Gozaresh (1977) (The Report)
Abbas Kiarostami
Farsi

 

The ReportThe Report is a typical example of the marriage-in-crisis film that many great filmmakers seem to have made during the early part of their careers. Such a gesture is usually channeled as critical reassessment, a personal confession, wish-fulfillment or even self-justification. But, for Kiarostami here, it becomes an opportunity to telescope the social situation of the country into a deceptively simple marital drama. In many ways, The Report reminds us of the remarkable vérité films of early Tarr, especially in its preoccupation with diminishing and often suffocating urban spaces. Kiarostami’s film is not about stasis, as many films of the subgenre are, but about disintegration. It situates itself at a narrative and historic point where institutions can no longer hold together. Corruption reigns supreme in the public sphere and money becomes the focal point of almost all discussions. The stuffy, noisy streets of Tehran seem as though they are already in a state of decay. It appears as if there can be no way out but downward – for the society and the family. Kiarostami rarely films his couple (Kurosh Afsharpanah and Shohreh Aghdashloo) together in the frame. Like Certified Copy (2010), which is the closest film to this one in terms of scenario, the director severs the protagonists from each other with his shot patterns and blocking, with the only holding force being their little girl child. Kiarostami also employs a large number of static, fixed compositions with judicious use of walls and doors so as to allow long chunks of action unfold within the same shot. This sense of mundanity is compounded by a soundtrack without any music and consisting of only direct sound, which would later become the director’s forte in the 90s.

(This is a small contribution to Sheila O’Malley’s Iranian Film Blogathon (Feb 21-27), which has already received a number of terrific entries)

Rangha (1976) (aka Colours)
Abbas Kiarostami
Iran
15 Min.

 

I’m usually wary of tracing auteurist strains in a filmmaker’s very early works since this retrospective ‘curve fitting’ not only turns out contrived but imposes an unwarranted burden on the filmmaker by not allowing him to change with time. One of Abbas Kiarostami’s earliest short films, Colours (1976), both reveals traces of his subsequent preoccupations and stands antithetical to many facets that would become his trademark. Made for the film division of Kanun (Centre for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults established by the Shah’s wife in the 60s), Colours is a educational documentary, possible targeted at the very young, which urges the children to discover various colours in natural and manmade objects around them. Like Satyajit Ray, Kiarostami started out as a graphic artist and Colours appears closer to that vocation than filmmaking. Presenting various items head on, more often than not amidst a white background, with a narrator describing what is shown, the short is completely preoccupied with objects and surfaces (like his very latest, can we say?). The soundtrack, with its redundant voiceover and a corny, loopy soundtrack is in direct contrast to Kiarostami’s later, minimalist ventures. But Colours is also one of the very few completely non-narrative films by the director, who seems to be more at ease here working with still life than live action. Kiarostami’s still on experimental grounds here and the Centre seems to have provided ample opportunities for that, even (especially?) after the revolution. The film ends with shots of drawings on a blackboard, which has quite easily become emblematic of Kiarostami’s early works at the Centre, the works of the Kanun, in general, and even Iranian cinema, in a way.

P.S: There’s an extended scene with toy racecars tracing curves on plastic tracks – so redolent and so-not-redolent of the director’s later works.

(This is a token contribution to Sheila O’Malley‘s Iranian Film Blogathon, which I’m eagerly looking forward to. Get over there pronto!)


Allow me to begin with a cliché: 2010 has been an insipid year at the movies. I really struggled to come up with this list because it just didn’t feel like there were many contenders for it. The tail of this list is shaky at best and I wouldn’t want to defend it with all my heart, I think. I’m not saying that there were no great films made in 2010. One bizarre phenomenon of the recent years has been the growing time difference between the world premiere of a film and its distribution/release. Movie lists this year have been almost entirely made of films that actually premiered in 2009 (or earlier) and, going by the trend, it wouldn’t be really a surprise if the 2011 lists consisted wholly of movies that premiered in 2010. (This list, however, is based on world premieres alone). This is not a wild thought at all, considering how stellar the list of filmmakers who premiered their films this year, without a release, has been. (Trust me, there are about 50 big titles that haven’t been mentioned in many of the lists. My biggest misses this year include The Strange Case of Angelica, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, Nostalgia for the Light, The Ditch, Meek’s Cutoff, Get Out Of The Car, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Aurora and The Four Times, among others. Rest assured that I’ll drop an updated list here around March, hopefully). Given this, 2011 is truly going to be one hectic year for film buffs, with dozens of vital films from both years to be seen. Fasten your seat belts.

