“Film begins with D.W. Griffith and ends with Abbas Kiarostami” – Jean Luc Godard
We all have our own favorite storytellers fulfilling our various artistic inclinations and priorities. But those we hold dearest to our hearts are usually the ones that seem to understand us and know where we keep our most private secrets. We often see our flaws and confront our fears through their work. We glimpse at the blueprints of even the farthest corners of our psyches as illuminated through their stories. We self-reflect and grow to be better people in their hands. Abbas Kiarostami, the legendary Iranian filmmaker who passed away on Monday July 4th at age 76, was one such beloved storyteller for many. With a shape-shifting, barrier-pushing career of more than four decades, he blended techniques and sensibilities of narrative and nonfiction storytelling and examined humankind with universal stories of impasse, dignity and loneliness. He was ahead of his time, but fortunately for us, he was from our time. He simply knew us, all the way from our childhood (a central focus for many of his early works) to maturity.
What makes Kiarostami’s stories of emotional seclusion unique is, they don’t dwell in an eternally pessimistic melancholy; even when all his plot signposts point to a dreary path into the human experience. While isolation and a sense of quiet devastation charge the most notable examples of his filmography, Kiarostami’s deeply philosophical and ever-so-subtly political filmmaking (exceptions aside, as much as he could get away with under Islamic rules) finds hope in the most unusual situations and transmits it with cinematic poetry. With vast pastoral landscapes, an observant, persistent camera and a slow, suspenseful build up towards impending revelations, his cinema shies away from blatantly spelling out the truth. Instead, truth is artfully hidden in every frame of Kiarostami’s emotional landscape.
With auteur’s premature passing –after his late-term masterpiece Like Someone In Love, one could get the sense that he was perhaps just getting started with something new– a journey through his filmography is a must for every cinephile, may it be to revisit favorites or to discover his cinema for the first time. Hulu is streaming quite a number of his films currently. You should ideally seek out everything he’s ever made: from his early career shorts that center around children to late-term works that study adult relationships and behavior in unexpected ways and geographies outside of Iran. The below four –all streaming on Hulu– will get you acquainted with the main pillars of Kiarostami’s universe as a start.
Where is the Friend’s Home? (1987)
Considered as the first chapter of his Koker trilogy –Life, and Nothing More… (1992) and Through the Olive Trees (1994), also set in the Koker region of rural Iran, being the later two installments– Where is the Friend’s Home follows the 8-year-old Ahmed as he embarks upon a dutiful journey to return his school friend’s notebook, which he mistakenly took after class. Motivated by a strong sense of responsibility, dignity and beyond-his-years empathy (having watched his classmate cry earlier in the day in front of a scorning teacher), Ahmed works his way through neighborhoods, zigzagged roads and unhelpful/oblivious adults who don’t particularly seem sympathetic to his mission of saving his classmate from another day of embarrassment and trouble. In one especially revealing scene, Kiarostami –as he often does– opens a brief parenthesis in the story and indulges us in a dialogue set between Ahmed’s grandfather and his friend while Ahmed desperately tries to locate his friend’s home. Using Ahmed’s lack of discipline as an example, the grandfather mourns about today’s kids’ lack of manners and fondly recalls the days he took a beating even when he wasn’t guilty, so he could be taught discipline. Unaffected by the talk, Admed continues to hang on to utmost dignity and seriousness in his quest to complete his task, proving his unwavering ethical integrity to the audience, if not the adults in the film. Kiarostami turns a simple chore into a universal tale of high moral standards and celebrates compassion as the chief of all things that makes us human.
In perhaps his most forward-thinking, ahead-of-its-time film, Kiarostami tells the true story of a poor film fan who poses to be renowned filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf to an upper-middle class family and promises them a part in his film. In Close-Up, arguably one of the most important masterpieces of 20th century, Kiarostami’s documentarian eye is even more at play than usual, as he partly re-enacts the events between the conman and the family in question, using no other than the real-life people involved in the case as actors. Imagine, then, the multitudes Close-Up contains: real-life heroes and anti-heroes of an occurrence, acting to re-capture reality by modifying a part of their own experiences under a third-party’s direction, while re-living the history themselves and attempting to convince the audience of the authenticity of the whole package. There is truth, perception of truth, alteration of truth and those staying afloat above the many layers of it. It wouldn’t be a stretch to assume Close-Up, being one of the most provocative and disarmingly human documentaries ever made, inspired a sleuth of works by future generations. Robert Greene’s upcoming documentary Kate Plays Christine could easily be a part of this select group.
Taste of Cherry (1997)
With his Palme d’Or-winning film (which shared the award with Unagi by Shōhei Imamura), Kiarostami rose to international fame in the late 90s, alongside other celebrated names of Iranian cinema such as Jafar Panahi, Majid Majidi and Mohsen Makhmalbaf. The majority of the immensely expressive Taste of Cherry takes places in a car –one of the filmmaker’s go-to settings used in his films in a recurring fashion –and follows a seemingly affluent, middle-aged man (Mr. Badii, played by Homayoun Ershadi) as he drives around dusty hillside roads outside Tehran and picks up various passengers along the way to ask them for a complicated favor. With each passenger –from the Kurdish soldier to the Turkish taxidermist– Kiarostami puts different segments of the Iranian society on display and engages with their individual dilemmas while reflecting them onto us. Meanwhile, we also discover Mr. Badii’s intentions quite quickly, even though The Taste of Cherry is a slow-burn of the best kind. Due to reasons unannounced in the film and skillfully left up to the interpretation of the viewer, Mr. Badii wants to kill himself with a dose of sleeping pills and fall to his slow death in a remote spot he takes all of his passengers to. Finally the taxidermist, who had also once suffered from depression, agrees to help him: if in the morning he finds Badii dead, he’d cover his corpse with soil. If not, he’d help him get out of the hole. With winding roads, external sounds that cut through the action and shadowy reflections on earth, Kiarostami uses ample symbolism in celebrating the rhythms and pleasures of life the taxidermist reminds Mr. Badii of in one memorable monologue about the joys of staying alive. The taste of cherries, being one of them.
Like Someone In Love (2012)
Many regard his Certified Copy as Kiarostami’s late-term masterwork, but to me, Like Someone In Love holds that status. Set and shot entirely in Tokyo (with on-set translators, as Kiarostami did not speak Japanese), Like Someone In Love is perhaps the filmmaker’s most cumulatively suspenseful and mournful film that deals with love and loneliness. We follow the young, beautiful university student Akiko around; she works as an escort by night and happens to be engaged to an oblivious and over-protective man. When a job brings Akiko to the home of a kind, aging college professor with unclear intentions (who’s made her a special soup based on the region she’s from), she eventually faces the wrath of her jealous and abusive fiancé and the weight of her life choices. At the heart of the tale are the periodic voicemail messages Akiko receives from her grandmother in the beginning of the film, who repeatedly reminds her she’d be in Tokyo for just one day and would love to see her if she could meet her at a specific spot at the train station. As the unanswered voicemails continue, not losing anything from their sweetness and growing in desperation, Akiko feels even more restless and maybe even ashamed, making her unspoken pain our very own through a camera that holds its lens on her at the back of an aimlessly circling cab. And that’s only the start.
As if he knew this would be his final film, Kiarostami burst open a vital vein with Like Someone In Love and let it bleed his usual preoccupations with the mortals. Extended periods of time spent in a car, an aria-like parenthesis in the midst of a story (delivered by the old professor’s neighbor that sneaks into to the story and our hearts) and lavish landscapes (this time, of urban nature) further enrich the indelible humanism Kiarostami’s film beams with.