So, on with the first interview published on Subtitles to Cinema. It is a conversation I had with the great Iranian film director Abbas Kiarostami a while ago. Hope you enjoy it!
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Abbas Kiarostami makes only one half of his films. The rest is up to the audience to create themselves.
“I prefer to work alone,” he says.
Photo: Hanne Hvattum (contact)
The Iranian film director, photographer and poet is sitting across from me on a soft bench in the middle of Oslo’s Stenersen Museum, surrounded by walls with his own huge, black/white photos. The precise, short-worded and patient man in his sixties have got his sunglasses so firmly joined to his nose that they seem to have been with him since birth. And what is he talking about in this moment? To be alone. Working in solitude, without anyone interfering with him.
“The video camera has liberated the cinema artist,” says Kiarostami. “Now, we’re no longer trapped by big budgets and large crews when we are about to make film. An artist should be mostly alone with his tools: The camera and the actors, or objects.”
In Kiarostami’s video work Five dedicated to Ozu (2003) you can find a characteristic scene: A piece of wood, sized like a fist is washed onto the shore. The waves pushes it gently up and down in the sand for a few minutes, until a smaller piece of the wood comes off from the large one. The smallest wooden piece remains on the beach, but he larger one floats out to sea.
There’s similar scenes in many of Kiarostami’s photographies; motives from nature that allude to what he wants to say about us humans. A treet that stands alone, separated from a group of trees that stands together like soldiers.
“To me, nature represents an escape from daily life, the political life, society and city life.”
He was invited to Norway by Films from the South festival. At the same time a collection of his poetry was published in Norwegian translation, and his photos exhibited at this museum where I talk with him.
I ask him if he has any fears when he’s making films. Is he ever scared of something?
“The collective is what is dangerous. It is good to be in a group with people, but at the same time it is dangerous. It is not good if a group has the same idea, the same way of thinking,” the director answers.
“When you are in a group, a leader can transport you away. This is why individualism is very important. Especially for the artist. If there is a hundred people around me when I make a film, it won’t work. Everyone should get paid, and then it won’t be my idea, but he producer’s. A painter can say: ”This is my work.” The same goes for a photographer. But if a filmmaker makes an expensive film, he won’t be able to say that it is his.”
Alienation. This film philosophy and work method is connected to his original education as a painter, according to Kiarostami. Because that is where he started off, before a job with a producer of commercials in the 1960s led him into cinema. His first short films from the 1970s is small, interesting stories, mainly with children as leading characters. His playful and simple style, already evident in these first films, was going to color his whole filmography. For instance in his most famous film, Taste of Cherry, which in 1997 was awarded the Palme d’Or in Cannes (and was given the Criterion treatment two years later).
You mix both fiction and documentary filmmaking techniques, and you work a lot with amateurs in front of the camera. Are you capturing reality better like that?
“What is reality? I think the origins of any fiction film has to be something real. Documentary film does not exist. The moment a director makes one simple move with the camera, or joins to different clips together, he has made a choice – whether its label is ’fiction’ or ’documentary’.”
Kiarostami himself is more concerned with reminding the audience that they are watching a film, than making them think that what is unspooling on the screen is real.
“A filmmaker has to be conscious about his responsibility. I always wish to remind the audience that they are watching a film. You see, it is very dangerous to make the audience more emotionally engaged than they need to be. In the darkness of the cinema, people are so innocent. It makes them feel that everything is closer and stronger. That is why we should not make them even more emotional: People need to think when they watch films, not to be robbed of their reason.”
How do you achieve this?
“I make half movies. They are only made complete in the meeting with every single viewer.”
Fire. In the Iranian film Portrait of a Lady Far Far Away (2005), directed by Ali Mosaffa, there is a scene that burned itself onto my retina, and stayed there months after seeing the film. In the scene, we’re at a secret art show in a backyard in Tehran. During a performance, someone sets fire to a large photo. While the picture is burning to ashes, the artist proclaims that what was pictured, had now been set free.
The connection between images and flames has a painful and complex back story in Iran. When the Islamic revolution was set in motion at the end of the 1970s, fires in cinemas was given a symbolic meaning. It started when Rex Cinema in Abadan was set on fire on August 20th 1978, and approximately 430 people died. During the next year 180 cinemas in Iran was burned to the ground.
“The revolution affected our lives on all areas,” he tells me. “When the cinema in Abadan burned, I was not thinking about movies. I was concerned with the whole nation burning. I did not care about cinemas that day, but the people of Iran and what was happening with them.”
Censorship. The cinema fires, though, have had a paradoxical consequence: In fact, it was only after the fires that the nation’s own film scene began to flourish. The shah who had governed the country before the revolution, had let foreign (mostly western) films dominate the cinemas. But after the revolution, it was only legal to screen Iranian films. It resulted in enormous tasks, and huge growth, for the Iranian film community.
But at the same time, they’ve obviously had very strict censorship laws to struggle with. The so-called “Red line” – a constantly fluctuating border created by the authorities that controls what an artwork is allowed to express – has given Iranian cinema a unique aesthetics; they are often inferring, discreet films rich with allegory.
In the middle of all this is Abbas Kiarostami, who has been one of the foremost representatives of Iranian cinema. But sadly, his films have been prohibited in his homeland since 1997, when Taste of Cherry – which was about suicide – put him on the black list of the authorities.
Respiration. “This kind of complete exhibition of my work, would never happen in Tehran – they way things are now,” he laments. “I’m very sorry for the fact that the Iranian people can’t watch my films in public.”
My thoughts return to the burning photo from Ali Mosaffa’s film – and the figure that was captured within it – and I ask Kiarostami if he feels powerful when he’s making film.
“Why do you ask about this? I feel very happy when I capture a moment with my camera, but it does not give me any power other than a good feeling.”
He’s suddenly silent for a long while.
“It is like breathing. When you breath, you don’t expect anything special, you just need [to breath]. I believe the artist needs to create something just like he needs to breathe air.”
My time is up. The translator shakes hands, and says “Thank you very much”. But suddenly Kiarostami speaks up again:
“Have you seen the film, “The Rose”, that I’m screening here in the museum?”
“No,” I say.
“Lets watch the last five minutes of it together,” says Kiarostami.
We enter the video projection room, which during our interview has let out a surreal, hypnotic soundscape in the background. The film that Kiarostami wanted to show me, is a looped video montage of the photographs that is being exhibited in the museum. We’re watching it, and waiting. The final image is staying on screen longer than the others. Suddenly, it catches fire in the bottom right corner and burns completely to ashes in front of our eyes – inside his film.