The Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, who died on July 4 at age 76, trod a fine line as a humanist director living in an Islamic Republic that is committed to destroying the state of Israel. By contrast, his pacific, abstract, philosophical, deliberately-paced creations featured people driving through traffic jams, up difficult inclines, and past natural disaster areas. Life, or so it appeared, was a way of getting through. Kiarostami would sometimes cite as directorial influences the Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu and Buster Keaton. In films of these two, awful things regularly happen to people, often with comic or seriocomic effect, and we watch as they sit or stand, absorbing the bad news.
There was plenty of the latter in Iran during Kiarostami’s lifetime. In “Iranian Cinema Uncensored” (2015), he insisted on being quoted indirectly to the effect that the “censorship that post-revolutionary Iranian cinema had to grapple with went beyond ‘restrictions’. It had and still has a very strong ideological streak that is fundamentally against art in general and cinema in particular. As far as [Kiarostami was] concerned, he never benefited from the policies of the post-revolutionary art and film institutions. They neither encouraged him nor gave him financial help nor promoted his films.”
His films were rarely shown in Iran for political reasons and even less so in American for economic motives, yet one place where he had a devoted following was Israel. His first film screened commercially there was “Ten” (2002), about an Iranian divorced woman who drives through Tehran and picks up a series of passengers, expressing such themes as the subjugation of women in a religious society. This may have struck a chord in its correspondence to a noteworthy Israeli film that would be released a dozen years later, “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem” starring Ronit Elkabetz in the throes of a seemingly endless divorce.
In 2011, Kiarostami gave an interview to the Hebrew edition of Haaretz, suggesting that his films were banned in Iran “not because they contained subversive messages, but because Iranian officials don’t understand them, and therefore feared that they contained subversive messages. Nevertheless, he added, the ban was a flawed strategy. ‘When you ban something, people want it more,’ he explained.” Supporting a peaceful resolution to Middle Eastern strife, Kiarostami also rejected bloodshed onscreen. He told one 1997 interviewer at Cannes that although he had met and personally liked Quentin Tarantino when they served on a jury at the 1995 Taormina Film Festival, he was not a fan of the American’s movies, adding, “Since violence will never leave the American film, an important thing Tarantino has done is at least to find a way to ridicule violence.”
Kiarostami was not an activist such as Mohsen Makhmalbaf, an expatriate Iranian director whose film “The Gardener” (2012) was made in Israel to celebrate the Baha’i faith. Makhmalbaf received sanctions such as having his works removed from the archives of the Iranian Cinema Museum. This kind of bold rebellion was not the style of Kiarostami, a polymath given to reverie, whose idyllic photographs of nature and snow scenes have been published, as well as his original poetry and adaptations of classical Persian bards. An acclaimed teacher, Kiarostami felt it necessary to remain in his homeland, the source of his artistic inspiration, rather than choose exile. His gently mulling over human motivations was even visible in his preface to a memoir by an Iranian female psychoanalyst about bringing Freudian therapy back to the Islamic Republic.
These internal struggles and cross-cultural exchanges fascinated some viewers, none more so than the veteran American Jewish film maven Jonathan Rosenbaum, who co-authored a book of essays and conversations (2003) about Kiarostami with Iranian filmmaker Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa. In it, Rosenbaum explicitly stated in a chat with his co-author:
“I think the difference between our backgrounds is important – a Jewish American man and an Islamic Iranian woman – despite the fact that our tastes in film tend to be similar.”
Rosenbaum went on to compare the artistic deprivation caused by draconian religious regulations in Iran and those motivated by Hollywood film industry priorities. Pointing out that Kiarostami’s first short films were produced by an Iranian educational center, Rosenbaum cited one of these, “Two Solutions for One Problem,” about an extended mutual destruction of personal possessions by schoolboys, as being something like “Laurel and Hardy directed by Robert Bresson.” In turn, Saeed-Vafa stretched the comedy parallel somewhat by suggesting that another short film instructing young viewers about behavior, “Orderly or Disorderly” (1981), might be likened to Jerry Lewis’s unruly slapstick extravaganza “The Disorderly Orderly.” The director himself admitted that his early works may have conveyed a lasting childlike candour and directness to all his work.
Still, Kiarostami’s artistic priorities were directed to a thinking public of adults. “Taste of Cherry” (1997) is about an Iranian man driving through suburbs, looking for someone who will agree to bury him after he commits suicide. It received the prestigious Palme d’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival, but suicide is not considered an option by the Islamic clergy of Iran. In debates with censors at home, Kiarostami cited his inspiration about the escape route offered by death, whether self-inflicted or otherwise, as expressed in an aphorism by the Romanian-French author E.M. Cioran: “Were it not for the possibility of suicide, I would have killed myself long ago.” As he told “Film Comment” in 2000, he managed to persuade censors that his film was not about suicide, but rather “about the choice we have in life, to end it whenever we want. We have a door we can open at any time, but we choose to stay, and the fact that we have this choice is, I think, God’s kindness. God is kind because he has given us this choice. They were satisfied with that explanation…The movie is about the possibility of living, and how we have the choice to live. Life isn’t forced on us.”
The door to be opened at any time was concretely illustrated in an installation on view earlier this year at Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum. “Doors Without Keys” displayed dozens of large-format color photos taken over the past two decades by Kiarostami, most of them ancient and apparently securely padlocked. Street noises of traffic and children playing accompanied the display, along with poems by the director, such as:
“Today/I will stay at home/And open the door/To nobody but/The house of my mind/Stays wide open/To contradicting friends/To inflexible acquaintances.”
Kiarostami did ultimately find the key that opened the exit door.
Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.