Rereading articles in Positif on Iranian cinema recalls opportunely that the appearance on the international scene of Abbas Kiarostami was not without precedence: the films of Dariush Mehrjui and Bahram Beyzai had been shown in festivals when they were not screened in movie theaters. The soil of Iran was already cinematographically fertile, and the French welcomed the films of Kiarostami, but also of Mohsen and Samira Makhmalbaf, Bahman Ghobadi, and Jafar Panahi.
by Stephane Goudet
Abbas Kiarostami readily admits that he is like each of his characters in turn.1 According to him, his cinema resembles Tahereh’s reaction in Through the Olive Trees (Zir-e derakhtan-e zeytun), when people are explaining to the wealthy actress that she will have to give up the dress she had dreamed of wearing on the screen because it is inconsistent with the social status of the character she is supposed to be playing. Tahereh protests and maintains that the dress will do perfectly. All it would take would be a few minor alterations! This incongruity between the clothes and the character, prefiguring the incompatibility between the two protagonists, delineates a schism between the subject and the “object of her desire.” This schism underpins Kiarostami’s fiction and the quest that virtually all of his heroes have undertaken since The Traveler (Mosafer). Stubborn heroes, none the wiser, unhesitatingly break laws and traditions when they stand in the way of achieving their dreams. When that happens, Kiarostami must feel as close to Hossein, the illiterate opportunist, who lusts after Tahereh, whose only activity is reading, and asks her to turn the page of her book to indicate that his love is not unrequited. Condemned to the literality of gesture—like the hero of The Traveler shooting with no film in the camera—Hossein makes use of what separates him from the young actress and attempts, like all the filmmaker’s characters, to make his own that which is radically other (whether a book or a woman). He thus behaves the way the filmmaker does when he strives to make sense of the great book of human nature, traveling to unknown lands (Northern Iran, its actors, their social environment, etc.). Of course Kiarostami’s discourse also changes the course of events,2 even when he pretends to be keeping his distance and a fortiori when he tries to narrow gaps, right injustices, and heal the wounds of the real. Like Tahereh suggesting that she make some minor alterations, his cinema strives to make its mark, sometimes against any semblance of good sense, as a method of intervening in the real, a method which is no doubt also inappropriate, but the only way of making his dreams come to life. So much so that one could speak here of a cinema of alterations, or better yet a cinema of mending, attempting with ridiculously few resources to hold together a reality that is being torn apart: the social fabric and, more specifically, the exercise book in Where Is My Friend’s House? (Khaneh-je doost Kojast?), the landscape in And Life Goes On (Va zendeg edameh dared), the “couple” in Through the Olive Trees—to mention the three titles of Koker and Pochté’s trilogy, while awaiting The Dreams of Tahereh—his next film?
Kiarostami’s cinema is, consequently, a “cinema of intervention,” not only because of the political metaphors suggested by Close-lip (Nema-ye nazdik). The Chorus (Hamsarayan), or And Life Goes On…, but also because he likes to represent “the act through which a third party, who was not originally involved in a legal action (and we add in any form of trial), appears to take part” (Petit Robert). While the seventh art may be able to play this role of a third party (cf. Homework (Ashg-e shah), Close-Up, Through the Olive Trees, etc.), it is because the Iranian filmmaker is well and truly “someone who ‘believes’ in the cinema.”3 One might even suggest as an epigraph for his latest film— which in many regards is “anti-Contempt”— the apocryphal quote from Andre Bazin: “The cinema offers up a world that is in keeping with our desires.” In Close-Up, for example, the filmmaker tries to make all of his protagonists’ dreams come through. He gives Mehrdad Ahankhah the opportunity to act in a film, occasionally promotes Hossein Sabzian to director or editor, and incorporates into his work the filming of his first screenplay (two friends on a motorcycle, one of whom lends money to the other). In addition, he gives him the opportunity to display real talent as an actor and to make himself “useful to society” by arranging for him to meet the filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, whose identity he has usurped, and the Ahankhahs, who are victims of this imposture. Kiarostami indeed keeps the promise of his protege because he transforms the house of these petit bourgeois from Turkey into a real sound stage (unlike Hossein in Through the Olive Trees, who appropriates a public place in which to shoot and plans to restore it to live in it as a private home). “The dream of cinema led Sabzian into prison, and the reality of cinema saved him,” the director maliciously concludes, “but only for the time being!”
