“I believe in a cinema which gives more possibilities and more time to its viewer—a half-fabricated cinema, an unfinished cinema that is completed by the creative spirit of the viewer, [so that] all of a sudden, we have a hundred films.”
—Abbas Kiarostami, 1995
That the filmmaking practice of Abbas Kiarostami can be described as pedagogical is, in some sense, self-evident—at least for the early portion of his directorial career. In 1969, as the Iranian New Wave was cresting, he joined the filmmaking department of Kanun (or the Institute for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults), and would, for the subsequent two decades, produce a set of films that laid the groundwork for one of the most original and varied of filmmaking careers. “We were supposed to make films that dealt with childhood problems,” said Kiarostami of his work during that period. “At the beginning it was just a job, but it was the making of me as an artist.” It is no coincidence that many of these—mostly shorts and short features, newly restored—are set in around schools and classrooms, nor that they primarily feature schoolchildren, teachers, or pedagogical scenes. Formerly difficult to see, and thus the centerpiece attraction of a new touring retrospective from Janus Films, this early run provides a chance to re-encounter and re-contextualize a director whose reputation is perhaps too rigidly circumscribed by discussions of his humanism.
Granted, the “pedagogical” label does require some qualification. Didactic, educational, informative: such terms often indicate pejorative judgments—and not entirely without reason. Early documentary shorts like How to Make Use of Leisure Time: Painting (1977) and Toothache (1980) conform to the negative expectations of an instructional work, teaching their respective audiences, in tedious detail, how and why they should paint (to avoid idleness) and brush their teeth (to avoid painful trips to the dentist). Even a more personal project like Tribute to the Teachers (1977), which Kiarostami and his crew dedicated to their own instructors, is still of limited interest; its value in describing the centrality of education to Iranian culture and the general structural problems of the state system is all but ancillary to its form.
Born in Tehran in 1940, Kiarostami matriculated from the University of Tehran School of Fine Arts with a degree in painting and design. In the years that followed, he directed television commercials (about 150 between 1962 and 1966) and crafted title cards for films, the experience from which one sees in sprightly classroom shorts like So Can I (1975) and The Colours (1976), which, though still squarely in the realm of the instructional, are rhythmically brisk, introducing animation and material abstraction into the director’s toolkit. (The latter, with its parade of motley, multi-colored objects, including a spinning, prismatic crystal, brought to mind nothing so much as a Jodie Mack film in incipient form.)
But Kiarostami’s output from this period more often defies the expectations of what could be accomplished under the auspices of Kanun. His first feature The Traveler (1974) certainly qualifies, in some form, as a pedagogical work, following a rambunctious schoolkid as he scrounges up some money, skips school, and hops on a night bus to Tehran to see a much-anticipated football game—only to then fall asleep and miss the match. Yet, despite having all the contours of a moral fable, it registers fundamentally as a series of playful, process-oriented vignettes, at one point even segueing into outright portraiture. If the purpose of an educational film is solely to edify or espouse some moral, then it is likewise unclear precisely what a short like Breaktime (1972, also known as Recess) is meant to convey. Following a young boy who smashes a hallway window and is sent home from school, it elides both the act and the punishment, and lingers in the mind mainly as a collection of vivid physical details: the rattle of a metal grate, the rush of a rocky stream, the measured cacophony of a highway, and the gleeful screams of kids playing at recess—the sensations of undirected discovery and freeform play.
Pedagogy, of course, is not incompatible with play—and indeed, it is instruction that bounds, redirects, and transforms the latter, so Kiarostami’s practice might be more accurately described as a continual interaction between the two. His 1975 short Two Solutions for One Problem sketches this model out in miniature. After observing a gradually escalating mini-saga of injury and retaliation between two schoolboys (starting with a torn book cover), the film offers an alternate “solution” in which cooperation trumps conflict. That the slim scenario is of limited interest is fairly self-evident, but the basic diagram laid out here is one that Kiarostami would incrementally build upon in the years to come, adding, subtracting, or merely configuring the rules governing his cinematic frameworks.
