Film International, (Quarterly)
In dialogue with Kiarostami
The films of Abbas Kiarostami
occupy a unique place in world cinema. Employing a rare simplicity of structure and method
that belies the depth of his vision, Kiarostami consistently creates moving, unique and
diverse works of art. At once stretching the boundaries of cinematic convention and
challenging audience preconceptions about narrative and pacing, his is a counter-cinema
with a warm, humanist heart.
Kiarostami's work continues to impress domestically and internationally. His previous film, Taste of Cherry, the Palme d'Or winner at the 1997 Cannes film festival, was an elegiac portrait of a man torn between life and death; characteristically, it shunned facile solutions to the profound questions it posed. It was one high point in a career that is certain to yield countless others.
Kiarostami relishes in placing his characters in surroundings alien to them; through their ensuing search for answers, identity or something as simple as the whereabouts of their friend's home, their experience of the exotic becomes an intimate canvas of universal truths.
His latest film is the next step in his formidable oeuvre, evoking the same sense of character and place that infuses much of his work, while delving into politically sensitive territory in understated, allegorical fashion. The Wind Will Carry Us revolves around the lives of four strangers who arrive from Tehran for a short stay at Siah Dareh, a village in Iranian Kurdistan. Ostensibly, the strangers are looking for treasure. But, as in all Kiarostami's work, the resolution to their quest lies as much with the viewer as it does with the film.
Evocative and direct, constructed with his trademark, soulful serenity and refreshingly minimalist approach, The Wind Will Carry Us is another essential film from a master filmmaker. Dimitri Eipides
In The Wind Will Carry
Uswhich was recently picked up for distribution by New Yorker Films, having already
opened to much acclaim in Tokyo and Parisour other greatest living master is near
the height of his powers (his 1990 Close-up, which belongs in its company, is also about
to open in New York). It's a comedy about city slickers, all but one of whom remain
offscreen as they invade an ancient village in Kurdistan to await the death of a
100-year-old woman, who also remains offscreen; their reasons aren't stated, though they
have something to do with the media, probably a plan to tape or film the funeral ceremony.
Apart from being gorgeousKiarostami is clearly the best landscape artist making
movies right nowthis picture is probably as accurate and as funny a report on the
current state of the planet as we're likely to get, expressed in a form as concise as
Kiarostami can make it. Simultaneously a history of antiquity, the 20th century, and that
endless stretch of time known as the present, it shows the interrelatedness of all three
periods at practically every moment.
To speak to people outside the village on his mobile phone, the city-slicker protagonistnot exactly a nice guy or a herohas to drive up a hill to a cemetery overlooking the village, where he also converses with an unseen worker who's digging a hole in the ground. The film's only interior is a dark cave worthy of Plato, where the city slicker flirts with the digger's fiancee, who's milking a cow, by quoting from the Forugh Farrokhzad poem that gives this movie its title. As is always the case with Kiarostami, the innovative use of sounds and images makes them merely tools for articulating new kinds of content: we don't see the offscreen characters because we don't need toKiarostami's movies are nothing if not focused. And the documentary techniques used to produce fictional details are as purposeful and suggestive as ever.
Here's one telling example: A schoolboy becomes the local guide for the protagonist, who asks the kid at one point if he considers him a good man; blushing, the boy says he does. We squirm at this trusting response, yet given everything we know about Kiarostami's methods, it's clearly Kiarostami who's asking that question and getting that unscripted response. This single ambiguous exchange contains an encounter between adult and child, filmmaker and subject, well-to-do and poor, city and country, modernity and antiquity, media and nature, documentary and fiction, and truth and falsity. By keeping its expression elemental, Kiarostami allows this exchange to tell us more than most features. When he premiered this movie last September in Venice, where it won two prestigious prizes (if not the top ones), Kiarostami announced that he would no longer enter any of his films in festival competitions. Many critics and interviewers assumed that some bitterness or disappointment must have been behind this decision, but it's clear from recent interviews that this is not the case. Having by now won a total of 60 international prizes over the course of 30 years of filmmaking, he feels he's got enoughcertainly all he needs to go on making the films he wants to. (He says he also suspects that many filmmakers win prizes because of their names rather than their work; this limits recognition of new talent, and he'd like to widen the playing field.)
The best news I can think of to greet the new millennium is that Kiarostami has become a recognized master on a global scalein spite of the efforts of Miramax to bury his work, the efforts of other studios to ignore it, and the efforts of some American critics to dismiss it for the sake of more studio garbage. Ironically, most of the remaining holdouts I'm aware of reside in Iran and the U.S.two culturally conservative countries that are resistant to innovation. But in both change is already under way. Jonathan Rosenbaum
Film International, (Quarterly)
Those who know Abbas Kiarostami also know his sunglasses. When he appears in public, his eyes stay hidden behind those dark glasses. He is said to have delicate eyes. On the screen, Abbas Kiarostami lends us a view of the people, whose lives pass before the lens of his film camera, as sensitive as film material. In the role of the scenarist he takes off his glasses.
In his documentary, Homework, completed in 1989, Abbas Kiarostami can be seen
playing a film director. He is interviewing pupils about their lives between school and
their home, about their pleasures and their sorrows. During the interviews, Abbas
Kiarostami is wearing his sunglasses. "In 'Homework' I made a mistake. I didn't take
off my dark sunglasses," he admits today. "Had there been a director on the
other side of the camera, he would certainly have told me to take off my sunglasses."
