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How Does Abbas Kiarostami Create The Cinematic Tension That
Has Won Him Awards All Over The World? He Leaves Things Out: Facts, Dialogue
- Even His Actors' Faces. The Iranian Master Film-maker Talks To Peter
The Guardian (London)
September 15, 2000
Abbas Kiarostami has taken up two daunting challenges. First, the Iranian
director, increasingly acknowledged as one of the most original film-makers
working today, wants to preserve cinema's visual purity in the face of
the current pyrotechnic overload. Second, he wants to give to cinema the
advantage of the novel where the reader-spectator willingly visualises
what is not actually shown. Before this is dismissed as grandiose bombast,
it is worth pointing out that he has already achieved it notably in Close-Up
(1990), Through the Olive Trees (1994), Taste of Cherry (1996) and now
The Wind Will Carry Us.
Kiarostami's spectators are tamed into a degree of submission where
they have to fill in visual (and even factual) gaps as audiences used to
do for storytelling of old. It is a reaction against modern cinema's giddy
infatuation with showing everything. His answer is to show less; tell less,
and still mesmerise the viewer.
So the ending of Through the Olive Trees concentrates uniquely on the
protracted efforts of a young, illiterate peasant to get a sign from a
young educated girl, orphaned by an earthquake, that she accepts his proposal
of marriage. She walks off down a hill and across an immense valley. When
she is in danger of disappearing into the distance, the boy runs after
her, closing on her until he in turn almost disappears.
By now we are hypnotised by these two distant dots, urgently needing
to spot the signal which will satisfy our curiosity. Suddenly one of the
dots the boy turns and begins to run back towards us; running, running.
We are now focused on only one thing: the coming glimpse of this approaching
face which will reveal the boy's state of mind. Before the dot becomes
a face, the film ends.
We have been conned, we realise, into watching two specks on the screen
for minutes on end. At this point, the witlessly overweighted techniques
of modern commercial film-makers, their work cacophonous with bullying
detail, collapse into absurdity before the skill of a director who can
keep us as spellbound as Hitchcock could, only watching two dots. This
is mastery of suspense without violence; human feeling is the motor. Also,
you cannot rid yourself of the film immediately: the mind still churns
with the necessity of reliving the scene to look for clues. Kiarostami
has it both ways: his way of showing less is to place less in a ravishing
framework. Those radiant hills and olive groves are worth watching for
In his latest film, The Wind Will Carry Us, there is a subplot of the
courtship between a youth we never see he is digging a deep well and a
young girl milking a cow in the dark whose face is constantly averted.
(The Iranian religious censors, deeply suspicious that there might be something
erotic here, have not yet given permission for the film to be released
But cute variations on courtship are by no means the limit of Kiarostami's
achievements; he also knows how to send up dependence on modern technology.
There is, literally, a running joke involving the chief character in The
Wind Willl Carry Us. He has come to a village in Iranian Kurdistan to record
mourning rituals. But every time Tehran calls him on his mobile he has
to dash, panting, to his car and rattle up the hills to get adequate reception.
Meanwhile life and death in the village carry on at their own traditional
On his way home from serving on the jury of the Montreal film festival,
Abbas Kiarostami stopped off in Paris last week where we met under the
giant limbs of the Eiffel tower. The city's normal hubbub was upped a considerable
few decibels by 3,000 taxi drivers hooting in a snail-crawl fuel price
protest along the boulevards. The only rural landscape I could offer this
teller of rural tales was to get him in amongst the shrubbery of the tower's
He is short, dark, quiet, courteous and candid. The one suggestion of
vanity is a refusal to remove the dark glasses when being photographed:
Nobody would know me without them,' he explains.
Whenever I get the opportunity,' he says. I like to provide for film
the advantage of literature. The usual way in film is to show something.
But my aim is to create a cinema to see how much we can do without actually
showing it. How much use we can make of the imagination of the spectator.
You must be able to imagine what is going on beyond what is physically
shown, because you are actually only showing a corner of reality. It is
a good idea when pictures and action guide you to something which is outside
the story without actually showing it.'
In Taste of Cherry, which won Cannes' Palme d'Or in 1997, a man drives
around, trawling for someone who will help him commit suicide. None of
his passengers asks why he wants to commit suicide.
He clearly left that question out on purpose. So that everybody could
have their own answer,' he says. Allowing them to project their own difficulties
and feel how it translates into their own daily lives. A lady in New York
said: I am absolutely confident that the man was in love!' I am sure the
lady herself was in love. And a businessman said: I think he was bankrupt.'
