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Sehaty Foreign Exchange

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Talking about a revolution, in pictures:
Nigel Andrews finds Iranian film director Abbas Kiarostami a fearless and eloquent spokesman for a medium that has yet to realise its potential

Financial Times, London
Monday June 28, 1999

Just as poetry is "What oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed", wisdom can be a statement so interestingly unexpected that you realise, deep down, that you have always expected it.

"Cinema is the most atavistic and backward of all the arts," Abbas Kiarostami suddenly startles me by saying. Sitting in a west end London hotel behind a pair of elegantly implacable dark glasses - now part of celebrity drag from Tinseltown to Tehran - Iran's leading filmmaker, who won a Cannes Golden Palm two years back for The Taste Of Cherries, is attacking film. Or at least what the rest of the world has made of this newborn 20th century form.

"Cinema is the only art without the abstractions of other arts like painting or music, without the creative spaces which each spectator or listener can fill in himself," he expounds through an indefatigable interpreter.

"I do not want to make works where everyone goes out at the end feeling and thinking the same. The audience should be a co-creator with the director. Each person should bring his own thoughts and imaginings which make the film different for him or her. Nothing is worse than a film where everyone leaves feeling the same."

Hearing Kiarostami's ideas, like watching his films, can be like witnessing cinema invented anew. For a world suckled on Hollywood storytelling and only partially weaned by the freedoms of European and eastern art cinema - even Godard, Eisenstein and Mizoguchi knew how to spin a tale - this Persian image-maker's films have been an astonishment: a centenary birthday gift designed to turn year 100 to year zero, to take us in all senses back to the future.

In his extraordinary trilogy crowned by Through The Olive Trees Kiarostami kept returning to the same village, before and after an earthquake, to film reflections of reflections of reflections. At one point we ponder the phenomenon of a real director (himself) filming a fictionalised director making a film about the making of a previous film in the trilogy. "Chinese boxes," I say. "Russian dolls," says Kiarostami, more geopolitically sensitive. "Why go to different, far-off parts of the world to film different stories when you can explore all the possibilities of one location?"

In another film, Close-Up, an actual news report about a man arrested for fraudulently impersonating Iran's other world-renowned film director, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, so fascinated Kiarostami that he recreated the story. The culprit played himself: he re-enacted his imposture (docu-drama), was filmed at his trial (reality) and was finally surprised into a meeting with Makhmalbaf, whereupon he burst into floods of tears (reality-as-fantasy-as-catharsis?).

Kiarostami knows his own mind, even if some filmgoers find it a daunting, labyrinthine place. He famously broke off another project in order to make Close-Up: "An idea for a film forces itself on you. It is like people. I might meet 10 people today but just one would stand out and I would remember him." And he fought the Iranian censors - who had confiscated four of his early features, still unshown inside and outside Iran - over his Cannes-invited masterpiece The Taste Of Cherries.

Arriving at the festival late, this bizarre "road movie" about a man bent on suicide who picks up casual car passengers - a soldier, a young priest, a museum worker - to audition them for the job of throwing earth on his grave the following dawn carried off the top prize.

It had almost failed to reach Cannes at all, thanks to the powers that be (or were) in Tehran. Did they object to the theme of suicide? "No. The Islamic view on suicide is not that different from other religions. What I was accused of - it wasn't true - was deliberately delaying the completion of the editing so that they would not have time to view the film before Cannes."

What about its avant-garde structure? This caused consternation even among hardened festival-goers. The film ends not with a resolution of the suicide story, but with a fuzzy video coda depicting the film's crew - including a cigarette-smoking lead actor - strolling on the location hillside. Alienation, and then some. "Yes, there was objection to that too. The censors thought it was too obscure, too arty. But so did many people. I have friends who cannot stand five minutes of my work. But there are also non-intellectual audiences who respond to it immediately.

"The worst audiences are the middle classes. They react only with their heads. They see and feel what they think they are supposed to see and feel, or have been told to by critics."

But surely, I say as spokesman for the condemned, we must respond with the head to these films? They hardly wash over us with a tide of simple emotion.

If not it may be we who have lost touch with the traditional heart of storytelling, replies Kiarostami. It used to be the maziest of arts, even in its popular forms. "Look at the Thousand And One Nights. You have stories within stories within stories. You have stories that are about storytelling."

It still seems a marvel that the same part of the world, at a very different moment in history, has produced cinema so complex, radical and visionary. While the outsider is gratified that a country famed for its oppressive views on religion, politics and sexuality has allowed a modernist cinema to survive at all, the history of filmmaking in Iran has also been littered with banned films, imprisoned directors and - at a more demotic level - burned cinemas and stone-throwing audiences.

"For 20 years (since the Shah's overthrow) we have had a perpetual revolution, you might say evolution," says Kiarostami. "Everything is undergoing change in Iran. There are no fixed ideas. Something that is set up today may be pulled down tomorrow. For instance I have been told that one of my banned films, The Report, will soon be released."

Which leaves three still under house arrest. Kiarostami is an optimist, though, who believes that art can flourish in the dodge-and-weave climate of a political autocracy: "It eliminates the telling of stories straightforwardly, so you must find new techniques and experiments." But there must be a temptation, too, to consider decamping to freer cultures. I end by pressing further the theme of Iranian intolerance with a circumlocutory question about "threats made to leading novelists in other countries", hoping to protect everyone's sensitivity by avoiding both the "f" word and name of the satanic versifier.

Kiarostami's interpreter promptly delivers a Farsi translation containing the audible words "fatwa" and "Salman Rushdie". Kiarostami, no less promptly, replies. Turning his dark glasses full upon me, he lifts his shoulders and splays his forearms in a shrug that seems to say: "Search me for concealed words or thoughts."

He adds: "You see and hear me talking today. I am not hiding anything. I am freely answering your questions. And I am in no fear about going back to Iran, or about continuing to work and make films there."


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