One of the filmmaker’s favorite techniques is to cause a diversion, to mask the real questions with false problems, to place the film’s real stitching in the background by drawing the audience’s attention to false stitching in the foreground. Kiarostami also allows himself in And Life Goes On…, in speaking to Mr. Rubi, to condemn the cinematographic lie which, in Where Is My Friend’s House? made him appear older than he really was, while not saying anything about the fact that this complaint was made to a mere actor, who was supposed to play the role of the director! In an apparent attempt to dispel illusions, Kiarostami fools the audience once again by leading them to believe in the plotline through a pseudo-effort to pretend to be telling the truth, which opposes—along the lines of “this is not a film”—immediate reality (apparently to expose it) and the earlier fiction. His art thus consists of condemning the false in order to be able to better maintain it. But he bases this on the conviction that deception and subterfuge facilitate and even condition the appearance and expression of the true. For example, in Close-Up, in a courtroom, he shows the scaffolding, lighting, and shooting equipment to highlight “the key role they play in the very conduct of the trial” and in its “favorable denouement” (the judge’s clemency). But this enables him to better hide his intervention in the reconstituted scenes: the beginning of the film without any explicit commentary—which reinforces the next scene in which Kiarostami notes the address by the Ahankhahs, whom we already know because we spent a long time looking for their house in the first sequence,- there is Mehrdad’s naivete, ready to make the same mistake again by paying for the journalist’s taxi,- Sabzian’s direction, in which he appears to be virtually the first victim of imposture—a little like Satyajit Ray’s Goddess. Thus Kiarostami shows himself only to withdraw more effectively. He also masks his work as a demiurge by placing in the foreground, in the penultimate sequence, a problem that is technical, contingent, a completely factitious “false contact,” but how eloquently it speaks of the human relationships that have developed throughout the film. In fact, the false device shown to the audience makes it possible to hide the lie, manipulation in the sense of continuing to shoot with the accused and the complainants when, in fact, “the real trial had ended nine hours earlier,” naturally without the judge, though Kiarostami’s editing nevertheless includes him in the discussions! It is as if the last word in the power struggle is inherent to the situation in which art and the law come face to face, and which give rise to two different judgments, which may possibly converge.
In Homework, the director pretends to eliminate the sound from a prayer scene at the request of his country’s religious authorities. Once he had done so, they approved the scene in question, but by taking the sound away the scene became even stronger and more subversive (so much so that the sequence was completely removed from Iranian copies of the film). Feigning humility and respect for the sacred, Kiarostami gives back to the children who are pure products of Iranian education a taste of life, autonomy (which etymologically means “giving oneself one’s own law”), and freedom, by allowing them the right to kick up a fuss, break ranks, and pretend not only to repent their own sins ostentatiously, but those of their immediate neighbors as well. And when the sound returns—in this film based on reiterated language—the children one by one go before the camera and recite the “lessons” learned “by heart” under threat of the strap or the ruler. These are lessons about the uselessness of cartoons,- religious and patriotic lessons with an indictment of Saddam Hussein; lessons about the legitimacy of corporal punishment. In these scenes, the filmmaker appears to be casting his film, in the metallurgical sense of the word, a kind of molding that makes it possible to reproduce a model infinitely. The sound brings to light the indoctrination and the physical and intellectual bludgeoning of the children, who are the victims in such educational systems, through which each new generation must unfortunately pass. What comes out of the mouths of children is not so much the truth, but what their parents want them to say! But the cinema in these two films nevertheless manages to teach vigilance (“let us supervise the supervisors or watch the watchers”), to render justice and help to allay suffering somewhat, while acting directly or indirectly on those institutions that lack the humanity needed to complete their mission: “It is the business and responsibility of art to look at things more closely and to make people think, to pay attention to men, to seek to understand them, and to learn not to judge them too quickly.” This business does not, however, exclude some forms of violence, sometimes verbal, sometimes through questioning (in which maieutics often goes much further than images) and through framing.