 

1. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand/UK/France/Germany/Spain/Netherlands)


Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past LivesThat Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is the greatest feature by the Thai director is only worthy of a footnote. It is, in fact, what Nathaniel Dorsky calls Devotional Cinema. Boonmee is a work that amalgamates the process of film, human metabolism and the intermittence of our being like no other. Treating life as one continuous entity without a beginning or an end, where death and reincarnation are just various modes of existence, Boonmee so lovingly examines how these modes are integral to functioning of film where, in each frame, the past dies, yet persists and projects itself into the future. Furthermore, the film is also Weerasethakul’s response to the recent upheavals in his country where the political past of the country seems to resist death, reincarnating itself in kindred happenings of the present. Weerasethakul’s picture is at once a tribute to national cinema of the past, an elegy for film and a welcome note to digital filmmaking. It is at once a return to nascence and a leap into the future. Uncle Boonmee is cinema. Uncle Boonmee is cinema.

2. Film Socialism (Jean-Luc Godard, France/​Switzerland)


Film SocialismEven if Godard confirms the rumour that he’s going to call it a day, there’s nothing really to get vexed about. That’s because he has produced a body of work that is yet to be discovered in its full form, qualitatively and quantitatively. Film Socialism is not his last film because it is his last set of films. Yes, like that gargantuan video work of the 90s about the history of cinema, Film Socialism is a work that reconfigures and renews itself every time one sees it. It might all seem like a loosely connected set of arbitrary images, sounds and words. But that’s because arbitrariness is in its very DNA. If not anything else, it is “about” arbitrariness – of value, of ideologies, of laws and of languages – and the death of grand truths. Itinerating between the 70s style agitation, 80s style humanism and 90s style lamentation of his works and with a novel appreciation for individual images, words and objects, Film Socialism is simultaneously a summation of his career and an undoing of it. From the self-deprecating opening line of his first feature, to the “No Comment” 50 years later, Godard has probably said everything in between. Film Socialism is his signature.

3. Honey (Semih Kaplanoglu, Turkey/Germany)


HoneyYoung Yusuf always looks up to his father. Literally. This might be partly due to his undernourishment, but it is also because he refuses to grow up. The final and the finest film in Kaplanoglu’s trilogy, Honey evokes the experience of childhood, or rather the experience of its end, like a few films do, intertwining reality, memories, dreams and anxieties of the age. It so affectingly captures what it means to be thrust into a fatherless world: a family without father, a film without a hero, a universe without God. (The previous film in the triad deals with Yusuf’s relationship with his mother). Yusuf’s conversations with his father, themselves, resemble private confessions to a higher power. Kaplonoglu’s picture is somewhat of a paradox. The reverse chronological structure of the trilogy prompts psychoanalysis while Honey itself is, cleverly, non-reductive. Like Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) and Kiarostami’s Where Is the Friend’s Home? (1987), Honey is a film about childhood confronting adulthood against its own wishes. Ana dares to leave behind her childhood. Ahmed survives the confrontation. Yusuf refuses to grow up.

4. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran/France/Italy)


Certified CopyAbbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, at its worst, is a rundown of modern western philosophy, especially its key questions about perception, beauty and the self. So allow me to steal some from old Fred to sum up the film: “Artists alone hate this lazy procession in borrowed manners and left-over opinions and they reveal everyone’s secret bad conscience, the law that every man is a unique miracle; they dare to show us man as he is, unique even unto each move of his muscles; even more, that by strictly in consequence of this uniqueness, he is beautiful and worth regarding, new and incredible, as every work of nature, and never boring.”. Kiarostami probes the validity of every clause above and keeps examining what the ideal way to live is and whether there is an ideal way at all. Does one understand the world through grand mechanisms and regard what one sees and hears as abstractions of invisible truths or does one confront these concrete objects as they are and deem the ideas uniting them as abstract and removed from experience? Kiarostami’s film is an irresolvable tug-of-war between subtexts and surfaces, accidents and forethought, conservatism and radicalism and, well, form and content.

