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With Borrowed Eyes: Abbas Kiarostami

The director on his unique form of poetic cinema

Abbas Kiarostami deserves more credit than any other single director for fueling the recent rise of Iranian cinema, arguably the most dramatic film development of the past dozen years. The excitement started when his slyly reflexive Close-Up reached the international circuit in the early Nineties, and crested when his extraordinary Taste of Cherry shared the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1997. While a handful of his Iranian colleagues have also achieved a fair share of Western recognition—including Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Jafar Panahi, both of whom have collaborated with him—he has remained the most highly visible figure, thanks to films like the so-called Koker trilogy (Where Is the Friend’s Home, And Life Goes On, Through the Olive Trees) that have earned ecstatic reviews and drawn enthusiastic art-house audiences in Europe and the United States.

All of which explains why a touch of Enthronement Syndrome has crept up on Kiarostami, with the worshipful attitude of some devotees sparking a backlash from others who question whether this emperor is wearing as impressive an outfit as his admirers claim. A surprising amount of debate surfaced over the ending of Taste of Cherry, wherein the film’s fascinatingly discursive story—centering on a man’s long discussions with three strangers about his wish to end his life—is followed by a video epilogue showing the actors and filmmakers preparing their final take in the pleasant hillside location where the suicide scene is set. Supporters saw this as a bold extension of Kiarostami’s self-referential complexity, detractors labeled it a confusing cop-out that dodges narrative issues instead of resolving them. The latter group was back in action when The Wind Will Carry Us screened at the Toronto Film Festival last fall, complaining that its reliance on familiar moves—driving scenes, front-seat talkathons, God’s-eye views of Iranian countryside—prove the director is literally spinning his wheels.

Such arguments notwithstanding, it’s plain to anyone who has seriously engaged with Iranian film in general or Kiarostami’s work in particular that Taste of Cherry and The Wind Will Carry Us are full-fledged masterpieces, and that the master who created them deserves any throne he might choose to occupy. Far from repeating a series of trademarked gestures, The Wind Will Carry Us finds Kiarostami weaving one of his most suggestive philosophical webs around the deceptively simple tale of a filmmaker who barges into a rural town, hoping to record a folk ritual that will take place after an old woman’s impending death. One of the movie’s feet is planted firmly in the earthbound world of the village and its inhabitants, while the other roams as freely as the protagonist’s ever-present cell phone—which isn’t so freely, it turns out, since the phone refuses to function unless he climbs into his Land Rover and races to the top of a distant hill. There he chats with a ditch-digger whose face is never seen and finds a human bone that becomes his talisman, signaling that while the wind may carry us, the earth remains our home and our destination.

Through the Olive Trees

Through the Olive Trees

The Wind Will Carry Us takes its title and a small but crucial point of its screenplay from a poem (reprinted on pg. 25) by the late Foroogh Farrokhzaad, an Iranian feminist and poet of the modem Persian style. This is fitting, since the cultivation of a deeply poetic cinema has been a driving force behind Kiarostami’s career, as he acknowledges in the following interview. I first met Kiarostami at Cannes three years ago, and caught up with him again at the San Francisco International Film Festival this spring. He speaks some English but preferred to conduct our interview in Farsi through interpreter Nazli Monahan, listening closely to her translations and occasionally jumping in with corrections.—D.S.

The Wind Will Carry Us

The Wind Will Carry Us

Since you’re in San Francisco to receive the Akira Kurosawa Award for lifetime achievement, do you feel a particular kinship with Kurosawa’s films?

No, but I think a filmmaker of a certain mold can enjoy movies by a filmmaker of a very different mold. For example, one of the movies I really like and enjoy is The Godfather, and people are shocked by that.

“If you make movies like you do, how can you enjoy a movie like that?”

But that’s the beauty of it [laughs]!

Is it still appropriate to speak of national cinemas today, or has film become too internationalized for that kind of labeling?

Each movie has an ID or birth certificate of its own. A movie is about human beings, about humanity. All the different nations in the world, despite their differences of appearance and religion and language and way of life, still have one thing in common, and that is what’s inside of all of us. If we X-rayed the insides of different human beings, we wouldn’t be able to tell from those X-rays what the person’s language or background or race is. Our blood circulates exactly the same way, our nervous system and our eyes work the same way, we laugh and cry the same way, we feel pain the same way. The teeth we have in our mouths—no matter what our nationality or background is—ache exactly the same way. If we want to divide cinema and the subjects of cinema, the way to do it is to talk about pain and about happiness. These are common among all countries.

Often your films don’t provide us with complete information about the characters or the story, and you’ve been quoted as saying that one reason is because the viewer is part of the creative process. It’s up to us to make sense of the material, and each of us will do that differently. How does this idea—each individual coming to his or her own understanding of a film—match with the idea that we’re all basically the same since we share a common humanity?