It is also perhaps no accident that the separated “couples” in Kiarostami’s works are so numerous. Beyond any form of autobiography it is a feature of the screenplays in all of the filmmaker’s works, and in particular in the way he structures his shots. The Report, which is still banned even though it was made as early as 1977, and hence was not released in France, showed a male character condemned to do battle to keep everything the same in his life and to maintain—through force—his job, his office, and his wife. Kiarostami’s shooting still reflects the strength (physical and otherwise) of this film, but also all the ambivalence of this lovely hand gesture in which the hero, in a single movement, deciding to slap his wife, eventually holds back when she tries to get out of his car. The direction thus consists in a potentially violent piece of behavior that in Homework actually prevented a child from going out to play with his friend in the field (a principle that reappears throughout a film in Where Is My Friend’s House?),4 and in First Graders (Avaliha, 1984) immediately gets two children together after they have just had a fight and reconciles them and gets them to promise never to do it again.
And yet there is never any trace of naivete in Kiarostami (just as there is no complacency in the direction of oneself)- Believing in the powers and the “magic of cinematography” in no way means being aware of one’s limitations. While he gives Sabzian the opportunity to acquire a form of “recognition,” this does not mean that he forgets that the way cinema affects life is ephemeral and even an illusion: the shooting of the dreams in Close-Up is also tainted, because it does not really allow the characters to change their lives5 and assume another identity as each of them wants to do. In other words, having characters played by the very people on whom they were modeled turns out also to be a manifestation of the limitations the filmmaker admits affect his art. “It would have been impossible to imagine—and I would not want to make them believe either—that their lives would change with a single film,” said Kiarostami in speaking of Sabzian, who had become unemployed again. Similarly, the remarkable short film Regularly or Irregularly (Be Tartib ya Bedoun-e Tartib, 1981) shows a sense of humor in attacking the illusion of being in control. It begins as an educational film that praises order (in the name of effectiveness—whether of an action/a plan) and ends in total confusion, to the great consternation of the filmmaker, who admits (in a voice heard off-camera) that he is gradually losing complete control both over his film and the reality that he is attempting to record—rules for city traffic, whereas keeping a lid on young schoolchildren was so easy for him in the first (well-ordered) part of the film!
In Through the Olive Trees, the fictitious director also strives, with muted results, to affect the course of events and encourage a virtual love story between his actors. He strongly encourages Hossein to pursue Tahereh, whom he has probably kept on (because she will never be called to the bottom of the staircase to appear in any of his scenes!) to “serve the interests” of his actor. But the cinema as such has an effect on this improbable couple that can be described, to say the least, as ambivalent and perverse. On the one hand, it is the off-camera voice saying, “Action!” that interrupts Tahereh’s gesture just as she is about to reveal her feelings by “perhaps” turning the page of her book. It is also the ritual of cinema which, breaking the most elementary rules, forces Hossein to say hello to Tahereh three times without waiting for an answer! But conversely, when Hossein, showing every possible minor attention to her to seduce “his promised one,”6 exclaims, “That’s life!” naturally forgetting that the only thing keeping him from living together with her at that moment is the shooting. Furthermore, he neglects the fact that the scene— the household and the film—which he rehearses incessantly with her, is far from merely fictitious, and could also constitute a prolepsis, or anticipation, which is confirmed by its final renewal on the stage among the technicians, those “professional organizers.”