5. My Joy (Sergei Loznitsa, Ukraine/Germany/France/Netherlands)


My JoyI can’t believe I’m including this patently cynical, relentlessly dystopian and ideologically simplistic film in this list, but the talent and craft here are undeniably overwhelming. Sergei Loznitsa’s My Joy is a film that threatens the uniqueness of Uncle Boonmee in that it too collapses historical time to sketch the sociopolitical portrait of a country that has ceased to progress and is moving around in circles of betrayal, oppression and violence. Its causes might be varied – residual bureaucracy, newfound market economy, WW2, Cold War – the manifestations nevertheless, Loznistsa suggests, are the same. Echoes of a scene are felt in another, similar situations and outcomes permeate historically different periods and essentially nothing changes except costumes and period details. It’s as if the director and the set of actors are trying in vain to recreate another age that might offer escape. Loznitsa uses interruption itself as a stylistic device wherein the genre (road movie “detours” into a sci-fi nightmare) and the narrative (character identification killed) are disrupted for treatises on power and its abuse. As presaged in the opening scene, it is the director as tyrant and the audience as victim.

6. Of Gods And Men (Xavier Beauvois, France)


Of Gods And MenAt a time when blanket rejection of all religion is the most advertised and subscribed worldview, Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men comes as a much needed dose of sobriety. A worthy successor to that staggering Winter Light (1963, plugs to Bergman galore), Of Gods and Men is a expertly mounted tightrope act that strikes a tense balance between faith and reason, individualism and collectivism, idealism and materialism and democracy and authoritarianism. True to this spirit of philosophical investigation, the best shots in the film are composed like tableaus from ancient Greece, of which either God or the audience is regularly made a part. The stance here is, clearly, neither pro-religion nor anti-terrorist. The film is neither a critique about the perversion of religion by politics nor a lamentation about the loss of faith in a Post-Enlightenment world. It is about what Faith means to the individual. The monks in the monastery are neither theists deluded by the promise of a paradise nor victims caught in the vortex of international events. They are merely Kierkegaardian knights who leap beyond rationality to discover what it means to be human, to be mortal, to believe.

7. Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, USA)


Shutter IslandAn hommage to Alfred Hitchcock among others, and possibly a remake of Vertigo (1958) as well, Martin Scorsese’s atmospheric wonder Shutter Island is about the absolute loss of control, about not being able to know whether you’re awake or dreaming, about being swept off solid ground and left floating and about the agony of losing everything that was dear to you. For filmmakers, especially ones as authoritative as Hitch and Scorsese, this fear of losing hold is so palpable and justified. Set in post-war America, where red signaled danger in more ways than one and where either you were crazy or the entire world around you was, Scorsese’s film has someone or the other consciously playing roles throughout. The sense of artificiality and instability is accentuated all through with tribute-providing rear projection and matte backgrounds. As literalized in its story, Shutter Island is also a battle between modernist paranoia and postmodernist schizophrenia wherein the director’s playfulness is pitted against ambitions of serious, personal expression. And I’m sorry to spoil it for you, but there’s no twist in the film.

8. I Wish I Knew (Jia Zhang-ke, China)


I Wish I KnewThe greatest filmmaker of the last decade continues to do what he does best: make great films. Jia Zhang-ke’s I Wish I Knew, a cousin to his previous film, is a symphony of city symphonies. The sheer scope of Jia’s investigation and the humungous historical and geographical ground he covers is daunting. Walking a thin line between state propaganda and personal vision, dispassionate observation and critique and aesthetization and respectful documentation, Jia has created a film that might look like the most reverential and non-committed of all his works. Like his last film, Jia probes how the older Shangainese’s history and identity has inextricably been linked with that of the city and the state and how the younger generation seems to have found the luxury to be apolitical and the freedom to move beyond. Globalization isn’t so bad after all. Or is it? One could arrive at two wholly different films by just editing the film in two different ways – one film that the state wants Jia to make and the other that we want Jia to make. Jia’s probably made the film he wants.

