PRINT April 1998


WHAT THE FILMS OF ABBAS KIAROSTAMI bring to the cinema is a few thousand extra years of history. While the images, it’s true, still go by at twenty-four frames per second, they are dense with time—not only real and “reel” time, but the cumulative time of a millennial vision of culture. Kiarostami’s most recent film, Taste of Cherry (1997), for example, follows a middle-aged man as he circles an industrial suburb of Tehran in search of someone to throw dirt on his body should he commit suicide, or to help him out of the grave should he be found alive. In discussing this austere journey along the borderline between life and death, the director alternately cites the medieval Persian poet Omar Khayyám on life’s transience and the twentieth-century Romanian writer E.M. Cioran on suicide (“Without the possibility of suicide, I would have killed myself long ago”).

Since 1970, Kiarostami has made fifteen short- and medium-length films and nine features. Born in Tehran in 1940, he came to filmmaking from, among other things, art school, poster design, children’s book illustration, credit design for feature films, and some 150 commercials. In 1969 he was invited to set up a film unit at the innovative Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults, which was to remain his base—and producer—through the early ’90s. The presentation of Where Is the Friend’s House? (1986) at the Locarno Film Festival in 1989 marked Kiarostami’s “discovery” in Europe. Shot in northern Iran with a cast of nonprofessional actors, this modern-day mystical tale about a schoolboy’s devoted search for his classmate became the first part of an unplanned trilogy when the village in question was devastated by an earth-quake in June 1990. Kiarostami’s real-life visit to the site of the disaster in search of his two main child actors became the subject of a second fiction, And Life Goes On (1992), shot five months later in the same village with an actor playing the director’s role. The making of that film in turn became the subject of a third, Through the Olive Trees (1994), which involves yet another quest: a member of the cast seeking the hand of his leading lady. Kiarostami’s international reputation has been firmly established by these films, along with the documentary Homework (1989), a trial-by-camera of the Islamic Republic’s authoritarian educational system, and the stranger-than-fiction Close-Up (1990), about the real-life trial of an unemployed printer who tried to pass himself off as one of Iran’s best-known filmmakers, Mohsen Makhmalbaf. In 1992 Kiarostami was awarded the prestigious Rossellini Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and last year Taste of Cherry brought him a joint Palme d’Or (shared with Japanese director Shohei Imamura) at the same festival.

In Iran, Kiarostami has long enjoyed the recognition of a sizable art-film public. While his films have less of a mass following than those of Makhmalbaf, they have also encountered fewer difficulties from government censors, in part, no doubt, because of his frequent focus on children—and the general absence of women—but also because the issues he addresses tend to be less controversial and his treatment of them more philosophical. And, as he quipped to a French interviewer in 1992, “My films aren’t commercial, but I don’t have any problems breaking even because they cost so little to make!”

Indeed, if Kiarostami’s singular vision translates into a seamless combination of the mystical quest and the road movie—the medieval frame story becoming a postmodern film-within-a-film—his artisanal approach to production is no less essential to his signature style. He works with a minimal scenario, a minimal crew, and nonprofessional actors; he has always done his own editing and is now his own producer. He also designs his own posters.

Kiarostami spoke with me in Paris last February on his way to the United States for the release of Taste of Cherry. Simultaneous translation was provided by critic and film programmer Mamad Haghighat, who is largely responsible for bringing the work of Kiarostami and other outstanding Iranian filmmakers to the attention of the French public.


MIRIAM ROSEN: You’ve sometimes explained where your films come from by quoting Gabriel García Márquez’s statement: “I don’t choose my subject matter. It chooses me.” So how did Taste of Cherry choose you?

ABBAS KIAROSTAMI: I haven’t answered that question so far, because this time I don’t know where the subject came from. Or even if I do know, I don’t want to talk about it. Death in relation to life is an issue that preoccupies all of us at some point. Why are you making that face? [Laughter]

MR: Because for me, your films are really parts of one long film. Which means that Taste of Cherry isn’t different from the others; it’s a kind of inflection in the overall continuity. And I just wanted to know where that particular inflection came from.

AK: I agree with what you just said. If I hadn’t made And Life Goes On, I obviously couldn’t have made Through the Olive Trees. In fact, Where Is the Friend’s House? plus these two films have come to be seen as a trilogy. But it seems to me that if I replace Where Is the Friend’s House? with Taste of Cherry, that would make an even more coherent trilogy. So this last film also has its roots in the earlier ones.