Kiarostami’s cinema likes to play with these contradictions, inconsistencies, and temporal paradoxes. There are many examples of them in the trilogy. We need only think of the young girl doing the dishes in And Life Goes On… , which is filmed a posteriori (Through the Olive Trees) who purely and simply refuses to turn! Or the sudden appearance of the script girl at Mr. Ruhi’s in And Life Goes On …., which Kiarostami comments upon as follows: “I wanted to include a scene to say that I had no intention of reproducing exactly, ‘faithfully’ what had happened on the day of the earthquake. I reminded my crew that if I had the power to go back in time to the day of the disaster—and if this were possible, then I would, and I would place the action of the film on the eve of the earthquake in order to be able to warn people: There is going to be a terrible earthquake tomorrow, leave now, run away!’ It thus appeared to me to be impossible to return to the day of the tragedy without rewriting the story. ‘We are busy reconstructing the real, I kept telling them. And that is what cinema is.'” This time Kiarostami asks the audience to show perceptiveness by designating this other inescapable schism. He nevertheless manages to keep their rapt attention and gradually gets them to believe by using various techniques, including some extremely simple mimetic devices.
The whole scene with the household is based on rehearsing mutual criticisms. In this sense, one can speak of Through the Olive Trees as a “necessary correspondence” between the content of the scene and its structure (the many retakes). These forms of mimesis, which are very common in Kiarostami’s work, allow him, for example, to draw parallels between the road, speech, and the tale itself. Hence in our traveling trilogy, there is systematic lateness, wrong turnings (false beginnings and false endings), erring ways and labyrinths, the repetitions and the inability to get anywhere. Hence also in And Life Goes On…, the “blind alleys” forcing people to do U-turns, the blocked roads that lead to the suspension of dialogue, or the superb shot in which two children, their voices heard off-camera, are looking for a way to bet on who would win the World Cup soccer match. At first glance, there is nothing to link this apparently misplaced dialogue and the dirt road that we see in the middle of the shot. And yet, the very fact that this conversation goes nowhere and that the two children are unable to find common ground (their concerns being totally disproportionate) announce the disappointing and open ending of the film.7 Hence his evolution toward a form of stripped-down abstraction, fixing the final movement of the object of the quest onto ethical ground and substituting for the individual (the specific search for two actors in Where Is My Friend’s House?) the collective, the generic (the children encountered along the way are just as important as those who motivated the trip).
If And Life Goes On… can truly be considered an adventure film, it is because it more or less reconstitutes “the ethical adventure of the relationship to the other man.”8 After Where Is My Friend’s House?, which subjectively explored the feeling of injustice and showed a child attempting to make his voice heard, Kiarostami puts on the screen the very personal experience, which is difficult to transmit, of suffering and mourning. Thus he retraces the boundaries between self and other, depicts man as solitary and defines his identity as inalienable. However, this does not prevent him from structuring his film around a “concern for others,” or to use Emmanuel Lévinas’s terms, “responsibility for others,” which is specifically rooted in the fear of his disappearance. Aesthetically this relationship to the other person rests mainly on how Kiarostami deals with sound. Venturing into the underbrush, Puya’s father is drawn by the crying of a newborn baby, whom he discovers sleeping in a hammock, apparently abandoned, when suddenly his son, who was sleeping alone in the car, calls for help. At this moment, he is “midway” divided, torn between what is close and familiar to him and that which is foreign to him. But then a third voice appears and releases him: the mother’s voice, singing a few steps away from the hammock while gathering wood.9 The sound in this scene literally conjures up the image. It calls it up and guides it. From this point on, we can consider the trip that the film represents as the outcome of the desire to see for oneself the extent of the disaster in order to be able to attach images to the horrifying words heard on a radio, while getting close to the suffering of another, incarnated in a people literally cut off from the world.10 Not only is the sound the source of movement, but it virtually seems capable of breathing life, giving birth, or constituting a renaissance. Hence the off-camera crowing of the rooster reassembles the pieces of a clay rooster, another victim of the earthquake, and transfigures it into a flesh-and-blood rooster capable of crowing. It is as if sound alone could bring things back to life and conjure up from the rubble a new dawn and a hope for a brighter tomorrow. But that is when a grandmother, dressed completely in white, leaves her home, has her image superimposed over that of the rooster, and, without the help of the filmmaker, manages to extract her carpet from the ruins. As it happens, it is this same grandmother who in the next film (after a reversal of the dominant points of view about her character, as was the case for the earthquake) refuses to allow her granddaughter to marry Hossein.