9. The Social Network (David Fincher, USA)


The Social NetworkAs the marketers of old studio films would say, The Social Network is a film for everybody. It truly is a film for every ideology, every reading and every level of engagement. The film is whatever you want it to be. There’s something about Sorkin’s Zuckerberg that’s both seductive and repulsive. His triumph is one that’s both inspiring and horrifying. Barring the last scene of the film, which probably kills off the ambivalence thus far and impresses itself on our memory of the film a little too heavily, the film does a remarkable balancing act, placing immense trust on the details for the maintenance of this ambiguity. It doesn’t have as much to say about how we live our lives online as it does about how we generally live in a world infested by final clubs of every sort, all the time conforming to popular ideas about the price of genius. That’s why The Social Network works much better when read as a slightly metaphysical tale, displaced from its context, than as a critique of the new world. There’s a vicious, Greenberg-like bitterness about this new phenomenon no doubt, but there’s also a sense of optimism beyond its control which acknowledges that there might be a way out after all.

10. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (Edgar Wright, USA)


Scott Pilgrim vs The WorldA hundred years from now, when social researchers (or aliens, if you are a Mayan) attempt to find out about this little curiosity called the internet, they will refer not to Fincher’s white elephant but this wicked termite that has volumes to say about how most of us perceive the world today. If The Social Network is about Web 2.0 as seen from outside, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is the same experienced from within. If Fincher’s film is the Facebook movie, Wright’s is the Twitter movie. There is barely an action, a line or an event that is allowed to complete. Everything that is marginally superfluous or even implicit is edited out. Information travels at the speed of light and it is, more often than not, trivial, useless and self-parodying. Time and space melt down to form a unified, nearly irrational warp zone where there’s almost no difference between reality and dream. This confusion of identities, so typical of our era and often alluded to in the film, is reflected in the pastiche-like nature of the film which borrows as much from web design and TV commercials as it does from comic books and video games. Devilishly inventive, “sublime”.

 

(Image Courtesy: Various)

Shirin  (2008) (aka My Sweet Shirin)
Abbas Kiarostami
Persian

“I fear that this embrace may turn out to be a dream. Like all the dreams we had throughout the years which, on waking, would turn into horrible nightmares.


ShirinIt’s been long since Abbas Kiarostami started trying to eliminate the role of the director in making films. His works bear witness to the fact that, with him, the function of a director is closer to that of a concept artist than a logistic manager. His latest, Shirin (2008), is the next logical step in this process of progressive non-intervention of director. An extrapolation of his segment Where is My Romeo? (which seems like a experimental doodle in comparison) in To Each His Own Cinema (2007), Shirin presents us an audience in a movie theatre, made up mostly of women, played wonderfully by over a hundred professional actresses, watching a period melodrama based on the love triangle between king Khosrow, princess Shirin of Armenia and Farhad, the ace mathematician and sculptor. No, we do not get to watch one frame of the film that is playing in the theatre. Instead, what we get is a film whose imagery is constructed entirely using close-ups of the audience’s reaction to the movie they’re watching while the soundtrack is that of the movie being seen. Emotions run the gamut – empathy, sympathy and apathy – as Kiarostami’s mildly differential and subtly accentuated lighting lovingly captures each contour of these beautiful women’s faces.

One familiar with the works of Kiarostami would know how the director uses the film screen as a kind of mirror for introspection. Be the mirror pointed towards the society at large, as in Homework (1989) and Ten (2002), or towards cinema, like in Close-Up (1990) and Five (2003), or towards the director himself, as in The Wind Will Carry Us (1999) and Life, And Nothing More… (1991), Kiarostami’s cinema has always flourished on this dialectic between reality and its reflection on screen. Here, in Shirin, he turns the mirror towards us – the viewers in the theatre – as we become our own audience. As a result, our reactions get tied to those of the audience on screen. We smile when they laugh and we are moved when they break down. We are surprised at every small twitch of their eyebrows, every casual gaze away from the screen, every mild shudder of theirs, and every tear that reaches their lips. Shirin make us privy not only to all our gestures and emotions which we are usually oblivious to, when sitting disarmed in the darkness of the cinema hall, but also to the taken-for-granted social experience shared by the collective of strangers wherein we all seem to concur emotionally and, yet, differ vastly in the vehemence of our responses.