What’s more, it goes back to my own experience when I went to see the site of the earth­quake in 1990. It was the third day after the quake, and I’d gone there not as a filmmaker but as a human being. But it so happened that it was also my fiftieth birthday. It was as if turning fifty coincided with my visit. And standing before that spectacle, I really felt life for the first time, and I could see how fragile it is. So I can say that in some way, the idea for Taste of Cherry may have come from that day, when life was so fragile in relation to death. OK?

MR: Much better! [Laughter]

AK: In all the poetry of Omar Khayyám, he talks about life, but he constantly reminds us that we have to pay attention to death. Because without the threat of death, life has no mean­ ing. It’s the limit of death that gives us a conception of life.

MR: When I went to see the film, the person sitting next to me was visibly perplexed at the end; when the lights went on, he turned to me with a sigh and said, “I really think you have to be Western to get into the business of suicide.” A number of people have told me that it’s a very “difficult” film because it deals with suicide. And then there are people, like me, who didn’t see a film “about” suicide but a film about life.

AK: I put myself in the audience’s place. If someone thinks the film is about suicide, I’d agree. And I’d also agree with the viewer who says it’s about life and not about suicide. Someone told me that after seeing the film, he was no longer afraid of death, and I can put myself in his place. But then I can take the position of the viewer who says it’s a frighten­ ing film, or a pessimistic film. There was even one woman who told me it’s an erotic film, like the Kama Sutra, and I can also understand that.

I can understand all of these viewers. If you ask me which one I am, I’ll tell you that I’m all of them. It all depends on your point of view, the lenses you have in front of your eyes. The film is like a mirror that reflects what’s going on inside each person.

MR: In that sense, the “long film” you’ve been making all these years is like a series of mirrors reflecting you, your audience, and each other.

AK: That’s for you to say. I don’t decide in advance that my films are going to resemble each other. Before I start shooting, when people ask me what I’m going to do, I tell them, “This one’s going to be different from the others.” But at Cannes last May when I could see Taste of Cherry with all the reels in the right order, I saw that it was part of the other films. So I believe it when they say that all filmmakers make only one film in the course of their lifetimes. Every two or three years , I make one part of that film. I’ve just cut off the latest part, and I can say right now that the next film will resemble it, even though I’d like to free myself of that idea and make a film that isn’t like the others.

But I think you can tell when a work comes from inside a person. Some filmmakers are only technicians. If you removed their names from the credits, you could say that someone else made the film because it resembles the work of any number of people. I’ve seen three films, for example, by a very well-known film­ maker (whose name I won’t mention), and I noticed that the second one had nothing to do with the first , and the third had nothing in common with the other two. He’s a good technician—each film by itself is fine, but there’s no coherence in the overall body of work.

It seems to me that films should resemble the human beings who make them. It’s like the photos in a family album—they have to have something in common. Appearances change with age, and if you line up photos of someone over a period of twenty years, you can see that the person is getting older, but the resemblance is always there.

MR: But the way you use technique certainly has nothing to do with the movie industry as we know it.The difference is really striking.

AK: When I see a film, I forget about all the technical information I have. In Taste of Cherry, it’s possible that there are lots of technical problems, but that doesn’t bother me.

MR: I wasn’t thinking about problems—I was thinking about the kinds of solutions you come up with.

AK: I don’t get involved with cinematographic technique.

MR: What about the fact that all the actors were filmed separately, that you were always in the car, giving them their cues, and that you were also triggering the close-up camera that was hooked up outside the car? But the people who see the film don’t know that you were there.

AK: What was really difficult, and important, was that the story took place during a few hours’ time, while I was shooting over a number of days. We had to have continuity in the expressions of the central character, the actor. One day he might be feeling happy, and the next day he might be sad, and if he slept badly one night, it would show the next morning. So the director of photography suggested placing the camera outside the car, so that it would film through the window, and that way, the actor’s facial expressions wouldn’t show so much, and the viewer would be less aware of them.

In addition, things became much more interesting for the audience because we were changing the usual point of view . I realized that when I’m in a car and I talk to the person next to me, I’m always looking from the same angle and I can’t change it. I didn’t film that way, although I wasn’t really thinking about cinematographic effects to entertain the viewer’s eye.

The important thing is the relationship between the two people who are next to each other in the car, so these actors are never seen together. Each time we shot, it was me next to one of them, giving the other person’s lines. That was the best way for us to communicate. Sometimes I could really feel how alive and vital it is to direct actors. In fact, the cameraman was far away from us: there was just the camera attached to the outside of the car, which I could trigger, and then there was a tape recorder behind that went off at the same time. So the two people were totally alone in the car.

MR: I’d say there were three people!

AK: No, because I was reciting the dialogue instead of the other person.

MR: That’s what I mean—you’re the third person, who’s always present, but we don’t see you.

