- Published on Wednesday, 04 January 2012 00:00
In the ever-growing canon of Iranian filmmaking, one name unmistakably stands out: Abbas Kiarostami. Since staking out his reputation as an internationally acclaimed director and screenwriter, his films, though deceptively simple in structure, have become famous for taking on complex issues: the legitimacy of suicide in Taste of Cherry; gender equality in The Wind Will Carry Us; Iran’s socio-political landscape as seen through the eyes of one woman in Ten; and most recently, relationship drama Certified Copy, his second film shot and produced outside of Iran.
Among Kiarostami’s entourage of critics and supporters, only a minority have garnered more acclaim than Geoff Andrew, who takes his expertise on the filmmaker a step further. While other film scholars just simply respect Kiarostami’s work from an academic distance, Andrew is one of the few people who brought his admiration for the filmmaker under a more analytical and speculative lens, which has played a significant role in introducing Kiarostami to the western audience. Andrew’s 2005 book, 10, looks at Kiarostami’s challenging 2002 film of the same name, carefully weaving his commentary on the film’s political and aesthetic relevance with the broader contexts of Kiarostami’s career and Iran’s international film culture.
Film scholar and Aslan Media Contributor Ehsan Khoshbakht sat down with Andrew in London’s National Film Theatre to talk about Kiarostami’s use of craft and narrative, as well as the future challenges he faces making films abroad as a result of censorship in Iran.
Aslan Media: What interests you most about Kiarostami’s cinema as a westerner?
Geoff Andrew: Well, it has nothing to do with Iran. It has nothing to do with finding out about Iran. Obviously it’s interesting, but I don’t know if I can trust his films as a portrait of Iran. I think what I love about his films is that on one level they are very simple. He tells very simple stories… But on another level they are often very complex and sophisticated because they make us ask questions over time. When we watch most films, the director tells us everything- tells us how to feel, tells us what is happening. With Kiarostami’s work I think he is not telling us how to feel… He is inviting us to consider what we see and what we hear and ask ourselves questions about it. So with Kiarostami I never feel static.
AM: One of the main problems of Kiarostami in Iran, which is actually critics’ problem with his films, is that there have always been complaints about the lack of social awareness in his movies, the absence of Iranian daily life, especially in Ten, which takes place in streets of Tehran, but there isn’t a single shot about how people live on these streets.
GA: But you hear about it. For instance, he uses the car very cleverly, because it’s where people can have a conversation [while] not in their home. And he can’t film the women in their home because they have to have the veil. I went to see Simin and Nader: A Separation in Berlin. It’s a good film in many ways, but it’s ridiculous, because the women, even in their home, are still wearing veils… in front of their husbands and sons. And Abbas wouldn’t do that, so he uses the car. We may not see much of what’s on the street but we hear about Iranian life, we get a good understanding of daily problems that people face in that film…
I think in Iran, critics say he is not political; he makes films for westerners. I don’t know whether it’s true or not. I’m a westerner. I like it, that’s what I know. I think with western critics the problem has been that not a lot of people discovered him around the time of And The Life Goes On [released in the United States as Life, and Nothing More...] and Under the Olive Trees [released in the United States as Through the Olive Trees], and they had this idea that he is another neorealist, who is making films… about the people in the country side and that kind of stuff. Of course that’s just one little bit of his work. If you go before that, it’s different. A lot of people expect him to still make films like that. And when you see Five and Shirin, you can tell that many people are not that interested. With Certified Copy they are more interested because you still have the story, even if the story is a little unclear. I know some western critics who by the time Shirin [came out] really thought he was doing nothing, which is stupid. He was doing lots of very interesting things. He keeps trying. He doesn’t want to repeat himself. Why would a director repeat himself? He wants to keep moving. Abbas is making the same film in some respect, but the way he sees it, they are different.
AM: What about this geographical change in Kiarostami’s films? Now he is making his films outside of Iran. And of course, many of his films have a tight connection with Iranian culture, especially Iranian poetry. Even the way he looks at suicide, in a film like Taste of Cherry, is in the context of an Islamic culture. But now he is not making films in Iran anymore.
GA: That is not necessarily his wish. He loves to make films in Iran… He can’t make films in Iran. He can’t make the films that Iranians allowed to see. He is a filmmaker, so he has to make films somewhere… For one thing, filmmaking is expensive, even when you work like Abbas… He would need to get money from somewhere, and if he can’t get it from Iran, he has to get it from somewhere else.
There is also the whole thing about censorship. He still lives in Iran. He wants to make films in Iran, but he can’t at the moment… One of his colleagues [filmmaker Jafar Panahi] was sentenced to six years imprisonment and was ordered to never to make films again. Abbas doesn’t want that to happen to him. It’s not Abbas’s fault that he is working in Japan. It’s the authorities’ fault. Maybe he should make films that say the Islamic Republic is wonderful, and then he would be able to make films. But that’s not the sort of films that Abbas makes. He doesn’t make propaganda.
AM: What was the main reason you picked Ten, as a Kiarostami film, as the subject of your book?
GA: There are two reasons: first, I wanted to write a book about his films, but didn’t think I could write in length about his other films, because I have never been to Iran, and I felt perhaps too distant, not emotionally, but intellectually. My experience is very distant; I don’t know Persian poetry and I know that’s very important to Abbas… But with Ten, I felt I understood it because it didn’t really have the poetry. It was a very different sort of film. It seems very much about the moment- living in a city with a son, being divorced, having friends… The other reason I chose Ten was because I thought everybody else, especially Americans, seemed to be making bigger and bigger films; Abbas is doing the opposite. He is making his film with a camera in his spare time... He is showing that there is a different way; and cinema can still be great. We don’t need lots of money and professional actors and expenses. We just need imagination.By Ehsan Khoshbakht, Aslan Media Contributor