I watched my first Abbas Kiarostami film in 2010 at the New York Film Festival. It was “Certified Copy” starring Juliette Binoche and William Shimell, a nonlinear, romantic drama. It’s about a couple who may have just met, may be celebrating an anniversary or may be on the verge of divorce. Kiarostami explores the various aspects of love through conversation and chemistry. The results are tragic, comical and meditative. I was happy to discover a filmmaker.
Kiarostami died Monday in Paris at 76 following a battle with cancer. He was one of the pioneers of post-revolution Iranian film, creating movies that were slices of life and explored themes of intimacy and human nature, and a father of world cinema. While Iran has a rich history of movies, it was through his work and influence that it reached Western audiences. He was not afraid to venture out of his comfort zone, with his last two films taking place outside of Iran. Kiarostami was well respected by other directors, from Jean-Luc Godard to Martin Scorsese.
His background in art and poetry helped shape his world. Kiarostami often worked with non-actors, casting local people and first-time actors to lead his features. This is best seen in the 1987 film “Where is the Friend’s House.” The premise is simple: a young boy is looking for where his classmate is so that he can return a notebook to him. Kiarostami employed children to tell adult stories, as Iran has strict standards as to how society is illustrated in film. The boy’s trek is full of metaphors, winding roads and life lessons. It would be the bedrock to his “Koker” trilogy, a series of films that take place in northern Iran. A devastating earthquake struck the region in 1990 which shaped the two following films “And Life Goes On” and “Through the Olive Trees.”
Blurring the lines between art and the real was an essential theme in Kiarostami’s work. A good example is 1990’s “Close-Up” about real-life impostor Hossain Sabzian who fools a family into thinking he is renowned director Mohsen Makhmalbaf and wants to make the group a subject of his next feature. The movie includes scenes from Sabzian’s trial, years before the O.J. Simpson trial created good television viewing in the United States, and reenactments of the crimes featuring Sabzian and his victims.
What was striking about Kiarostami was to hear him speak about making films. I attended the New York premiere of his final completed film “Like Someone in Love” in 2012 followed by a Q&A session the next day. To listen to what his thought process was behind the methods he used was a joy. He approached filmmaking with a whole heart, seeking ways to convey communication and life experiences in a poetic way. He challenged himself to make a Japanese film despite having never worked in Japan and not knowing the language. He was inspired by the country’s energy and translated that into his work.
At both events, Kiarostami discussed his use of cars as a place for dialogue and action. Some of his pivotal moments occurred inside a vehicle, not through a car chase or explosions, but by forcing characters to talk to each other in an intimate place. These were my favorite scenes as it relied less on effects and star power and more on chemistry and believability. At both sessions, he was asked twice about why he used cars in that way and replied by threatening to stop making films that used it as a plot device. I was disappointed, and now it’s even more heartbreaking not to know how he would work around that theme.
Kiarostami created a path for several working Iranian directors, including Oscar winner Asghar Farhadi (“A Seperation”) and Jafar Panahi (“This is Not a Film”), and broaden world cinema with his presence. Last week, he was named among one of the 683 new members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science, an honor that should have been given decades ago. His vision and presence will be missed.