This is fitting, since these early films tend to have the aspect of a game about them. Often conceived around goal-oriented narratives, they present a set of obstacles that its protagonists (mostly male children) must overcome. A slim tale about a boy trying to get past a hostile stray dog, The Bread and the Alley (1970), Kiarostami’s very first short, suggests a kind of endless repetition, concluding with the boy having reached home safely, but with another passerby now having to deal with the same problem. And so, instead of the branched outcomes of Two Solutions, one might picture a map of concatenated mini-narratives, each with their distinct variations of character and environment, but with the essential setup the same.
In this respect, the most exemplary of Kiarostami’s shorts is the deceptively slight Orderly or Disorderly (1981), which explicitly alternates between the poles of ludus and paidia—linked here by a pedagogical impulse—and builds on the basic template of Two Solutions for One Problem. Over the film’s 15 minutes, the filmmakers (heard, but never seen) present a variety of situations—e.g. exiting a classroom or boarding a bus—in states of “orderly” and “disorderly.” A crush of children might be rushing a water tank in one take, then patiently lining up in the other. As before, the pedagogical concerns are easily teased out, but are here also made to feel unbound, unsettled, and eventually even irresolvable. No context is provided for these fixed-frame sequences, so the extent to which each scenario is staged is unclear. Compounding this ambiguity even further, Kiarostami pitches dialogue from behind the camera, humorously commenting on the inadequacy of a certain camera setup or the details of a particular take. In the film’s final scene, an overhead survey of a busy intersection, the short exposes the limits of its own making, observing as the frustrated cameramen are in the end unable to properly orchestrate the “orderly” take.
Fellow Citizen (1983), the 52-minute film that followed, plays like a set of minute variations on this closing scenario. At least partly inspired by Kiarostami’s own experiences as a traffic cop in his youth, the film is a sociological snapshot, following as a traffic cop attempts, with varying degrees of consistency, to enforce a time-bound ordinance on a busy section of road. The film’s primary tension arises between the physicality of its stressful environment and its detached, almost philosophical rumination on the mutability and arbitrariness of order. If Fellow Citizen eventually comes to offer the pleasures of an operational model, this is only natural—for the space of the film becomes, for both the audience and the traffic cop, a proving ground for various schemas and approaches, where an all-encompassing solution is ultimately secondary to individual perspective.
To emphasize the play impulse inherent in Kiarostami’s films is not at all to label them as trifles—and in fact it is the director’s recognition of the fundamental seriousness of play that provides his films with their peculiar, animating tensions. For one thing, his young characters often have play as their explicit goals: the protagonist of The Traveler, whose entire existence is geared towards that one football game, or the son in And Life Goes On (1992), for whom the outcome of a World Cup match is more significant than his father’s quest. For another, there’s the matter of Kiarostami’s film form, whose innovations are at least partially beholden to a ludic drive—that is, a desire to transform the filmmaking act by conceiving of rule systems both inherent to the medium and variously self-imposed.
Whereas Vigo’s aesthetic, say, is distinguished by its use of more traditional film effects (see: the slow-motion passage that concludes the famed pillow-fight sequence of Zéro de conduite, or the multiple-exposures of the lovers’ separation in L’Atalante), Kiarostami’s tended, over the course of his career, to a removal of the very same. One need only look to his use of music, which narrowed in function as his career wore on, usually deployed at the end of his films as a kind of release valve. Encomiums of both Vigo and Kiarostami often converge on terms like “lyrical” and “poetic,” but a crucial difference is that Kiarostami mostly avoided explicit recreations of vivid subjectivity, preferring pared-down, minimalist découpage: subtle plays of sound, shifts in perspective, and variations in composition. (The exception that proves the rule is the ending of The Traveler, in which the boy’s anxieties about the impending consequences of his trip are projected into a rare dream sequence—the only unambiguous such instance in Kiarostami’s career.) If elegance can be defined as getting at the widest range of affect with the fewest formal tools, then Kiarostami’s cinema qualifies as elegant indeed. On this, Catherine Breillat’s assessment of his spare, scintillating Ten (2002) is unimprovable: “Perfect Kiarostami, because there’s no more image, no more mise en scène, just a camera and intelligence, and pure thought.”
