Abbas Kiarostami, the Iranian film-maker who passed away from cancer a few days ago, was not only Iran’s best-known film-maker but will be remembered for having changed the face of art-house cinema, especially in the ‘Third World’.
Born into a middle-class family, he studied painting and graphic arts at the University of Tehrān, spending a period designing posters, illustrating children’s books, and directing advertisements. He was employed in 1969 by an institute working at educating children and young adults to establish its film division, also producing his first film as a director, the lyrical short The Bread and Alley (Nān va kūcheh, 1970), which featured elements defining his mature work: improvised performances and a documentary look. His first feature, The Traveller (Mosāfer, 1974), about a rebellious village boy determined to go to Tehrān and watch a football game, is a characteristic portrait of troubled adolescence. In the 1980s Kiarostami’s documentaries First Graders (Avalihā, 1984) and Homework (Mashq-e shab, 1989) offered insight into the lives of Iranian schoolchildren. There continued to be strict state censorship of cinema after the Iranian revolution and dealing with children’s issues eventually became the film-maker’s most convenient way of escaping controversy. Kiarostami’s feature film to first win him international acclaim Where is My Friend’s Home? (1987) employed the strategy successfully.
Iranian films before the advent of New Cinema (cinema motefävet) in the 1970s were perhaps even comparable to mainstream Indian cinema with its drawing from legends and local myths. The first landmark in new Iranian cinema was perhaps Dariush Mehrjui’s The Cow (1969). Ayatollah Khomeini’s fondness for this film about a poor peasant’s love for his cow is credited with the Supreme Leader (after the revolution of 1979) encouraging Iranian cinema, which blossomed as we know it today in the 1980s. Mehrjui’s film is starkly realistic but it does not prepare us for what Kiarostami later did.
Where is my Friend’s Home? takes its inspiration directly from Italian neo-realism, perhaps even more so than Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali. One of the principles upheld by the ideologue of neo-realism Cesare Zavattini, and followed, at least initially, by its directors was that cinema should be true to life and that, rather than use professional actors, film-makers should cast ordinary people who belonged to the social segments depicted. But Kiarostami’s use of ‘non-actors’ went much beyond what Zavattini envisaged.
Kiarostami’s film-making methods are, to my knowledge, not documented but a careful viewing of Where is My Friend’s Home? reveals aspects which were, at that time, without precedent in the fiction film. This film is the first one in Kiarostami’s Koker trilogy and deals with a backward part of Iran which was later struck by a devastating earthquake. In this first film a schoolteacher chides a boy for not doing his homework and threatens the students with consequences if this is repeated. When the boy protagonist Ahmed returns home after school he finds that he has brought a friend’s notebook accidentally home, which means that the boy will not be able to do his homework and will have to face his teacher the next day. Ahmed’s friend lives in a neighbouring village but Ahmed does not know his house. Still, he has to deliver the notebook to the boy and the rest of the film is devoted to Ahmed’s unsuccessful search. The solution Ahmed eventually finds is to do his friend’s homework for him.
Kiarostami’s film teems with details of rustic life and what is most evident is that there is almost no sign that the players are ‘acting’. Especially striking is the genuine terror exhibited by the children when listening to their teacher’s admonitions. Since the teacher does not do anything particularly frightening in the film, one guesses that the actual dealings of a teacher with his students was caught on camera by Kiarostami and inserted into a fictional context. Kiarostami, in effect, tweaked the documentary medium to yield fiction with an unprecedented level of authenticity, and he does this even more effectively in Through the Olive Trees (1994), set in the aftermath of the Koker earthquake and dealing with persisting class differences among the poor.
Abbas Kiarostami’s strategy of producing a hybrid of documentary and fiction informs much of world cinema today. One sees signs of this in places as far apart as Turkey and China (Jia Zhangke); Raam Reddy’s Kannada film Thithi (2016) gains considerably through its using local villagers to play themselves. In Iran, directors like Asghar Farhadi (A Separation, 2011) gradually moved on to making films with professional actors but without losing any of Kiarostami’s authenticity.
If one can talk about the other effects of what Kiarostami attempted, the Iranian art-house film is not popular locally in Iran and it does best internationally at film festivals. Cinema is expensive business and the level of sophistication achieved by Kiarostami and Farhadi cannot be appreciated by the general public and they therefore did the only thing possible, which was to find audiences outside. It is therefore not surprising that after a highly successful film-making career in Iran, with masterworks like Close-up (1990) and The Taste of Cherry (1997) to his credit, Kiarostami made his last films outside — in Italy (Certified Copy, 2010) and Japan (Like Someone in Love, 2012). The irony is perhaps that these films represent a decline — since Iran was what he knew and loved best, but partly also because they use professional actors.
MK Raghavendra is the author of 50 Indian Film Classics (Collins, 2009), Director’s Cut: 50 Film-makers of the Modern Era (Collins, 2013) and The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (due in July 2016).