There is no longer any doubt that with Kiarostami, both truth and reality are female. Like the two Taherehs in Through the Olive Trees, or the veiled women in a circle in the fade-out just before the credits, woman is, in the eyes of the Iranian filmmaker, a force of resistance and opposition (both fierce and impenetrable) that allows no room for “pretenders,” who hide from their gaze and address only those with whom they are forced to converse in a conventional, eminently everyday, and repetitive conversation. Who then can be surprised to see that the spring water (or reality) needs to go through pipes and taps (or fiction) to reach the isolated villages of And Life Goes On…?,
1. Interview with Kiarostami: “Problematique de l’intervention chez Abbas Kiarostami,” DEA thesis, Paris III. All quotes in this article from Kiarostami are taken from this series of interviews, published in no. 442 of Positif.
2. This code, which is “proposed” to Tehereh, may be either an avowal or a warning: interpreting, wanting at any cost to seize the real and make it meaningful, is to risk preventing things from happening!
3. Serge Daney, “Images fondues au noir dans Téhéran sans visage,” Liberation, March 3-4, 1990.
4. If we consider Where Is My Friend’s House? to be a story about apprenticeship, then it needs to be added that it is an apprenticeship in lying as well as in friendship. The lies are now curiously “cinematographic” because characterized by “analogous reproduction” and the devising of a false story “to replace another,” an imposture that, according to Hossein Sabzian, defines the director’s methods.
5. Hence Kiarostami’s harshness toward his actors (whom he refuses to consider as such so that they won’t entertain any illusions about their future) in Jean-Pierre Limosin’s admirable Verites et Sontjes, which is both a very relevant exegesis of the work and its virtual continuation (hence Kiarostami’s imposture, in which the program Cinéma de notre temps engages as well, and Jean-Pierre Limosin himself this time seems to be having a film directed by someone other than himself!). It is a harshness that is also present in Through the Olive Trees because Hossein never manages to make people forget that he is also, and especially (off camera), a bricklayer and waiter.
6. Interview with Kiarostami in Vérités et Songes, with the real wife of “Mr. Hossein” (sic), magnificently contradicts the promises made here by the male character about how the household tasks would be shared.
7. How today can we not admire the retroactive justification of the director in not showing, at the end of And Life Goes On…, the children that people have been looking for since the beginning of the film, merely through their positioning “on the fourth side,” which could logically only be revealed in Through the Olive Trees? Before helping with the shooting of the latter film, the children had worked at virtually every possible function within Kiarostami’s film world: they began as characters for whom educational films were intended (Dental Hygiene, Colors…), and gradually became actors, the raw material, and then (And Life Goes On…) doubles and substitutes for the director, changing from characters who raise their hand to characters who point things out.
8. Emmanuel Lévinas, Le Temps et l’autre (Montpellier: Fata Morgana, 1979), p. 11.
9. “For there to be somebody who exists in this anonymous form of existence, it is essential that there be a way of leaving oneself and returning to oneself, which is the very task of identity” (Lévinas, p. 31).
10. Comparing cinema to television, Kiarostami confides: “If I myself had had a camera (when I took my first trip), the shouts of people would no doubt have attracted me toward them, and I might not have been able to resist the temptation to film them as they moaned! Fortunately, cinema has a specific task: it forces one to think before shooting . . . and constrains the filmmaker to take his time.”
Positif, No. 408, February 1995, p. 12
Original title: La Reprise: retour sur l’ensemble de l’ceuvre de Abbas Kiarostami