Although the Iranian master is not thought of as a political filmmaker in the manner of, say, Jafar Panahi—and in his home country remained a controversial figure for this, as well as his supposed pandering to Western audiences—it is impossible not to consider the impact of the Iranian Revolution on his cinema. Never is this clearer than in Case No. 1, Case No. 2 (also known as First Case, Second Case), whose production timeline straddles the 1979 Revolution, and was banned for years following. As per the title, the film presents a situation with two alternate outcomes: After being sent out of a classroom for an entire week for refusing to snitch on a classroom rabble-rouser, a group of boys idle in a hallway, enduring their punishment. In the first case, one boy snitches, and is let back in the classroom; in the second, no one does. While taking a two-pronged structure à la Two Solutions, it complicates that film’s easy cooperation-versus-conflict moral, presenting a situation—particularly charged in the contemporaneous political environment—that’s fundamentally irresolvable. A group of adults and commentators of varying stripes and professions—including Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, Iran’s foreign minister in 1979, who would be executed in 1982—are asked to comment on the situation, and the responses run the gamut from approval, to outrage, to unyielding obstinacy.
As a talking-heads documentary-cum-social psychology experiment, Case No. 1, Case No. 2 also cements the interview as a dominant mode of performance in Kiarostami’s films. The director would later elicit remarkably untutored, unguarded performances in his narrative films (especially from his non-actors), but what distinguishes these early documentaries is not any particular on-camera turn, but the director’s canny control of the frame. In the feature-length First Graders (1984), the disarray of a school courtyard gives rise to an endless parade of incident through the school principal’s spartan office, where he holds court as prosecutor, defendant, and judge over a bunch of first- and second-grade students. Although Kiarostami manages to capture a wide range of emotions from the schoolchildren, his behind-the-camera legerdemain, while welcome, is less vigorous than expected.
Such reservations fall away in Homework (1989), a “visual study” (Kiarostami’s description) on the habits of schoolchildren that ends up revealing much more besides. Apart from brief digressions to breaktime courtyard scenes where grade-school boys are lined up for exercise and made to chant slogans like “Down with the East and the West!”, the film mostly keeps to a fixed interview set-up, with the young kids filmed head-on in a barren room. The film’s remarkable tension arises from the contrast between the range of subjects covered in the interviews—the children’s accounts of physical and verbal abuse, oblique mentions of the ongoing war, and even a hasty poem recitation—and the questioner’s tone, which is unvarying in its equanimity, neither sympathetic nor antagonistic, merely detached. Add to this the frequent cuts to the cameraman and the way the interview space is presented—framed to isolate each component of the setup, so that it’s always in question how what we’re seeing is being pieced together—and the film becomes much more than a mere visual study, occupying a uniquely expressive juncture from the accounts of its young subjects. The most memorable scene, observing a boy utterly distraught by the absence of his classmate, maximizes ambiguity (and an almost queasy tension) by refusing to contextualize his behavior. Only towards the end of Homework does Kiarostami allow the interviewer, subject, and filmmaking equipment to once again share the frame—and the sheer physical release offered by that cut is as clear an indication as any of the film’s overall value.