"A pair of glasses limits the view. The frame of the glasses frames the view and allows the viewer to recognize only a slice of life. Moreover a pair of sunglasses makes this slice of life appear in a dark light which may easily entail the viewer to overlook the details hidden in the shadow. "Children are not likely to tell the truth in front of a camera, but rather something to please the adults. The children have learned what they must say to avoid the danger." Wearing his sunglasses. Kiarostami makes us understand that this kind of interview can only result in filtered truth.
Particularly in his early works, Abbas Kiarostami focused his sensitive look on children. While telling stories about kids, Kiarostami seems to have found the key to understanding the world of the adults, a world framed in by social and ethical guidelines. For his colleague Ebrahim Forouzesh, he wrote the script for "The Key" in the mid- eighties. During seventy minutes, a little boy is looking for the key that would allow him to unlock the door of the apartment and to walk out into freedom. "Homework," as well as "The Key," limit themselves to the physical reality, to life in the living-rooms and the schoolrooms as they have been set up by the adults. The last take in "The Key" leads the way through the ulterior works of Kiarostami: We see little Amir Mohammad, as he looks into the world on the other side of the locked door, a world he had never been allowed to set his foot in. Dream or reality?
Young Ahmad in "Where is the Friend's Home?" is looking for gaps in the rigorous plan of society made by the keepers of tradition and succeeds in finding them. Using his innate intelligence and his unbreakable will for solidarity, Ahmad rebels against obedience and starts looking for a classmate whose copy-book he has taken home by mistake. The mountain between two villages in northern Iran becomes the touchstone of friendship. Ahmad doesn't hesitate even for one moment to start on this troublesome way, knowing that the dream of friendship lies on the other side of the mountain.
The filmography of Abbas Kiarostami proves to be a way leading from the physical reality of the people in Iran to their dreams. "The dream assumes the function of a window. If the air in the room we are staying in gets too tight, we open the window to our dreams. Whenever we cannot accept reality, we start dreaming. Like a prisoner, who infallibly returns to prison after having enjoyed a day out."
Three years after "Where is the friend's Home?" Kiarostami recreates and expands in "Close- Up" the true screenwriter story of a jobless man who pretends to a rich family that he is the renowned Iranian scenarist Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Asked to justify his deed in court, he tells the judge that unlike any other Iranian scenarist, Makhmalbaf makes them change places. In the Makhmalbaf was the only one to show exactly the concerns of the poor people on the screen. Kiarostami unites the criminal with his victims, the fake with the real gap between them is the dream of freedom, the desire to break through the boundaries of physical existence, to find the holes.
"As Marcuse says: We don't chose the subject, the subject chooses us," And later on, Kiarostami adds, "When I turned to "Where is the Friend's Home?," I didn't believe that I would ever be able to cast an eye on what is behind the mountain of Koker; I didn't think that I would ever shoot another film in this region. But it just went on over there." The stimulus was nature: in 1990 an earthquake shattered the village of Koker, the setting of "Where is the Friend's Home?" Kiarostami went back to Koker to make "And Life Goes On...," a film about the search of the director of "Where is the Friend's Home?" for his two leading actors. In the midst of the ruins of the old world, Kiarostami's alter ego finds new life, new strength and comes across a young couple said to have married the day after the earthquake. Dream or reality? Kiarostami's latest film makes it clear that Hossein and Tahereh have only been dreaming the marriage, but the dream goes on.
"In the night before the earthquake, the parents of the young lady said no to a marriage with Hossein. In those countries where tradition is strong, the deceased have more power than the living. They interfere with life, but it will always be impossible to start arguing with dead people." In Kiarostami's new film, the deceased are those elderly men and women we have seen in "Where is the Friend's Home?," where they were barely moving and often seated. They are physically absent from the other two films, but they still rule the life of the young generation. Kiarostami's three films may incite us to ask ourselves how these deceased, who are constantly interfering with the life of the youngsters, are in Iranian society and what event could be represented by the earthquake.
The films of Kiarostami are universally understood, as if they were using the internationally recognized iconography. Yet the contrary is also true: without even a wink of a compromise, Kiarostami's films remain profoundly rooted in the Persian way of thinking, in Persian philosophy. With never-ending patience, a quality which we occidental are lacking, Kiarostami lets himself always be inspired by the turnings of life and by the insights and visions liberated for a moment when he takes off the framed glasses.
A dream has to be rooted in reality, Abbas Kiarostami told me. His three films made near Koker have not been conceived by the unifying intellect of their scenarist, but by the dynamic correlation between the real events and the inspiration they triggered off. From one film to the next one, Kiarostami focuses his attention on one theme which he is sounding in minute detail and at the same time with a lot of humor, like a pedestrian in the desert who first takes a look at the entire landscape, then turns his eyes to a dune, to finally concentrate his attention entirely on a grain of sand, which promises more wisdom and insight than an overall view.
A TRILOGY AND MORE...
Everybody speaks of a trilogy, even though it is not according to Abbas Kiarostami. The only link between the three films, "Where is the Friend's Home?", "And Life Goes On..." and "Under the Olive Trees" is the scenarist. Moreover they were linked by their location. All three films by the Iranian master director have been shot in the region of the village of Koker. Abbas Kiarostami wouldn't allow himself to be bounded by rigorous concept, but preferred to create out of the dialogue between fiction and reality, three films which are intertwined and enclosed in each other like the Russian Babushka- dolls: If you open the uppermost doll, there is another one inside which hides yet another one, maybe even several more which hide yet another one, maybe even several more of them.
