The best director in the world?
The Daily Telegraph
September 21, 2000
Cinema's golden age is not quite over - thanks to the Iranian Abbas
Kiarostami. He talks to SF Said By SF Said
The cutting edge of cinema today is not in Los Angeles, Paris or even
Tokyo. Instead, a film industry that has survived revolution, war and censorship
is reinventing the movies, producing something rare and beautiful: a cinema
Surprising as it may seem, the film industry in question - the most
vibrant and exciting in the world - is in Iran. Abbas Kiarostami is its
most renowned director. "So many films today send you out empty-handed,"
he reflects. "While you are watching, you may laugh or weep - but
when they end, you are empty. I think my films leave an impression that
lasts a bit longer."
Such is the impression that his films create, many critics rate Kiarostami
among the all-time greats, a worthy successor to Rossellini, Truffaut or
Kieslowski. He has won the highest prizes at the top film festivals for
movies such as Close-Up (1989), A Taste of Cherry (1997) and now The Wind
Will Carry Us, which opens tomorrow.
The man himself couldn't be less like the stereotype of an Iranian.
He has an immensely calm, cultured air. He points out that his cinema has
roots in Persian traditions of visual art and story-telling that are millennia
old - aspects of his country's civilisation that are often forgotten in
But the film tradition that he has founded is dynamic and constantly
renewing itself. Several of his former assistants are now award-winning
directors in their own right: Jafar Panahi has just scooped the Golden
Lion at Venice; Bahman Ghobadi and Hassan Yektapaneh shared the Camera
d'Or at Cannes this year for best first feature.
"Kiarostami not only taught me cinema," says Yektapaneh, "but
how to look at the world."
This is the distinctive quality of today's Iranian films: they show
you something important about living. "Our films are very simple,"
says Kiarostami. "They are not about technology; they're about people."
His movies are built around everyday human situations; they focus on
the small moments that make up our lives. Based on true stories, operating
in the space between fiction and documentary, they use non-professional
actors - often the very people whose stories they are. "That gives
the films authenticity," he says. "They have the guarantee of
reality behind them."
His working method would horrify a Hollywood producer. He writes only
a brief outline script - perhaps 10 pages - before looking for actors on
the streets of Tehran and the villages of the Iranian countryside.
"Non-professional people help me," he explains, "because
they don't listen to me as a professional actor would. When they have trouble
doing what I want them to, I realise that I'm wrong. I adapt myself to
reality, rather than trying to adapt it to myself."
The result is a cinema with all the luminous beauty, depth and strangeness
of life itself. Kiarostami uses none of the manipulative tricks of commercial
film, never telling the audience when to laugh or cheer, who to root for
or reject. Rather, he treats it with respect, simply placing us in a world,
and letting us find our own way around. "The job of the film-maker
is not to tell you what to think," he says. "That is for the
Kiarostami films are alive with mysterious images: a pale green apple
rolls off a roof, a tortoise scrabbles in the dust, a bone floats down
a sunlit stream. Only gradually do we piece together who the characters
are and what they're doing. The effect is to heighten our curiosity, to
engage our creativity, to draw us in and make us attend to every detail
- for everything here, as in life, may prove significant.
It sounds simple - as cinema ought to be - but it has never been done
in quite this way before. Kiarostami's kind of freedom is so radical, it
can feel disorienting; it can even make you angry. For someone accustomed
to the predictable conventions of Hollywood, it is like finding yourself
on top of a mountain, infinite space on every side, when you are used to
seeing a narrow grid of streets with no horizon.
Drawn from reality and structured like it, Kiarostami's is a cinema
of life in another sense, too. Until recently, his films played mind-bending
games with notions of truth and knowledge, deconstructing the movie-making
and viewing processes - but his most recent, mature work is dominated by
the eternal themes of life and death. 'When one gets older," he says
- he has just turned 60 - "one somehow becomes clearer about life,
in the same way that the blind can feel more acutely. They lose their physical
sight, and develop their insight."
Having taken his art form in new directions, Kiarostami is now using
it to make life-affirming films. Not shallow, feel-good entertainments,
but profoundly affecting celebrations of the temporary beauty that is our
world. They urge us to live well, as if every moment mattered.
His humanistic affirmation that this world is infinitely cherishable
has brought conflict with the Iranian censors. "My latest film hasn't
yet been shown in Iran," he says. "They think that if you stress
this world, you are negating the world to come. But the two can go hand
His situation is a reminder of the problems that Iranian film-makers
face. The Islamic state places strict guidelines on what can and cannot
be shown; at any stage of production, a film can be banned. But could it
be argued that these very difficulties have stimulated innovation?
"What I say is not condoning censorship," says Kiarostami,
"but I think one of the reasons for the success of Iranian film-makers
is that they have to build a bridge over the restrictions they are subjected
to. Probably if they had all the facilities that are available to film-makers
in the West, they would not create, in such simple ways, films which are
Whatever the reasons, the Iranian cinema of life is an extraordinary
achievement. If you've ever felt that the great days of film are dead,
that there's nothing left to say, see one of these movies.