If the highest virtue one can conceive of in a documentary is authenticity, however, then Homework would be a poor case for Kiarostami as a documentarian. Such rigid fidelities are, in any case, entirely alien to Kiarostami—and thank god they are, for it’s unlikely that Close-Up (1990) would exist otherwise. The most well-regarded work in the retrospective, it requires little introduction—and it’s perhaps enough to note that with the context of the earlier shorts, the incremental buildup to this masterpiece is clearer, finding the dualistic impulses of those previous films fused into exhilarating, even subversive form. Most accounts of Close-Up tend to view Kiarostami’s gamesmanship—the manufactured sound glitches, his unusual access to the trial, and his meta-textual casting—as a conduit for essentially humanistic impulses, a way to convey the compassion and grace afforded its subject, Sabzian, and affirm the value of art and cinema in the face of a censorial theocracy. But such causal links aren’t so easily decoupled, and it seems equally, if not more apropos to consider the opposite formulation.
Later internationally-produced works like Certified Copy (2010) and Like Someone In Love (2012) would move even further away from the bifurcated structures of the earlier shorts to more seamless, ever-shifting scenarios, presenting bistable forms able to support multiple readings all at once, or using canny elisions to create a constant movement between opposing poles. On these essential aspects of Kiarostami’s artistic sensibility, I can think of no better summation than B. Kite’s assessment of Vigo as “an artist too much in love with the materials of the world to ever give them so fixed a name as reality.”
More in line with the dominant image of Kiarostami is the Koker Trilogy, so called for the rural region in which the films take place.The first of these, Where is the Friend’s House? (1987), is the film that vaulted Kiarostami to the forefront of the world stage and, not coincidentally, is also the most representative of the Iranian director’s international reputation. Following eight-year-old Ahmed (Babek Ahmed Poor) on his quest to return a classmate’s workbook, it is a work of rare grace and a forceful demonstration of Kiarostami’s imagemaking prowess (drawn from his background in landscape photography), its most memorable shot observing Ahmed’s diminutive figure making his way up a zig-zagging incline. And, although its slim, parabolic tale might seem too fragile for its masterpiece status, it’s a rare case of a film being harmed not at all by its reputation.
Where Is the Friend’s House? won the Bronze Leopard at the 1989 Locarno Film Festival and was, for many years following, the foundation of encounters with Kiarostami on the festival circuit. In the context of this retrospective, it’s easier to trace the seeds of the film to 1970s efforts like The Experience (1973) and A Wedding Suit (1976), both of which take unhurried pleasure in describing the diurnal routines of their young male characters: in the former, a photography apprentice who becomes enamored with a girl from a wealthy family, and in the latter, a tailor’s apprentice who lends a customer’s suit out to a friend. A Wedding Suit also fully illustrates Kiarostami’s ability to balance and shift between languid observation and genuine suspense. Exemplary in these respects is the gorgeous nighttime passage that sees two boys looking for their friend, which unfolds in dimly lit, depopulated urban spaces; and the final scene, during which the suit is returned to the tailor’s shop in the nick of time.
Worth noting here is that Kiarostami has himself resisted the Koker Trilogy designation, preferring to group And Life Goes On (Life, and Nothing More) and Through the Olive Trees (1994) with his Palme d’Or-winner Taste of Cherry (1997), a choice that does, as the director contended, favor both thematic and formal continuities. But to watch the Koker-set films in succession—the latter two made after the devastating 1990 earthquake that leveled the region—is to see a director testing at the stylistic scaffolding he has built to date. Focus on Kiarostami’s humanism tends to lead into descriptions of his films’ “gentle” or “contemplative” rhythms, but his uncanny ability to replicate the drifts and rifts of attention is just as crucial to his ludic spirit. One might point to the seeming purity of his style, but it is, after all, not so easy to feign innocence—and in that regard, Kiarostami’s purview is not so settled. Often implicit in these follow-ups to Where is the Friend’s House? is a kind of wry detachment and auto-critique that The Wind Will Carry Us (1999)—Kiarostami’s most pictorially beautiful feature, one that crucially hangs in anticipation of death—would later bring to the fore.