"Under the Olive Trees" opens up to let the spectator see three different levels of reality. The shells of the three Babushka-dolls are corresponding to three directors. There is the director of "Where is the Friend's Home?" who starts looking for the his two young leading actors after the earthquake and whom we have already met in the person of Farhad Kheradmand in "And Life Goes On..." . There is the director of "And Life Goes On...", who accompanies the first director with his camera. And last but not least there is Abbas Kiarostami, who is exploring the layer below, to the layer the other two directors have been excluding from their films.
What looks like a plump construction if analyzed, turns out to be pulsating with life due to Kiarostami's witty style of directing and excellently intertwined editing (montage). Closely following Persian mythology, he uncovers the three layers starting from a seemingly insignificant episode of "And Life Goes On..." In the midst of the ruins of the earthquake, the director of the first film comes across a small two-story house with a balcony painted in blue and decorated with red flowers. In front of the house, in the sphere of public life, the director starts talking to a young man who tells him he has lost nearly all of his family in the earthquake and married the woman who is watering the flowers on the balcony the day after the earthquake.
This scene is being shot. Patiently, the second director (interpreted without the least contrivance by Mohammad Ali Keshavarz, a well-known Iranian actor) reshoots this conversation again and again, because Hossein, who plays the newly wed husband, and Tahereh, who was chosen by the director to play Hossein's wife, don't stick to the script. The lives and emotions of the lay actors and the script are getting into each other's way; the conflict creates small slips. Kiarostami catches the other director's effort to depict the fiction of the script in a burlesque episode unequalled in film history.
The view on the lower layer of reality is barred to the camera of the two directors turned actors. With discreet close-ups and with a camera transferred to the upper floor of the house, Kiarostami presents us with a view of life beyond official fiction and into the third dimension of acting. Hossein has not (yet?) married Tahereh. On the balcony, in the break between two takes, he offers her tea and apologizes for his uncouth behavior towards her which the script asks for. And he bags her to become his wife.
Nevertheless the rules of society place obstacles in the way of the protagonists. But for the last word of Tahereh's grandmother (Tahereh's parents died in the earthquake), which is pronounced against a marriage of Tahereh with the uneducated mason Hossein, Tahereh could answer freely. Yet there is no room for her opinion in this layer of reality; when the camera of the director Mohammad-Ali Keshavarz is turned off, she remains silent in spite of the consistent efforts on the part of Hossein. At another layer, the dark inside of the house where wild flowers spread shines through maybe to unfold in one of the next films.
Hossein keeps on trying to turn his dream into reality. And Kiarostami dismisses them into freedom, at least in fiction. As the shooting of the second film is completed, Tahereh goes her own way. She climbs to the top of the hill we have come to know as almost insurmountable in "Where is the Friend's Home?" and in "And Life Goes On..." and which is now verdant with a thin layer of grass. And Kiarostami follows her, camera in hand, and lets us have a look at the dream landscape behind the artificial hill of the directors, which appears to be harmonious through the light of the setting sun. Tahereh and Hossein, who tries hard to keep pace, vanish and blend into nature for a short moment. Kiarostami acknowledges and postulates that life is stronger than the cinema, than any fiction of any storyteller. Kiarostami endows women with the courage to determine their own way. Will his nest film take up the way of the woman, who hasn't pronounced her own will so far?
The principle of the embedded layers of the Persian art of storytelling is transformed by Kiarostami. If the traditional oriental storyteller refers to several narrative levels declared to be his sources in order to make his story seem authentic, Kiarostami uses the principle of the embedded layers to find the truth. In oriental society, the truth stays hidden beneath many layers, like life which is taking place underneath or behind the layers of clothes and buildings. This helps the people to protect their innermost selves from any kind of attack. Carefully, Kiarostami approaches these hidden layers via his three narrative levels. Outside and inside, in activity and waiting, acting and openness are presented as aspects of life. Kiarostami leaves it up to his spectators to find the truth and to dream about self-determination. The camera obstinately looks out of a moving car to make us find a mule track.
With a lot of irony, Kiarostami makes us understand that passable ways lie beyond the scripts of the directors, outside the frames of the ruling class and that they only unfold after the "cut" of the director has stopped the camera. This piece of wisdom has also caught up with Kiarostami the film scenarist.
Whereas he could rely on the support of the Iranian Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults for his former films, this fertile cooperation, which was started in 1986, was stopped by the new directors of the Institute. Kiarostami had to produce "Under The Olive Tree" himself.
Kiarostami had to go the way of his protagonists which once leads to friendship and once to love. Like Hossein he followed his vision, his hope. Abbas Kiarostami affirms that dreaming is a reaction to the difficulties and the pains of life and he is convinced that all the changes in the world are due to our dreams. His film in the film in the film is a filigree study full of imagination about Iranian society. Kiarostami's loving, careful, and metaphorical look under the olive trees upon his fellow countrymen contains more fuel to inflame their society than any pamphlet, because he bets on the small plants which break through the hard asphalt and concrete.
By:Malek Mansour Aksa
Reflecting upon curious aspects of
some Iranian films, like being a plot for "Under the Olive Trees", or the
identical settings of Kiarostami's three consecutive films, or the mixed
fiction-documentary stories of his films, you begin to suspect there might be a
"central idea" in those films or more generally in any work of art. Could there
really exist a substantial notion in the case of a piece of music, a film or a poem? I
mean some basic idea which glitters deep within the work and can be detected through any
critical approach. If there really exists such an essence, it must be quite hard to
express it. This might be the reason why some great masterpieces are admired in silence.
