material. All this gave him full artistic control of his films to ensure a unique individual style which elevated him to the status of one of the most innovative and masterful directors of world cinema in the last 30 years.

Throughout his career, Kiarostami was increasingly lauded by film academics and critics as well as his contemporaries. Despite comparisons with the likes of Satyajit Ray, Vittorio de Sica and Éric Rohmer, film academic and critic Stephen Bransford contended that Kiarostami's films are not aligned to the work of other directors but rather a self-referenced ongoing dialectic, with one film reflecting on and partially demystifying an earlier one. Professor Jamsheed Akrami (of William Paterson University) argues that Kiarostami consistently tried to redefine film by forcing the increased involvement of the audience. In 2006, The Guardian's panel of critics ranked Kiarostami as the best contemporary non-American film director. However, American film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum also argued that "there's no getting around the fact that the movies of Abbas Kiarostami divide audiences-in this country, in his native Iran, and everywhere else they're shown." In contrast, legendary Japanese director

Akira Kurosawa said of Kiarostami's films: "Words cannot describe my feelings about them ... When Satyajit Ray passed on, I was very depressed. But after seeing Kiarostami's films, I thanked God for giving us just the right person to take his place." Martin Scorsese, Michael Haneke, Jean-Luc Godard, Nanni Moretti and Chris Marker are among other directors having expressed high praise for Kiarostami during his career.

In 1969, Kiarostami married Parvin Amir-Gholi. They divorced in 1982. He is survived by their two sons, Ahmad (born 1971) and Bahman (1978), also a film-maker.

Steven Yates

This obituary of Abbas Kiarostami is a revised and extended version of one that first appeared in the Canadian website Titre Mag (, a visual arts magazine for the Iranian population there, in English and Iranian languages.




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