Following the Iranian revolution in 1979, the country’s vibrant and original cinema took its place on the world stage. Among the many superb film directors who contributed to Iran’s new wave the most celebrated was Abbas Kiarostami, who has died aged 76.
Kiarostami, whose subtly enigmatic films play brilliantly with audiences’ preconceptions, was considered one of the greatest directors in contemporary world cinema.
Of all the new wave cinemas, the Iranian was probably the most surprising, because it emerged from under an authoritarian religious regime. Kiarostami managed, on the whole, to avoid censorship by the government; rather than confront the censorship office, he accepted their general guidelines – and working within the framework, made films that imply meaning beyond it.
He was born into a large middle-class family in Tehran. His father, Ahmad, was a painter of frescoes on walls and ceilings, and as a child, Abbas’s expectations were to be a painter and designer. After winning an art competition in his late teens, he studied painting and graphic design at the University of Tehran. In the 1960s, he worked as a commercial artist, designing posters and eventually shooting scores of television advertisements. At the same time, he designed credit titles for films and illustrated children’s books.
During the period when a handful of Iranian films were starting to be shown in the west, thanks mainly to the success of Dariush Mehrjui’s The Cow (1969), Kiarostami helped found a film-making department at the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults in Tehran. It was there that he made several short films aimed at, and about, children.
The 60-minute film The Experience (1973) continued in that line, focusing on the efforts of a young man to attract a girl with whom he is infatuated. Kiarostami’s first feature, The Traveler (1974), released internationally only in the 1990s after he became famous, is a well-observed, witty and touching film about a 10-year-old boy’s determination to obtain enough money, by hook or by crook, to get from his small town to a big football match in Tehran.
In contrast, The Report (1977) was an adult drama about a weak civil servant, accused of taking bribes, whose marriage is crumbling. Because of its “immodest” view of women, the film was promptly banned after the revolution, when cinema was condemned for its perceived western attitudes.
In 1983, a foundation was established to encourage films with “Islamic values”, from which emerged, ironically, a number of cinematic masterpieces. Taking up from his pre-revolutionary films with children at the centre, Kiarostami began the new era with Where Is the Friend’s Home? (1987), a gently humorous film about a child’s loyalty, reminiscent of François Truffaut’s 400 Blows. It was to become an international success only after Kiarostami had made a name for himself with Close-Up (1990).
A superb blend of documentary and narrative film making, Close-Up tells the true story of a man who pretends to be the Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, in order to hoodwink a family into thinking they will be the subject of a film. This fascinating exploration into identity, fame and the illusion of film, was enacted by the real people involved. “I don’t invent material. I just watch and take it from the daily life of people around me,” Kiarostami once stated.
Life, and Nothing More... (1992) follows a director – a Kiarostami surrogate – making a film while searching for the children who featured in one of his earlier films in the hope that they had survived a severe earthquake in Iran. Through the Olive Trees (1994), set in the same area, is about a director casting and shooting another film. The most fascinating aspect of the film-within-a-film is that the audience never knows what is real and what is fiction. The celebrated final sequence follows the two main actors, who are having a “real life” romance, in extremely long shot as the boy persuades the girl to marry him. The film, at once simple and complex, intimate and distant, is full of insights into film-making, society and human relationships.
Kiarostami’s trademark of people driving over long roads is perfectly illustrated in Taste of Cherry (1997), which co-won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Using long takes, a leisurely pace and periods of silence, it follows a middle-aged man who is bent on suicide (although the reason is never given). Desperately seeking people to help him, he drives up and down winding roads asking passers-by to bury him in the grave he has already dug for himself. He wants to pay someone to come around at 6am and call down to him. “If I answer, pull me out. If I don’t, throw in 20 shovels of earth to bury me.” The fact that suicide is forbidden in the Qur’an explains the paradoxical ending.
Continuing his minimalist style, The Wind Will Carry Us (1999) has more than 10 characters who are heard but never seen, or discussed but neither heard nor seen. This semi-comical parable of outsiders follows a three-man film crew arriving in a remote Kurdish village intent on photographing the ceremonial funeral rites of a dying 100-year-old woman for a television documentary. But she lingers on.
Kiarostami made a bona fide documentary outside Iran with ABC Africa (2001), a study of the Aids epidemic in Uganda. It was his first use of a digital camera. “I felt that a 35mm camera would limit both us and the people there,” he said, “whereas the video camera displayed truth from every angle, and not a forged truth... The camera could turn 360 degrees and thus reported the truth, an absolute truth.”
The car motif reoccurs in Ten (2002), which consists of 10 long takes in close-up of a woman navigating through the streets of Tehran, during which she has conversations with various women passengers, including a prostitute, and her brat of a son. Kiarostami’s subtle criticism of the male-dominated society is reflected by the boy.
Kiarostami explained why he liked to shoot characters in cars: it puts people in close proximity to allow natural two-shots and close-ups and, sociologically, it is space that allows women some freedom.
In Shirin (2008), a group of 114 women of different generations are photographed in an audience, ostensibly watching a film of a 14th-century Persian tale. Unlike the casts in other Kiarostami films, these women (who include Juliette Binoche) are all professional actors, some of them banned from performing under the present regime. We watch their reactions and hear only the soundtrack of the film, using their expressions to help us imagine the story. Here are defiant women from a strict Islamic society revealing their faces, and their emotions, with a few menacing out-of-focus glimpses of men in the background.
Binoche then starred in the first fiction feature that Kiarostami directed outside Iran. Certified Copy (2010) – shot in Italy, with dialogue in English, French and Italian – follows the relationship between a British writer (William Shimell) and a French antiques dealer (Binoche), and explores that which separates illusion from reality.
Like Someone In Love (2012), elegantly shot in Japan, and in Japanese, was ostensibly even more of a distance from Kiarostami’s world. Always more interested in characters than plot, he retained his oblique view of human contacts in the study of a high-class prostitute, her jealous boyfriend and an elderly former university professor.
By shooting in other countries, Kiarostami became a cosmopolitan figure, underlining how universal his film language was, though slightly diminished away from its roots. In addition to making films, Kiarostami wrote several books of poetry, had his photographs exhibited and directed a production of Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte in Aix-en-Provence, France, in 2008.
He is survived by two sons, Ahmad and Bahman, from his marriage to Parvin Amir-Gholi, which ended in divorce.
• Abbas Kiarostami, film director, born 22 June 1940; died 4 July 2016
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