Looking back into history you patiently notice that there used to be not so much criticism
of great works of art, paintings, music, architecture... I am not going to go too far,
either. I just want to say that Kiarostami was trying to illustrate modesty and
bashfulness in his "Under the Olive Trees". You come across this decent kind of
shyness in several shots throughout this film. Three of them I found the most romantic,
though: where the young lad climbs the stairs and tries to say something to the girl but
shyness has tied up his tongue; where the director, walking with a group of women, asks a
mother about her daughter's name and the daughter avoids his look with modesty. Elsewhere
a young boy is talking to a girl, she does not reply, nor does she reveal her face to the
Modesty is a characteristic of eastern nations: the Japanese, Indians, ... Iranians. Western people normally do not possess any shyness of this type. We seem to be born with that. When approached by a stranger, an Iranian kid traditionally looks down at his feet or simply hides away. While a western child would stand right there, looking up at you, ready to answer your questions. I do not mean at all to argue that it is a good or bad attitude. It is just something that exists in our lives. It could be the ground for our renown habits of complimenting, self underestimation, prevarication, and the usual distance we keep with each other, couldn't it? It does require a pair of keen eyes like those of Kiarostami, who hardly fails to notice every minute thing through all this ambient mist of modernism, to perceive the tiny trills in the water or the quivering voice of a bird. You have to be a real artist to be able to notice them and then share the feelings with other people through a highly delicate way of illustration. I wonder if art is, in essence, any thing more than this same unique manner of perception. Looking back through the history of art, you come across no more than a few main themes; love, sacrifice, death, courage, prejudice,.... Then you can ask yourself how these few themes could be adopted over and over again. The secret is that each time they are looked upon from a new point of view. And there is where the significance of these works lies, not the old themes. Finding a new point of view to look at something is not all the job. It is of no less importance to find the right way to express what you see through that viewpoint. As for Kiarostami's style of illustration of the realities he extracts from daily life, you may compare it to the Japanese painting style; to trim away as much as possible just like a single branch of a tree on a blank background of a Japanese painting, Kiarostami closes up on the girl's face to display the innocent modesty in her eyes while being turned away from us.
This particular feature of Kiarostami's films has been recognized and admired both within and outside the borders of his country. Even his fellow countrymen, let alone foreigners, get surprised when they realize they had failed to notice those aspects of their own society and culture before. Our marvel and admiration at least implies that, getting ready to enter the 21st century, man still seems to receive some appreciation for novel outlooks.
No doubt artists like Kiarostami will remain innovative as long as they develop their keen social attitudes. Every new film of theirs will remind us of the fact that what counts is how you see rather than what you see.
In dialogue with Kiarostami
By Ali Akbar Mahdi
Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami's films seek to uncover the deepest human emotions in the most ordinary events in life. His works are a demonstration of the significance and relevance of these emotions to the restless, captive, and tormented individuals of the twentieth century.
With a profound understanding and a sharp view of the fate of the modern individual, he searches for the good and bad among a constellation of events and structures which are neither under human control nor of human service.
The protagonists of his films are the ordinary people who surround us. Their lives represent no more and no less of what constitute ours. Their presence in films provides us with an opportunity to think about the everydayness of our existence and relationships; an opportunity to see them as a mirror that reflects the depth of our human feelings and thoughts.
On March 3, 1998, Kiarostami was invited to Columbus, Ohio, to open the screening of his Celebrities "Taste of Cherry" as the guest of the Wexner Center for the Arts, Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio.
He attended a public forum in which he engaged in a conversation with Bill Horrigan, the curator of media at the Center, Ali Akbar Mahdi, associate professor of sociology at Ohio Wesleyan University, and the audience present in the meeting.
Kiarostami spoke in Persian and Mahdi translated his responses for the audience. The following is the full transcription of this dialogue.
Bill Horrigan: Let me start with a funny story. This afternoon Mr. Kiarostami came to the Wexner Center and we went through the four galleries, one painting, two sculpture and one architecture. When we bring filmmakers to the Center, we usually have them visit the galleries. They often seem more interested in what is in our video production studio but you, on the other hand, seemed quite interested in the visual arts.
Abbas Kiarostami: First, I would like to thank the audience for their enthusiastic presence here. I am extremely happy to be here and I don't know if I should call me your guest or you mine. Well, most of the success of the Iranian movies outside the country depends on the relationships between Iranians inside and outside of the country. This relationship is very important, especially when it connects two generations of Iranians who are living abroad. Their appreciation of the films makes the connection stronger and makes me feel good to be here. I am very happy and thankful to Wexner Center, for having me here and for establishing this relationship between us, a relationship not limited to art and cinema alone. In response to your question, I like to say that I started painting before I moved to cinema.
Horrigan: Could you describe to me the paintings you still do?
Kiarostami: I studied painting in graphic school, but I do not call myself a painter even though I do painting. It is more important to engage in painting than to label one a painter -- I simply feel comfortable painting. When people ask me to judge their paintings, I decline and remind them that what is important is that they have been engaged in the activity of painting. The Qajar king, Nasiruddin Shah, used to write poetry. It really did not matter what the king has written. What was important is that he, as a politician, was engaged in poetry. Engaging in the art of painting itself is the worthwhile activity and so I paint.
Akbar Mahdi: I like to convey an observation to our audience. Prior to our arrival to this meeting, Mr. Kiarostami, Mr. David Filipi (associate curator of media at the Center), and I went to the bookstore. Mr. Filipi and I saw Mr. Kiarostami looking for something through the store. We thought he was looking for some souvenirs from Ohio State University. To our surprise, he was looking for painting markers.