It’s a difficult question. People do have different ideas, and my wish is that all viewers should not complete the film in their minds the same way, like crossword puzzles that all look the same no matter who has solved them. Even if it’s “filled out” wrong, my kind of cinema is still “correct” or true to its original value. I don’t leave the blank spaces just so people have something to finish. I leave them blank so people can fill them according to how they think and what they want. In my mind, the abstraction we accept in other forms of art—painting, sculpture, music, poetry—can also enter the cinema. I feel cinema is the seventh art, and supposedly it should be the most complete since it combines the other arts. But it has become just storytelling, rather than the art it should really be.

The Wind Will Carry Us

The Wind Will Carry Us

There are some filmmakers who say what you just said and proceed to make films that don’t tell stories—that really are abstract, with form and color and movement but without pictures conveying a narrative. Has that approach ever interested you?

Every movie should have some kind of story. But the important thing is how the story is told—it should be poetic, and it should be possible to see it in different ways. I have seen movies that didn’t attract me or make a lot of sense while I was looking at them, but there were moments in them that opened a window for me and inspired my imagination. I have left many films in the middle because I felt I already had an ending. I felt quite complete and fulfilled with the movie, and if I stayed longer that feeling would be ruined, because it would keep telling me more and forcing me to judge who is the good guy, who is the bad guy, and what’s going to happen to them. I prefer to finish it my own way!

Much of what you say describes how poets work more than how novelists work. It’s interesting that your most recent film, The Wind Will Carry Us, draws its title and some of its text from poetry. Are you trying to move farther in that direction—toward cinema as poetry rather than cinema as novel?

Yes. I feel the cinema that will last longer is the poetic cinema, not the cinema that is just storytelling. In my library at home, the books of novels and stories look brand-new because I just read them once and put them aside; but my poetry books are falling apart at every corner, because I have read them over and over and over! Poetry always runs away from you—it’s very difficult to grasp it, and every time you read it, depending on your conditions, you will have a different grasp of it. Whereas with a novel, once you have read it, you have grasped it. Of course, this doesn’t encompass all novels. There are stories that do have a poetic essence to them, just as there are poems that are much like a novel. The poetry we had to memorize at school was all that kind—dialogues between a caterpillar and a spider, and that sort of thing. They weren’t trying to teach us poetry in the true sense, they were trying to train us and develop us through poetry.

One of the differences between a film and a poem is that most people assume they can see a film once or twice and “get it.” Will there always be problems reaching audiences with a poetic form of cinema, since people aren’t accustomed to returning to a film again and again? Do you expect people to see a given film of yours many times, or do you at least hope they will?

I would be too selfish if I said everyone should see my movies more than once. To say that would mean I’m just marketing my work! I can’t really say why I make movies this way, it’s just the way I know how. When I’m in the process of making a movie I’m not thinking about the finished result, and whether people have to see it once or more than once, and what the reaction to it will be. I just make it, and then I live with the consequences, some of which may not be as pleasant as I’d like! I know one thing, however. Many viewers may come out of the theater not satisfied, but they won’t be able to forget the movie. I know they’ll be talking about it during their next dinner. I want them to be a little restless about my movies, and keep trying to find something in them.

You’re one of a small group who—by consistently making films according to certain principles and ideas that you believe in—are educating your audience, teaching them how to appreciate a more challenging kind of cinema. With each movie we understand a little better how to engage with your work.

I believe the chance that exists for this type of cinema today did not exist 20 years ago. Audiences are tiring of the kinds of movies they see nowadays, and they’re wanting to see something different. Of course, in Iran this [poetic] type of cinema is shown in only one theater, and [in the U.S.] it’s shown in two theaters. But I’m satisfied. Most people want simplicity, they want to get excited, cry, laugh… and we can’t expect the same level of enthusiasm for [poetic] cinema. I’m not comparing my works with theirs, but if you had the paintings of Kandinsky or Braque or Picasso on auction in a park, how many people would buy them, even at $100 apiece? One must have a realistic expectation for art that is real art, as opposed to what is entertainment. The general public won’t pay for a picture if they can’t quite understand what’s in it and what it says.

The Wind Will Carry Us

The Wind Will Carry Us

I sometimes think of this issue in terms of works that close off thought—like the poetry we had to learn in school, which hands us the answers and ideas it wants us to have—as opposed to works that open thought and serve as a place for us to start our own thinking.

I agree. The poetic film is like a puzzle where you put the pieces together and they don’t necessarily match. You can make whatever arrangement you yourself would like. Contrary to what the general public is used to, it doesn’t give you a clear result at the end. And it doesn’t give you advice!

Turning to The Wind Will Carry Us, one theme that interests me is a striking tension, or dialogue, between that which is physical, material, rooted in the earth, and that which is ungraspable in physical ways. This operates on a number of levels, but to choose one, we have communication within the village—where people speak to each other and give things to each other—and opposed to this we have the cell phone, which is carried on the wind, so to speak. I’m interested in your view of how the abstract or ungraspable relates to the limitations of our physical lives—to the fact that we are material, mortal beings. Is there a tension in your film between what we might call the physical and the spiritual?

