One of my favorite aspects of Abbas Kiarostami’s films is how thoroughly he realizes the world within and around his characters. You hear the “world of the film” used often to describe the visions of directors attendant to detail, but no other filmmaker manifests a world of the film at quite the intimate yet expansive scope that Kiarostami does. His films make the camera feel almost incidental, as if this is simply the character or the moment that Kiarostami decided to focus on amongst a great many incidents and possibilities happening around that character or that moment.
The world of his films offers glimpses into the lives of supporting characters, any of whom could be the focus of a Kiarostami film all their own. Take his latest, Like Someone in Love, for example. At one point Akiko (Rin Tanakashi) has her cab driver circle a roundabout while she looks on at her grandmother at a transit stop, who obliviously waits for a family visit that will never occur. Kiarostami sticks with Akiko, but we carry that glimpse into the world of other possibilities that surround her life for the rest of the film. It takes incredible craftsmanship to make films feel as seamless, realist, and spontaneous as Kiarostami does.
Last week, Kiarostami stopped by the Indiana University Cinema to discuss filmmaking with Richard Peña on the occasion of the Cinema’s retrospective of his career. So here is some free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) shared by the internationally renowned director.
Know Why Neorealism Changed Filmmaking
“Neorealism did a great service to cinema. It showed us that there is another type of cinema. We can make films about the people around us and hold up the mirror to ourselves.”
Because the tradition is nearly seventy years old, it’s difficult to remember that, before neorealism, movies were almost exclusively the stuff of spectacle and whimsy. Spectacle certainly has its place, but neorealism burst the possibilities for filmmaking wide open, showing that it was not only feasible, but beautiful and affecting and profound, to make films about ordinary people’s everyday lives and struggles. Without neorealism, there would be no Kiarostami, or so many other filmmakers before and after him.
Follow, Don’t Lead, Your Character
“The most important part of my directing is choosing the character and the person who will play the character…after then, I follow them.”
Kiarostami discussed at length his method of choosing actors and locations to dictate the terms of the story. He talked about casting nontraditional actors who actually live and work in the spaces in which he films. The director also mentioned his refusal to do extensive preparatory work like taking a significant amount of time to “properly” light a shot.
None of these practices, Kiarostami claimed, have created enduring friendships with crew members used to a more traditional method of filmmaking. But it makes for an incredibly authentic end result.
The Work Should Be Invisible
“The craft of cinema should go unnoticed. Anybody who works on a film, their work should be seamless.”
With the notable exception of meta conversation-starters like Close-Up and Certified Copy, Kiarostami typically does not want the audience to feel his presence in the film. While he can be incredibly meticulous in his crafting, that effort is expended toward making the camera feel as if it creates direct access to characters and events, not a mediator between an audience and a director’s vision.
If Kiarostami’s characters are traveling in a car (as they often are), we travel alongside them as passengers on their journey. But the appearance of transparency takes a great deal of deliberate and thoughtful work.
Excitement Takes Viewers Out of the Film
“When you create general excitement amongst your viewers, something has gone wrong with the film.”
During a festival screening of The Wind Will Carry Us, the audience cheered at a moment during the film, and Kiarostami immediately decided to cut that moment out. Audience excitement, the director seemed to suggest, prevents viewer immersion.
Understand the Space of Sound
“[There are many spatial dimensions] but when we watch a film, we’re only seeing one of these dimensions: what’s right in front of us. Off-screen sound reminds us of these other dimensions that we may not be able to bring up on screen…Off-screen sound is witness to the fact that, when we close our eyes, the world still goes on.”
In The Wind Will Carry Us, Behzad (Behzad Dorani) frequently corresponds with inhabitants of a small Iranian village while the camera rests exclusively with him. Rather than employ a traditional shot/reverse shot structure that would give us an omniscient sense of legibly assembled cinematic space, Kiarostami’s films depict space and its boundaries to be much more fluid: we don’t see everything all the time, but we do get a rich sense of what lies outside the frame.
Thus, the worlds of his films unfold similarly to our own means of perception: we understand the space around us through many more capacities besides what we can see right in front of us. And cinema is hardly just – or even principally – a visual medium.
Realize the Importance of the Unimportant
The Criterion Collection
“I like those seemingly unimportant shots more so than the important ones.”
Kiarostami stated the above in relation to two similar scenes across his filmography: the shot early on in Close-Up when his camera rests on the image of a can rolling down the hill of a residential street, and the sequence in The Wind Will Carry Us that focuses on the Rube Goldberg-esque journey of an apple as it moves through the village’s jagged architecture. While each of these moments (especially the former) give an appearance of incident, they were both meticulously carried out.
Kiarostami stated that he shot more takes depicting the excursions of these inanimate objects than any of the “important” scenes of the film. It is these deceptively “unimportant” scenes that give his films such a rich texture and contribute to such a thoroughly realized world. It’s the unimportant things that make everyday life recognizable for what it is, rather than some scene from the movies.
While Kiarostami clearly embraces a style that evokes spontaneity and incident, there is nothing accidental about his approach to filmmaking. His practice is rather specific yet unorthodox, open-ended yet strictly realized. Kiarostami possesses a clear filmmaking philosophy that he materializes in precise aspects of filmmaking practice. Making the events of a film evoke the logic of reality takes a great deal of exhaustive, untraditional, and even counterintuitive work. But it makes for an inimitable filmmaker.
The hour-plus Q&A that these select quotes were transcribed from was recorded for a special feature on an upcoming Blu-ray release of his 1999 film The Wind Will Carry Us, where you’ll be able to see Kiarostami discuss many other things like his early film viewing, his transition to digital, and why Shirin is one of the most personal films that he’s made.