ABBAS KIAROSTAMI : Of Ordinary Men and Extraordinary Stories
An article by Monali Majhi
A Traffic-guard turned Graphic Designer turned Film Director Abbas Kiarostami was not a cinephile when he made his first feature. Born in Tehran on 22ndJune, 1940, Kiarostami was son of a painter and interior designer father from whom he inherited his knack for painting. He was an introverted child with communication problems. He never talked to his classmates throughout his basic education. Instead, he used painting to fight his loneliness. He didn’t have a happy childhood. He even ran away from home at sixteen. After working as a traffic guard for a couple of years, he took admission in The Faculty of Fine Arts in Tehran University. Looking back to his university days, Kiarostami once recounted “I learned that I was definitely not made to be a painter.” One interesting fact about Kiarostami is that he does not offer us much insight to his personal life. He publicly recounts a few events with various interpretations.
Before finding his calling as a filmmaker, he worked professionally as a Graphic Designer for one of the most famous agency of his time, Tabil Films. “Before I could decide whether I wanted to do it or fantasize about becoming a film-director or question my own motives, I had already joined the Centre (Centre for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults).There I was, everything was set up and that’s how I found myself directing my first film”. Kiarostami’s first film was Bread and Alley(1970). This breath-taking ten minutes short features a child. His quest to pass a dog with a piece of bread is the film’s central concern.
Kiarostami believed that a director makes only one film in his life, splitting it into parts. All of his films deal with ordinary people who are somehow different than others; different enough to be made into films. His films record a journey of man as a social being coping up with life or rather trying to overcome the hurdle that every day life is.
Before knocking the world’s door with Palme d’Or for Taste of Cherry (1997), Kiarostami made a series of films which are no less than gems. He himself believed Breaktime (1972)to be his ideal film – “You may not believe it but my ideal film is my second film, Breaktime. This film is way ahead of ‘Taste ofCherry’ in terms of form, audacity, avoidance of story-telling and indeterminate ending”. These are the qualities which make an Abbas Kiarostami film. Here is a director who does not offer you a coherent storyline, does not keep you at the edge of your seat, does not speed up the narrative so that you don’t fall asleep during the movie; instead, he offers a reality of his characters which is more real than realism. Extraordinary things happen so seamlessly that we believe them to be true.
It is difficult to categorize Abbas Kiarostami’s films into one genre. His films are not mere documentaries or an intermediary between cinema and documentary. They are rather documentation of every day ordinary life into an epic. His Kokar trilogy, comprising Where is my friend’s house (1987),Life, and nothing more (1991),Through the Olive Trees (1994), captures the massive change that the village goes through during less than ten years of time because of the earthquake. His films become a microcosm of Iran and capture the country like poetry. The same thing happens in The Wind Will Carry Us.The village up in the hills, detached from the rest of the world becomes a diverse world in itself.
Of all the worlds that Kiarostami created, contemplation is the main key. Truly, they are all about life and nothing more. When a middle aged Mr. Badii looks for a person to bury him in the outskirts of Tehran, his encounters with different sorts of people bring out different philosophies about life and of death. The most aching scene is perhaps when Mr. Badii sees huge piles of soil being drugged over by a huge bulldozer and stares helplessly at it. Some great scenes in the film history have been created by no dialogue ; the falling of soil over tormented Badii’s shadow is one such. Sabzian tries to outsmart life by pretending to be someone he wanted to be all his life. It is the power that comes with the role-playing that he seeks. Life paralyses Kiarostami’s characters. They try to win. Sometimes, they do; if only temporarily.
Kiarostami subtly subverts the societal norms and shows the world that truth cannot be hidden no matter how much you sensor it. If the women of Iran cannot go out into the world without Hijab, then the world can come into her cab and build a narrative on its own as in Ten (2002). By the end of the century, Kiarostami deviated from Iranian locale and made two films outside Iran – CertifiedCopy (2010), starring Juliette Binoche, in Italy, and Like Someone in Love(2012)in Japan. These two movies mainly dealt with man-woman relationship. Kiarostami was hospitalized in March, 2016 while working on his film 24 Frames. The same year, on July 4th, Kiarostami passed away in Paris after a series of surgeries done in Iran. His death caused upheaval among the film fraternity across the world on the debate of medical negligence in Iran.
“You can learn from gamblers,” Kiarostami said in his final days in an audio broadcast by BBC Persian. “They say if you’re on the losing side, better to change your seat and leave. I’m doing just that, going to France.” Kiarostami did not lose the game; the world lost Kiarostami.