Horrigan: It is funny, though you say you aren't a painter, one of the extraordinary things about your films is the way you picture and frame the landscape. You visualize the perspective first from one point and then a second much like a painter. But painting is a solitary activity. You couldn't find something more culturally opposite than filmmaking. It involves so many people, and a big metaphorical canvas as opposed to a real one. How did this come to be?
Kiarostami: I have gotten used to looking at reality in an artistic way, especially through the viewpoint of painting. When I look at nature, I see a frame of painting. I see everything from an aesthetic angle. Even when I am in a taxi looking out of the window, I put everything in a frame. This is the way I see painting, photography and film -- all interrelated and connected. The movie industry captures reality in frames. For me particularly, painting is a source of diversity, and refuge from daily life. When tired, everyone seeks refuge in something. For me painting is that form of refuge -- a place to go and entertain myself and perhaps recreate reality in an aesthetic sense.
Horrigan: "Taste of Cherry" is your most recent film and we will talk a little bit about that. Maybe we should begin with the amazing spectacle when the film won the award at the Cannes festival. There was the issue of the uncertainty about the film getting shown. What was that all about?
Kiarostami: When I was at the Cannes festival and was awarded the prize, Catherine Deneuve came forward to give it to me. As a tradition in that ceremony, she hugged and kissed me. As you can imagine, such a demonstration of affection in public would have been an absolute disaster in Iran! Immediately after that event, I called my son in Tehran. He told me that I should not come back for a while because things did not look good after that disastrous kiss. So, I stayed for a week and when I went back I had to avoid the welcoming audience and go out of the back door. One of the fortunate things, though, was that this event coincided with the elections of President Khatami and so the political atmosphere was changing in Iran. As a result, it didn't take on the kind of significance that it could have without the political and social changes at the time. Nevertheless the film has not been shown in Iran yet, but it will be soon!
Horrigan: Is that primarily because it is about suicide?
Kiarostami: Partially so. It is partially due to the subject of the film, which is suicide. This could have been an issue but fortunately it did not become as problematic as it could have been since all religions view it as a taboo, a sinful act. The movie should be viewed, as I have been talking about it in many hours in the past few months, as a way of discovering taboos and dealing with them. Why are they there? The opportunity to talk about these taboos, explore what they are and why they exist, has given me a new outlook. It is the role of the art to discover, question, and expose these taboos for what they are and what they are worth -- what we are told as a child not to do and what we consequently do not do as an adult.
Horrigan: This is a good entry into showing the film clips. This is a film essentially about a man who is trying to convince people to abet him in his attempt at suicide and the various conversations revolving around that.
(A portion of "Taste of Cherry" was shown)
Mahdi: It is often said that there is a negative tone to the Iranian culture emphasizing the negative aspects of life like death and fatalism. But this clip despite its apparent subject of death displays a positive of thinking about life. Mr. Badie seems to be as much concerned about the way he is going to die than whether he could die. This represents a lot more positive thinking than we can expect from a man ready to die. To what extent is this way of thinking becoming widespread in Iran? Are we seeing a change?
Kiarostami: What you are referring to
is basically the Islamic culture. The Iranian culture does not have that kind of emphasis.
This negative emphasis has a permanent place in the Islamic culture where the crying and
grief, in which Muslim people have been historically engaged, are very significant. These
elements have carried the religion through time and are part of what keeps Islam alive.
It should be said that this positive way of looking at things is not necessarily related to culture -- I see this as an intrinsic issue in one's individual outlook. Happiness and sadness are intricately tied. Beneath any layer of despair, there is hope and a reach out for happiness.At the same time, beneath any kind of happiness there is a layer of anxiety and despair. So I see this as a cycle of life, happiness and despair go with one another and not as separate. This man could not have enjoyed that fruit so much if it wasn't for the despair connected with the experience. As you saw in the film clip, the man had indicated that in the depths of darkness he saw the light at the end of the tunnel. So thus, he came to discover that life is beautiful when he was so desperate and exhausted of options. This is not connected to culture, this is a universal phenomenon. Realities generate their own opposite and this must be viewed in a dialectical way. At the depth of sadness one seeks for happiness and at the height of happiness one has to court the reality of sadness.
Horrigan: Have you been surprised by how well received this film has been world over?
Kiarostami: This is a very difficult film and the reaction is, of course, much better than I expected, and although I can see how people can resign half an hour into the film, I have also seen enthusiastic responses where the film strikes a chord with the audience. The latter group connects with the movie well and it gets them to think about the issue. I have witnessed a situation where I have lost 200 people, 100 walk out, 50 admire and clap, and 50 look at them and wonder what the fuss is about! But the fact is that this film is one of the works I have done as part of a larger series. It has its own place in that series.
Horrigan: Do you tend to work with the same crew?
Kiarostami: I try my best to keep the same crew but it becomes very difficult because while the people who work for me enjoy it, they find it difficult. Son when they find an opportunity, they usually run away from me. It seems in some way simple to work with me, but at the same time the kinds of roles I develop in my films are demanding. For instance in "Taste of Cherry," the protagonist had to maintain his frame of mind for two months no matter what difficulties he faced outside of the production process. Such an experience is emotionally difficult and not too many people can guard themselves against the normal ups and downs of daily life. I even had a discussion with my camera man who did not like where I had asked him to position the camera. I had asked for the camera to be put in a fixed position attached to the side window of the car or on the hood. He did not like this because it did not give him much control and the reflection from the window partially obscured the faces and hid the feeling. In some other situations the actors were not engaged in dialogue with each other. I had asked them to speak to the camera. They were engaged in conversation with me rather with other actors in a real situation.
