Copyright Featured Image: Sticking Place Books, New York. Copyright Page Header Image: Abbas Kiarostami Productions.
It is a challenge to describe the essence of the cinema of Abbas Kiarostami (1940-2016). What did the master himself say about his intentions?
Workshops for young filmmakers
His view on cinema is most clearly expressed during the several workshops for young filmmakers he gave during his lifetime. Indeed, his comments in his workshops can be considered as director statements.
The participants of the workshops of Kiarostami are to be considered privileged, but also had to face a demanding and challenging assignment. Happily enough detailed reports of these events are available. Mahmoud Reza Sani documented the ten days workshop in 2012 in Murcia, Spain. Paul Cronin edited his notes he made over ten years attending workshops and combined them with quotes from his conversations with Kiarostami.
His remarks to workshop participants are clarifying to identify his own approach of filming, aimed at clarity and open-minded observation. He demonstrates his demands in his own work.
“The key is to start thinking cinematically. Don’t tell us what your stories are about or what your concept is. Just explain in minute precision what we see and hear. At all times be specific, and don’t tell us anything before we need to know it.” (Cronin, 60).
By talking about how to start filming, he describes what you could call his own poetics of cinema. Here a just two quotes to give an indication:
“Audiences are used to films that offer clear and definite endings, but a film with a poetic essence has a certain ambiguity and can be looked at in many different ways. It allows for fantasies to develop in the viewer’s imagination” (Cronin, 20).
“My films and what I present to viewers are only the starting point for people to be creative. By leaving things open, there is an endless, fathomless space for ideas to blossom. The quality of a film is defined by how deeply an audience is able to exercise its imagination. Too many films ensnare and hold us captive. They propagate a message or tell a ready-made story, then insist we react in a specific way. My films move in whichever direction the viewer wants them to.” (Cronin, 157-158).
His statements make it also clear that Kiarostami mixes in his films observation of reality with manipulation. The result could be called ‘docu-fiction’. All his films contain implicit and explicit reflection on registration of the natural world, used to construct a layered fiction world. He deletes any conventional emotional guidelines and markers. In this way he challenges the viewers to watch in an active way, fully aware of the diffuse boundaries between true reality and arranged reality.
Some of his remarks and memories surfaces also in some interviews, but you have to diligently search for it because most interviews are focusing on irrelevant details or dominated by always the same forced time bound questions about the political context. Still, also the perspective of the critical viewer could be insightful to demarcate the intentions of the director. The best proof of this perception is the book about Kiarostami, published in 2002 (English translation in 2005) by the Spanish film critic Alberto Elena (1958-2014).
Kiarostami choose several times the same assignment for his workshops: participants were asked to make within the timespan of ten days a short film about ‘Men at Work’. The transcription of his comments and feedback are offering inspiration for the reader to start making films instantly. It seems that you only have to grab a camera and that you need to be really focused on what you see and presto! the wonder will happen. I am willing to assume that even the most trivial activity could become truly interesting, but that will only occur if you can combine audacity with creativity. At first sight it may all seem easy enough, but still it will be difficult to meet this requirement.
The approach of Kiarostami during his workshops is especially clarifying for me to appreciate his more experimental work, like his contribution to the compilation films Lumière et Company(1995) and Chacun son Cinéma (2007), his collection of short films in Five (2003), his series of video letters exchanged with Victor Erice (2006/2007), or his experimental film Roads of Abbas Kiarostami (2005).
Roads of Abbas Kiarostami (2005)
Is it possible to combine an artistic study in black and white with an implicit reflection on photography and film, supplemented with statements about life in general and poetic thoughts about the metaphorical force of the road in particular? And can all this be done in half an hour? Yes, that is perfectly possible! Because it is exactly what happen in Roads of Abbas Kiarostami (2005), which is in my view his most personal film.
It’s a meditative movie, largely based on stationary black and white photo images scanned by a moving camera, accompanied by the soothing sounds of a horn concert. The pictures show mountain landscapes with winding roads and isolated standing trees. This is interspersed with static wide shots of a driving car in a mountain landscape, seen as a miniscule moving spot in a large canvas. In the voice-over, director Abbas Kiarostami talks about his fascination for the visual motive of roads, a trope that constantly returns in his audio-visual work. He muses about the meaning of traveling and recites a fitting poem.
Kiarostami uses his own black and white pictures, it is part of his photographic oeuvre that has been widely exhibited worldwide in various museums. Halfway through the film, he switches to his series of minimalist photographs of snow landscapes: beautiful graphic compositions, accompanied by Japanese flute music. There are moving images too. We see the director sitting in his car, photographing a white dog in the snow. He gets out, walks around a dominant but completely futile iron gate. Maybe it’s his vision of Heavens Gate? We then see him as a black silhouette in a pristine snowy landscape, like the swarm of crows flying around and a loose horse standing on a slope. This eerie sequence ends with an image of the dog, which curiously looks at us. The final picture of the movie suddenly contains color: this photo is burned, it is slowly consumed by flames.
The film has been commissioned by the Green Film Festival in Seoul, on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. This explains the mushroom cloud that appears in the final image, but the whole closing sequence remains mysterious. In retrospect, it has a suggestion of a melancholic farewell of the director.
This short contemplation of the cinema of Kiarostami is inspired by my attendance of the Summer Film College, held in Antwerp 2017.
Reports on the Kiarostami workshops
Cronin, Paul (ed. 2015) Lessons with Kiarostami. New York: Sticking Place Books. See also: http://www.thestickingplace.com/projects/projects/abbaskiarostami/
Sani, Mahmoud Reza (2013) Men at Work: Cinematic Lessons from Abbas Kiarostami. Los Angeles, CA: MHughes Press.
Roads of Kiarostami
Roads of Kiarostami has been screened at the International Film Festival Rotterdam 2006. The film is also included in a dvd-version of Shirin(Cinema Guild, 2010). Roads of Kiarostamiis also available online: http://www.mooweex.com/roads-of-kiarostami/
The photo book Snow White: Photo Collection 1978-2004 has been published in 2005, also in a pocket edition (international sales through Idea Books, Amsterdam). Other black and white photos are collected in the book Roads and Trees.
Documentaries about Kiarostami
A week with Abbas Kiarostami (Mohara Yuji, 1999)
10 Days with Abbas Kiarostami (Brigitte Delpech, 2003)
A Walk with Abbas Kiarostami (Jamsheed Akrami, 2003)
On the Road with Kiarostami (Mark Cousins, 2005). URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b6T0mP5ApYc
Abbas Kiarostami: A Report (Bahman Maghsoudlou, 2013). See also: http://cinemawithoutborders.com/world-cinema-reports/3785-abbas-kiarostami-a-report-bahman-maghsoudlou.html
Audiovisual interviews with Kiarostami
Written interviews with Kiarostami
David Sterritt – Taste of Kiarostami (2000). URL:http://sensesofcinema.com/2000/abbas-kiarostami-remembered/kiarostami-2/+ https://www.filmcomment.com/article/with-borrowed-eyes-an-interview-with-abbas-kiarostami/