AK: I’m part of one of the two people. So it’s one of those two who isn’t there!

I don’t think that technical questions concern viewers. They should be looking at the film without prejudices, without knowing the techniques involved. But if the viewer wants to be very precise, there’s only one person, because it’s the person in the car that we see on the screen. I’m giving the cues to that person, and I’m making him recite my dialogue. Afterward, I’m going to change places.

MR: Your “camera magic” reminds me of the early films of Georges Méliès—especially The One-Man Band (1900), where he duplicates himself seven times to make a whole musical ensemble. Do you know about his work?

AK: No, who was he?

MR: One of the pioneers of French cinema, a stage magician who re-created his magic on film. In fact, that raises another question. You used to say that you’d seen relatively few films in your life, apart from a big dose of Italian Neorealism when you were a teenager. But since then you’ve been invited to many festivals, especially to serve on juries, so I imagine that’s no longer true.

AK: That’s right, I see more now.

MR: Does that change your eye?

AK: No, what’s influenced me isn’t the cinema, it’s reality.

MR: But don’t you have to fight a little against a more cinematic way of looking?

AK: I try not to be influenced by the images I see. Once I’ve seen them, it’s finished, and I resist them.

MR: Another important change I wanted to ask you about has to do with Iranian society today. Mohammad Khatami, the new president of Iran, is being hailed as a committed reformer and a defender of freedom of expression. Did you know him when he was minister of culture and Islamic guidance [from 1982 to 1992]?

AK: No, I never met him. But I don’t think that the Khatami of today is the same as he was nine years ago. His responsibilities are different. And there’s a larger trend that has made him a liberal, in the positive sense of the term. If he were the same Khatami as before, he couldn’t continue to be president.

MR: Because of the Iranian people?

AK: Yes, because of the present situation. It’s not possible to govern today without being a little more liberal, without allowing a little more freedom. In fact, this liberalization isn’t coming from within the individual; it’s being imposed on him, or proposed to him, from the outside. Even the people who were hard-liners in recent years have changed their tune. It’s as if there were a heat wave, and everyone tried to undo at least the top button of his shirt. In fact, it’s the heat that forces them do it. I want to make that clear so that the Iranian people don’t become the martyrs of one individual. We’ve already gotten beyond that period of our history. I hope that people will think about a current of thought rather than a particular person.

MR: Now that you’ve visited the United States a number of times to attend screenings of your films, do Americans seem as exotic to you as Iranians are to Americans?

AK: My impression hasn’t changed. Even before I went to the United States, I had the same opinion.

MR: Which is?

AK: This goes back to the previous question. Unfortunately, the population of each country is represented by its government. I think that relationships between people are more important than those between political leaders, where each side wants to profit from the other. Each government wants its population to react against the other, but it’s up to the people themselves to say that there should be relations between them.

I don’t know if you followed the news about the American wrestlers who recently visited Iran for a tournament—it was broadcast live by CNN. When the American athletes arrived in Iran, they were amazed by the welcome they received, especially in the stadiums. And when they went shopping in the bazaar, the merchants wouldn’t accept their money; they wanted to give them presents. Even when the Iranians lost a match, they applauded the American wrestlers. And the Americans were so moved that they paraded around the stadium with the Iranian flag!

Unfortunately, the leaders have kept these populations from communicating with each other for years. It was the violence of the two governments that led the Iranian people to burn the American flag. Now the governments are trying to bring the two peoples together. For me, on the human level, there’s no problem with communicating and understanding each other, whether we’re talking about Americans or anybody else. And that doesn’t have anything to do with my going to the United States or not.

MR: One last half-question: What about the way that your films are received? When you travel in different countries, do you find that the reactions are different? Or do the same responses turn up everywhere?

AK: With Taste of Cherry, for example, I can tell you that the reactions are the same everywhere, regardless of the country, the culture, the religion. It has nothing to do with this or that religion, or with a given political situation.

At one screening I attended, there were two hundred people in the audience. At the end of the film, a hundred of them started applauding, another fifty gave me a standing ovation, and the remaining fifty sat in their seats looking at the others with amazement and asking themselves why these people were clapping. Each group was surprised by the reactions of the others. Personally, I can understand someone who walks out twenty minutes after the beginning, and I can also understand someone who stays twenty minutes after the end. If you get into it, you stay until the end, but if you can’t, I’m not going to try to impose a dialogue or give instructions about how you have to look at it in order to like it. Rather, I just say “Excuse me.”

Miriam Rosen contributes regularly to Artforum.

Taste of Cherry was released by Zeitgeist Films on March 20.