Horrigan: Then it must take time to develop trust in order to have this illusion of improvisation. A lot of it feels like a real conversation that we are eavesdropping on.
Kiarostami: This is inevitable in making this kind of film. Since I do a lot of things spontaneously, we have to control a lot of things and this leaves both my actors and my cameramen with little control over their functions. Because they do not know what the totality of the scene looks like, they have to do only what I ask them to do. For parts of the film, the man who is working on the sound did not know where pieces were going to fit and where I would be using them later. I don't have a person to record the scene and this causes a lot of problems. Since I make most of my movies this way, the technicians have a very difficult time working with me. They have to trust me and be comfortable with how I would use the various scenes and where they would fit.
Question from audience: The actors in the clip we just saw were involved in a conversation. Was this an spontaneous dialogue or were they following a script developed prior to shooting? How much of what goes on in the movie is spontaneous and how much it is planned by you?
Kiarostami: Sometimes that is how it
goes. Some of the actors had to follow the script but some could be spontaneous. For
example when we talked to the soldier it was a spontaneous conversation between him and
myself. It was later that we told him that our conversation would be in a movie. I had
told him that if he would come to the top of the hill and agree with our work for him he
would get paid. On the top of the hill, he was getting really frustrated and tired. The
fact that he ran away that day was all natural, because we hadn't paid him and since no
movie was forthcoming he ran away.
The case of the seminarian was different. He really got involved and was engaging me in discussion continually. He thought I was really going to commit suicide and wanted to change my mind. He even forgot that there was a camera against the window of the car. So that was an entirely different story.
In case of the Turkish man, we had a different situation. He wasn't a professional. I actually found him on the scene. We had given the script to different people to try and test it because for the parts that actors have to follow the script we generally have them practice several times. In his case none of the people tested were coming across successfully in my view. What was particularly important in this scene was that the actor engages in the dialogue and poses the issue in such a way that it doesn't look too serious. This would reduce the philosophical burden of the discussion. He would be a more real folkish ordinary person. We found this man all of a sudden on the scene. I liked the natural tone and expression of his accent. The accent was constant and there was no sense of imitation to it. He was being himself and this gave us an opportunity to rely on the naturalness and constancy of his accent.
It might be interesting for you to know how we found him. We ran into him up on the hills. He asked us "What are you doing here?" and we asked him what he thought we were. He said "You are a bunch of thieves!" We asked him why he thought we were thieves and he said "because you are probably speculators from the city who come in with their cameras and instruments to measure and divide up the land to sell to developers who will sell it to the people and suck the blood out of them, that's what you've come here to do!" It was that kind of dialogue that made us think this man was a natural selection for this film. We gave him the script, he worked through it, sat in the car, and all worked beautifully.
Question: I have two questions. The ending of this movie, "Taste of Cherry" had me very baffled. Even in your other films, which I love, there are parts that I do not understand. But this part in particular bothered me because I didn't understand it. What is supposed to happen? Your ending leaves us in a blank. Why do you have a scene in which Mr. Badie is smoking cigarette after he committed suicide? That is my first question. My second question is related to politics. Obviously a lot of films have been made about Iran that have become the great films of the nineties just like Chinese movies were the greats of the eighties. It seems to me like a lot of great art is coming out of oppressive cultures or regimes so that while the Westerners can praise their art they condemn their cultures. How much of this factor influences your work and would you be the same person, would your films be the same, if you were making films in the West?
Kiarostami: I start with the second
part of your question. I like to use the phrase restrictive to describe the conditions I
work under rather than oppressive and I understand that oppressive means many different
things under different contexts but for us as artists and filmmakers what we are dealing
with are the realities of restrictions and I like to approach it from that angle. I look
at these restrictions not in the context of the film alone but in the broader context of
life. For me these restrictions exist everywhere and have always been there. Life in the
East has never been without them. We have to always live within certain boundaries. Life
is the combination and movement between restriction and freedom -- the field of action is
limited, the field of power is limited, when we were kids we were always told what we
could do and what we couldn't and how far we could go in doing things we could.
The best example I can give for this concept is when our teachers told us to do a composition for the class. When he gave us a topic, we would write about that topic and come up with something worthwhile. But when he did not specify the topic and left us free to choose our own, we usually couldn't come up with something worth writing about. We needed to be told what the boundaries and restrictions were. This has been the nature of our society and has been replicated in the realities of our film industry. For instance, during the first four years of the Iranian revolution, there was a great deal of chaos in the film industry because not many rules were set yet. Interestingly enough, most of the Iranian movie-makers didn't produce much during this time though a great deal could have been done. No one used the opportunity because everyone was waiting to find out what the restrictions were!
Most of the time we seek an excuse for running away from the responsibility. Restrictions give us this kind of excuse. Therefore, unfortunately, we seek energy from these boundaries set for us. I don't want to imply that these limitation are good and should be there, but we have been brought up with these and it is in our mentality. This is not limited to my profession -- it's in every profession, creativity is a necessity and limitation makes people more creative. I have a friend who is an architect. He tells me that he is at his best professionally when he designs structures for odd lots because these lands do not fit into the normal patten and he has to work within a great deal of limitations. So, he must be creative and he enjoys this. It is these restrictions that provide an opportunity for people to be creative.