I haven’t really seen the movie yet. I looked at it as a technician for a year, and I’m still too close to it in that way, so I can’t really judge it. But one of my viewers told me it’s about souls, about people who are gone, who don’t exist—for example, the man digging the ditch, or the old woman who is dying. We don’t see their lives. Just as you said, the movie does have a physical essence to it, but it also has a nonphysical or spiritual side. We don’t see some characters, but we do feel them. This shows there is a possibility of being without being. That’s the main theme of the movie, I think.

Being without being? Would you elaborate on that?

With this type of movie, we as viewers can create thing according to our own experiences—the things we don’t see, that aren’t visible. There are eleven people in this movie who are not visible. At the end you know you haven’t seen them, but you feel you know who they were and what they were about. I want to create the type of cinema that shows by not showing. This is very different from most movies nowadays, which are not literally pornographic but are in essence pornographic, because they show so much that they take away any possibility of imagining things for ourselves. My aim is to give the chance to create as much as possible in our minds, through creativity and imagination. I want to tap the hidden information that’s within yourself and that you probably didn’t even know existed inside you. We have a saying in Persian, when somebody is looking at something with real intensity: “He had two eyes and he borrowed two more.” Those two borrowed eyes are what I want to capture—the eyes that will be borrowed by the viewer to see what’s outside the scene he’s looking at. To see what is there and also what is not there.

The Wind Will Carry Us

The Wind Will Carry Us

Who are some other filmmakers you feel might be working on a similar wavelength?

Hou Hsiao-hsien is one. Tarkovsky’s works separate me completely from physical life, and are the most spiritual films I have seen—what Fellini did in parts of his movies, bringing dream life into film, he does as well. Thea Angelopoulos’s movies also find this type of spirituality at certain moments. In general, I think movies and art should take us away from daily life, should take us to another state, even though daily life is where this flight is launched from. This is what gives us comfort and peace. The time for Scheherazade and the King—the storytelling time—is over.


by Foroogh Farrokhzaad (1935-1967)
Translated by David Martin

in my small night, what mounting regret!
wind has a rendezvous with the trees’ leaves
in my small night, there is terror
of desolation

listen! do you hear
the wind of darkness howling?
I watch breathless
-ly and wondrously this alien happiness
I am addicted to my own hopelessness
listen! listen well!
can you hear the darkness
howling?—the dark hell
-wind scything
its way towards us?

in the night now, there is something passing
the moon is red restless and uneasy
and on this roof—which fears
any moment
it may cave in—
clouds like crowds of mourners
await to break in rain
a moment and then after that, nothing.
behind this window, night shivers
and the earth stands still
behind this window an unknown
something fears for me and you
O you who are green from head to toe!
put your hands
like a burning
memory into my loving hands—lover’s hands!
entrust your lips—your lips
like a warm sense of being!—
entrust!—your lips to the caress of my
loving lips—lover’s lips!
the wind will carry us with it
the wind will carry us with it

The main character of A Taste of Cherry seems to want a total escape from the physical, the material. A conventional director would make this into a psychological tale, but I don’t think that’s what your movie is, because we don’t understand the way this man thinks any better at the end than at the beginning. So this film also seems to concern a quest to somehow get beyond the physical, even if that means having to be very negative, and it relates again to the tension between the material and the spiritual.

Different viewers have different opinions about that movie. Committing suicide is forbidden in Islam, of course, and is not even spoken of. But some religious people have liked the film because they felt that, just as you said, it shows a quest to connect with something more heavenly, something above physical life. The scene at the end, where you see cherry blossoms and beautiful things, has that message—that he has opened the door to heaven. It wasn’t a hellish thing he did, it was a heavenly transition.

Did Taste of Cherry run into difficulties with the censors because of its subject?

There was controversy about the movie, but after I talked with the authorities, they accepted the fact that this is not a movie about suicide—it’s about the choice we have in life, to end it whenever we want. We have a door we can open at any time, but we choose to stay, and the fact that we have this choice is, I think, God’s kindness. God is kind because he has given us this choice. They were satisfied with that explanation. A sentence from [a Romanian philosopher] helped me a lot: “Without the possibility of suicide, I would have killed myself long ago.” The movie is about the possibility of living, and how we have the choice to live. Life isn’t forced on us. That’s the main theme of the movie.

One more question. You are known for working not from a screenplay but from an outline of perhaps a few pages, and for making up much of the acting and dialogue at the last minute. What’s the advantage of working this way?

On-the-spot creation of dialogue has been necessary because it’s the only way I could work with people who are not professional actors, and some of the moments you see in my movies have surprised me as well as others. I don’t give dialogue to the actors, but once you explain the scene to them, they just start talking, beyond what I would have imagined. It’s like a cycle, and I don’t know where it starts and ends: I don’t know whether I’m teaching them what to say, or they’re teaching me what to receive!