I am certain he had financial problems.
You see, when you have made a statement, you have only made that statement.
But if you don't make any one statement you have all the others.'
Directors have occasionally attempted to use this kind of austere ambiguity
notably Antonioni in L'Avventura. But that was manifestly an intellectual
exercise. Here we have ambiguity and reticence at the service of wonderful,
Kiarostami, who has just turned 60, began as graphic artist designing
feature film titles. While working as a clerk in a police station, he enrolled
in a fine arts school. In 1969, with a friend, he founded the Institute
for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults. This eventually
developed into the prestigious Iranian film studio which has produced,
among others, Jafar Panahi, who last week won the Golden Lion at Venice.
He began making short television films for children. Growing up in the
Shah's Persia, there were two cinematic influences: American films which
were far from our way of life, and the Italian neo-realists De Sica and
Rossellini who were nearer'. This was the style he developed from.
He and his wife, a designer, divorced 20 years ago; he has two grown
sons, one in computers, another making publicity films. Although on his
10th feature and with increasing international fame, nothing is made easy
for him. The story of the making of The Wind Will Carry Us underlines this.
Even his film crew abandoned him.
The conditions were very bad,' Kiarostami said. The flies were terrible
and some of the people lived with their cattle. We had to spend a huge
sum of money pounds 10,000 disinfecting the houses with DDT. A film crew
is used to comfort, but we had very little hot water and they didn't even
have a pretty face to look at. I have refused to use artificial light for
my last four films and the main problem was that Iranian crews don't work
in the morning. But since the light goes quickly I needed them up at six
in the morning. In the end they went off and I was left with my sound man
and assistant cameraman to finish the film.'
In the village where they were shooting there is an ancient mourning
ritual by which women cut their faces to express sympathy with a bereaved
person. Women have been known to do this even when their husband's boss
has a bereavement to ensure their husbands or sons keep their jobs. I assume
that portraying women so debased by their economic circumstances that they
would mutilate themselves in the hope of security must have been one of
the points which angered the censors?
For the past 20 years,' says Kiarostami, the religious censors have
unfortunately shown they do not pay any attention to economic problems.
They were more sensitive about undermining religious ideas.'
One of the scenes the censors are creating problems with involves the
young girl, who is milking the cow while the visitor from Tehran quotes
from the love poem that gave Kiarostami his title The Wind Will Carry Us,
by Forugh Farrokhzad. A revolutionary poet, one of the first to deal with
women's problems and explicitly with sex, Farrokhzad died in a car crash
in 1967, aged 33. The censors also do not approve of the quotation from
the celebrated 12th century Persian poem, the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.
The verse runs:
Some for the Glories of This World; and some
Sigh for the Prophet's Paradise to come;
Ah, take the Cash, and let the Credit go,
Nor heed the rumble of a distant Drum!'
How does he deal with the censors? By being patient,' says Kiarostami.
An Iranian official hardly ever remains in his position a very long time.
When one goes and another comes, that is the best time to try again.'
Last year the UN asked Kiarostami to make a documentary on the plight
of Ugandan children whose parents have died or are dying of Aids. I wondered
at first why they had chosen me,' he said, but of course I spent my first
20 years making films for children at the Tehran institute.'
He discovered that Uganda was not the land of savagery and horrific
violence we believe it to be. This is potentially a very rich country with
a happy and vigorous people,' he says. They are dying, often without knowing
what is happening to them. These villages were 200 miles from the nearest
town and not only did they not have electricity, they didn't even have
oil lamps or candles. So in the long dark nights they have nothing to do
but make love, which they do very naturally and without guilt. Some religious
groups put up posters urging women to remain virginal and be chaste.' He
laughs. Condoms make no impression on them. For them it is normal to undress
to make love. They don't understand why you have to put on something to
What is amazing about these primitive people is how very polite and
well-mannered they are. Where does it come from? Once a woman complained
about my photographing her and called a policeman. He was the most courteous
policeman I have ever met in the world. He was meticulous, made no attempt
to undermine the lady's rights and sorted the matter out completely impartially.
And he wouldn't accept a bribe, which would be normal in most countries.'
Kiarostami cannot tell me much about his next project, he says, except
that he will start shooting this winter and this time it will be about
city life. On leaving, I remark to his interpreter (the interview was in
Farsi) how curious it is that truly talented people never make difficulties
in interviews; it is only those of dubious ability who put up barriers.
He replies: We have a saying in Iran. The fruitful tree bends.' ' The
Wind Will Carry Us is released next Friday