And Life Goes On, after all, is a road trip motivated by the commingled guilt and curiosity of Farhad Kheradmand’s unnamed director character, who is searching with his son Puya (Buba Bayour) for the boys that starred in his earlier film. Through the Olive Trees takes one step further from the director’s point-of-view, only embodying it during the gorgeously windswept casting call that opens the film, and at the end, with the extreme long shot of a young man and woman, observed from so far that the outcome of their relationship becomes a mixed state where multiple possibilities are true all at once. It is in these latter two that Kiarostami’s desire for an “unfinished cinema… completed by the creative spirit of the viewer” is most pronounced: the branching movements of And Life Goes On, which by the end suggests a whole host of alternate realities born of minute shifts in chance and circumstance and disasters large or small; or the centerpiece scene of Through the Olive Trees, which sees the filmic recreation—or perhaps fabrication—of the sequence in And Life Goes On where Kheradmand’s filmmaker converses with a newlywed. But equal to Kiarostami’s interrogative impulses is his way with pure physical sensation: the bodily affect of his rolling, unbroken shots, evoking nothing but a sense of possibility.
That air of openness finds its apotheosis in Taste of Cherry—this, despite the film’s intense focus on death and suicide. Opening with what looks to be a cruising narrative, it soon transforms into a film whose explicit existential questions and movements are offset by a (literally) ground-level attention to lived experience, illustrated best by the repeated camera setup filming the road near the potential suicide location; equal to the film’s allegorical movements are the plays of light and wind—the materials of the word from which Mr. Badii (Homayoun Ershadi) longs to depart. Then again, perhaps this philosophical-material tension is better illustrated by the disjunction between the pure sentiment of the film’s title and Mr. Bagheri’s speech to Badii, in which the same view, now voiced aloud, feels facile, irritating, and where language itself feels entirely inadequate. What Kiarostami has fashioned is a peculiar, pointed thing: a film whose centerpiece conversation intentionally banalizes what the rest of its runtime so vividly, wordlessly conveys.
Such tensions could only be the work of a director willing to venture into manipulation and trickery, though without the moral judgment that such terms imply—and indeed, Kiarostami’s career is dotted with anecdotes that indicate as much. The negative connotation is unavoidable, but his direction of Ershadi in Taste of Cherry for instance, which reportedly involved making the actor feel like he was doing a poor job (and actually having the Ershadi overhear him saying so), is not unlike what Charlotte Gainsbourg describes of her experience on the set of Melancholia (2011) with Lars von Trier, a director who is otherwise temperamentally opposed to Kiarostami. Likewise, his editing and framing in The Wind Will Carry Us encourages the viewer to, as in Homework, question the unity of the film’s space—and indeed, interviews have revealed that he was often behind the camera, standing in as interlocutor in order to better facilitate performance. Although if one were to select a single film to illustrate Kiarostami’s conceptions of acting, it would likely be Shirin (2008), a film of “pure” performance that continually reminds us of the bare fact of the space that it inhabits, and without which it could not exist.
As Kiarostami’s career wore on, digressing into installations and museum work, the artist-audience juncture that his films occupied would become ever-more complex, even as his methods tended towards minimalism. His underlying, animating desire to futz with conceptions of what even constituted film direction, however—to eliminate “elements which can be eliminated”—remained fundamentally unchanged, eventually culminating in 24 Frames (2017), a posthumously completed work that nonetheless speaks to the abiding aspects of his artistic practice. A distillation of both his play impulse and powers of observation, it uses CGI trickery to literally animate each of the film’s four-and-a-half minute frames, showing precisely what its maker wants us to see. Part and parcel with this description is the suggestion of a closed-off work—and certainly what unfolds on-screen is, in a literal sense, fixed and complete. But the film’s unique sense of spontaneity, vigor, and life comes from the audience’s veritable interaction with the unseen filmmaker, whose thought process and sensibility is conveyed to the viewer in perhaps the most direct manner of any film in Kiarostami’s formidable oeuvre. An untimely, but appropriate capper to the director’s near half-century career, 24 Frames is a work that’s at once pre-determined and completely open, both a terminal point and an invitation to carry on.
“Abbas Kiarostami: A Retrospective” opens at IFC Center on July 26 and runs through August 15.