Now, I like to answer the first question: I understand how difficulty you have comprehending the last scene of this movie. I sympathize with you. But this has been deliberate on my part. In "Taste of Cherry" I have tried to keep a distance between my spectator and the protagonist. I didn't want spectators emotionally involved in this film. In this film, I tell you very little about Mr. Badie, I tell you very little about what his life is about, why he wanted to commit suicide, what his story is I didn't want the spectators get engaged in those aspects of his life. For that purpose I had to keep Mr. Badie away from the audience. So he is a distant actor in a way. First I thought to end the movie at the point when he laid down on his grave but later I changed my mind. I was uncomfortable to end it at that point because I was very concerned, and am always concerned, about my spectators. I do not want to take them hostage. I do not want to take their emotions hostage. It is very easy for a flim-maker to control the emotions of spectators but I do not like that. I do not want to see my audience as innocent children whose emotions are easily manipulable.
I was afraid that if I ended the movie where Mr. Badie laid down on his grave the spectator would be left with a great deal of sadness. Even though I didn't think the scene was really that sad, I was afraid that it would come out as such. For that reason I decided to have the next episode where we have the camera running as Mr. Badie was walking around. I wanted to remind spectators that this was really a film and that they shouldn't think about this as a reality. They should not become involved emotionally. This is much like some of our grandmothers who told us stories, some with happy and some with sad endings. But they always at the end would have a Persian saying which went like this "but after all it is just a story!"
Horrigan: That's actually the second clip we have which has just been described as a kind of epilogue after the ambiguous ending. So we'll do the second clip now. This is basically the epilogue to the film.
(Another clip from "Taste of Cherry" shown)
Kiarostami: The very last episode reminds me of the continuation of life, that life goes on, and here the audience is confronted with the reality they had hoped that Mr. Badie would be alive and there he is a part of nature and nature still continues and life goes on even without Mr. Badie. And if one could really think about being or not being present in life, or if one thinks about it in terms of the real implication of such presence, one might not in fact engage in committing suicide at all. The person committing suicide might think that s/he is taking revenge from the society, nature, life, powers to be, and so on. But s/he don't realize that after a suicide life still goes on and things stay the way they are. I could interpret this in a different way. If my audience is as creative as I imagine them to be, they can take this in a variety of interpretations and I can sit here and every time make a different interpretation of it, as every time one can creatively reinterpret the reality.
Horrigan: What is the significance of the music you have used in the end at this part?
Kiarostami: I was looking for a different kind of instrument but I found that this music extremely attractive because it has been used in both occasions of funeral and happiness. Since I wasn't sure myself for which purpose I wanted this music to be used here, I found it a excellent piece for this moment of the film. It could fit in here because depending on how you interpret the situation you could take the music in that sense.
Mahdi: Your movies represent a reflective form of cinema. You consciously try not to end the movie with a predetermined conclusion. Often in some of the scenes and episodes at the end, you leave your actors to basically improvise. Your films are often un-concluded. What is your expectation from your audience by leaving them with a blank and what do you want to get from this kind of expectation? Do you want the spectator conclude your story or you generally see the reality in this unending format?
Kiarostami: The idea not to end
movies with some kind of conclusion occurred to me several years ago. I have always
thought that the audience is much more creative than we credit them to be and I feel they
can do a lot with the stories we pose for them. The only difference between my spectators
and I is that I have a camera in hand and they don't. I don't see the spectators as any
less creative that I am, and believe that sometimes, left to themselves, they can come up
with a better ending than I can! Often people go to see a film with the expectation that a
story will be told. I do not like this arrangement where there is a dichotomy between me,
as the storyteller, and the spectator, as the one sitting there and watching the story as
such. I prefer to believe that the spectators are much more intelligent and actually see
it as unfair that I get the chance to captivate them for two hours telling them the story,
ending it the way I say it must end and so on. So I actually want to give them more credit
by involving them and distributing the sense of belonging between myself and the
spectator, so I leave it open and that way s/he could end it the way he/she wants to end
This idea of leaving a great deal of open space for the spectator is not limited to the end of the film. I have always had the desire to have the kind of film where I have created a great deal of spaces inside the film, where, like a puzzle, the spectator has to fill in the spaces -- I like to create those kinds of spaces where the personalities in the film begin to engage with one another and at the same time leave room for their spectator to connect them in a way in which they would like to see them connected. Some people like their movies to be perfect as they describe it, but I don't seek that kind of perfection. To me perfection is defined by how much the spectator can engage in the movie, and so a good movie is one that involves the spectator as a part of it and not as a captive person.
Question: From the beginning of the flim it becomes clear that Mr. Badie is not the kind of guy who is going to commit suicide because he is so involved with life. He wants to know what is going to happen to him after committing suicide. He is concerned with covering all the details. He is not the kind of guy who would commit suicide. The episode in which he goes back to Mr. Bagheri and gets assurances that he would through two stones at him in order to make sure that he is dead indicates that he was not actually that serious about it.
Kiarostami: I have the same kind of
interpretation of this scene in the film as you have. As a spectator I see this too. There
is actually a scene where he says egg is not good for him even though he is going to kill
himself. Also as you can see through the window of his home prior to his departure for his
final project, he goes and checks his own temperature. Statistics show that these are the
typical actions of those who contemplate suicide. About 12,000 to 14,000 people a day
intend to kill themselves and about 13,000 fail by finding some kind of excuse to hang
onto life: such is the powerful the need to seek survival.
There are actually more indications in the movie that reveal this fact. He goes to pick up the people who might help him commit suicide, and if you look carefully, a number of those who approach him in the beginning were aggressive. No only would they have buried him but would have hammered on his head as well. But he didn't choose them. He felt that belligerence. He went for the types of people who were soft and gentle toward him, those who he could connect to, those who would understand him, those that have characteristics to show they were the kind of people who would provide him with some kind of excuse, some kind of reasoning and some kind of engagement whereby they might actually change his mind. These are not black and white realities, and are open to some kind of interpretation and empathy, by putting oneself in the shoes of others and understanding in that context what people do. I did investigate this thoroughly, because I had to worry about censorship. I wanted to make sure I got all the information -- the kind that would get through the filter.
In Japan, when they showed this movie they wanted me to give them some kind of message as it is customary there to ask the director what his message is and post that in front of the cinema hall for the people to read before they go in. So they came to me and wanted me to write up something indicating what my message. I talked about those 13,000 people that intend to kill themselves and reminded them of the 1000 people that are successful; I said today is November 10th and 1000 people have exited life. Those who have existed tell us to those who are left on November 11th that "since you have chosen to stay, you have taken the responsibility to live better, and thus your life has to be better today than November 10th."
Question: After the Iranian Revolution we have seen a number of movies coming out of Iran in which actors are amateurs and ordinary people. Interestingly, we often see that these amateurs perform much better. Are there financial reasons for this trend or there are some other reasons?
Kiarostami: Acting is a profession and requires specialization and training. As a good actor you have to know a lot and good actors are those who do a great deal of work. On the other hand ordinary people don't know a lot and this gives us the opportunity to work with them. Mediocre actors are actually the worst because they have some knowledge but don't know how to do a good job with it. Mr. Badie was recruited for two more films after his participation in my film but he wasn't successful in either of them, at least not as successful as in mine. This was because for my movie he didn't know anything. But for the following two he knew a little and that was his problem!
Question: Can you explain more about your choice of these spaces you talked about in your films, especially with the landscape, the backdrop, the inside and outside, say, of the car, etc.?
Kiarostami: Every selection has its
own reasoning and we do not include anything without reason, even if there is no reason
for the spectator there has to be a reason for us, for it to be on camera. So we are very
careful. I'm not sure about which scenes and space you are specifically talking about but
generally I can say that in any dialogue we make the selection of the spaces and their
framing so that they are appropriate to the dialogue and contribute to the totality of the
Still, I have to say that what we produce is subject to interpretation, taste, and preferences. Movies, like other cultural objects, are interpretive objects. There is a meaning in them intended by the author, a meaning understood by the audience, a meaning generated as a result of the interaction of these different meanings. For instance, a critic did not like "Taste of Cherry" because he didn't see the grave and he wanted me to actually focus on the concrete grave. But he missed the point that I had so many scenes in which I depicted the grave in a symbolic way. Every time the soil was being poured down by the truck, Mr. Badie was seeing his own grave. In every down pouring of the soil and gravel, he was imagining himself under their weight.
Question: At the end of the movie there is a blackout, what is the purpose of this blackout? What did you want to imply by it?
Kiarostami: The reason I included this blackout was because I wanted to show death, but I didn't want to show the person actually experiencing the tortures of the process although that would have been the easiest for me to show, with the actor tormenting himself in preparation for death. So I took out the voice and the light, as that is the deeper way about thinking of nothingness and death, for death is lack of voice and light and that's a better way to express it than actually showing a person experiencing it.
Question: In two of your movies, "And Life Goes On," and "Taste of Cherry," we see the relationship between life and nature and you constantly show symbolically that life and nature reproduce themselves. Now in the industrialized world this connection between nature and life is becoming strained. How do you view this relationship?
Kiarostami: I can only answer part of
your question the other part neither relates to the issue at hand nor to my work. I'm very
sorry to hear that in the Western world this relationship between nature and life is
getting weaker and blurred. It's an unfortunate reality of modern life and there is
nothing one can do about it. The existential and personal aspects of this for me is that
as I gradually step into my old age I slowly have to separate from a great deal around me
and replace those losses with nature. Every time I leave a relationship or lose a
belonging, I have to replace it with something else. It is very unfortunate that we lose a
lot of things as we age. We lose friends, relatives, our appetites, our strengths -- there
were days I thought if I didn't see my son for two days it was the end of the world, then
it became two months and nothing happened, now two years and still nothing happens.
My solution for this problem has been to establish or strengthen my relationship with nature. This is the nature of human beings. I go out of Tehran several times in a week and try to visit some scenes of natural splendor. Film and painting are both ways of connecting with nature. I actually wonder, and this is a difficult time for me to think about, how it would be if I leave this life and what will happen to nature. And my friend tells me, that he can see from my films what will happen, and that there are different kinds of nature, and hopefully, as I show in my films, a time will come when soldiers will have flowers in their hands as opposed to guns. I go on with that hope.
Mahdi: Western culture is so accustomed to background music, and there was an absence of any kind of soundtrack in this movie. Is this a practice you employ often in your films or just this one?
Kiarostami: Music is a perfect art by itself. It's very powerful and impressive. I dare not try to compete with music in my films. I can't engage in that kind of activity as the use of music has a great deal of emotional charge and burden and I do not want to place this on my spectator. Music plays on the spectators' emotions, make them excited or sad, and takes them through a veritable emotional roller coaster like ups and downs and I respect my spectator too much to do that