ShirinShirin takes place in real time. The 90 minutes of the film coincide with the runtime of the film within the film. In some ways, I guess Shirin could be considered a companion film to Jafar Panahi’s Offside (2006), which took off from the fact that women, in Iran, are not allowed to enter football stadiums and which, too, unfolds in real time – 90 minutes again – alongside an international soccer match. While, in Panahi’s film, we are presented with a model of rebellion against existing norms, Shirin hints at conformism. Offside showed us an attempt to change existing reality whereas Kiarostami’s film presets to us a longing to enter an alternate one. There is a glint in all these women’s eyes that betrays their celebration of the film, which seems to perfectly acknowledge and express their own plight, and, consequently, a yearning to enter it forever. They seem to understand that this freedom is going to be short-lived and they would have to return to their oppressive lives soon (One woman has a plaster on her nose. We are tempted to ascribe it to domestic violence). Even though none of the men in the cinema hall get a close-up from Kiarostami, they do have a constant, ghostlike presence in the background. Whenever the scarves on their head slip off, the women snap back to reality to adjust it. One woman even winces when sunlight falls on her face as the door nearby is opened suddenly.

Of course, the first movie (not considering too much the hilarious opening scene of Ross Herbert’s Play It Again, Sam (1972), which too explored the possibility of life merging with art) that comes to mind watching Shirin is Godard’s My Life to Live (1962), in which Godard provides a close up of Nana (Anna Karina) weeping while watching Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) in a movie theatre. Like Godard, Kiarostami links the life of Shirin to that of the audience in the film by making the “story” of the film highly reflexive (Kiarostami might even be referring to Dreyer’s film, given the French connection of the film in the form of Juliette Binoche). Following Khosrow’s death, the princess asks her friends: “Are you shedding these tears for me, Shirin? or for the Shirin that hides in each one of you?”. This is as overt as Kiarostami’s film gets. The world in the film, too, is highly patriarchal, with the fate of Shirin being decided by power games played by men – kings, sons and lovers – alone (“Damn this game of men that we call love!”). By impartially cutting from one face to another, instead of dwelling on a single face, Kiarostami might just be making a statement of generalization and pinning the film down to the situation in present-day Iran. This notion becomes even more plausible given that the love triangle between Khosrow, Farhad and Shirin is essentially a contest between the government, an artist and a woman.

ShirinDespite its avant-garde and nonconformist nature, surprisingly, Shirin works well as an experiment in popular genre cinema – the one zone that the director has been reluctant to get into. Shirin proves, at least as far as modern day genre cinema is concerned, that sound is more important than the visuals if instant gratification is aimed for. It is certainly easier to keep track of and engage ourselves in a film when we look away from the screen than when we close our ears while watching the images. In Shirin, not once are we given visuals from the film within the film, but we are clearly able to understand its structure and chronology. There are flashbacks in the film that we never miss. Action scenes play out in our minds vividly (with reduced ASL, of course!) and voices are immediately matched with stereotypes that have been given to us through the ages. In a humourous moment, we see a mildly tearful woman break down completely when the orchestral music swells. This is genre cinema being taken apart to reveal its manipulation, folks. Kiarostami removes the redundant video track, so to speak, and adds a new one to counterpoint the soundtrack instead of reinforcing it. So, in a sense, Kiarostami moves both towards and away from genre cinema simultaneously. In the director’s own words: “It is a combination of both freedom and restriction.

Kiarostami once said the following in an interview which sums up so effectively his whole body of work and especially Shirin:

“A filmmaker has to be conscious about his responsibility. I always wish to remind the audience that they are watching a film. You see, it is very dangerous to make the audience more emotionally engaged than they need to be. In the darkness of the cinema, people are so innocent. It makes them feel that everything is closer and stronger. That is why we should not make them even more emotional: People need to think when they watch films, not to be robbed of their reason… I make half movies. The rest is up to the audience to create for themselves“

Kiarostami’s idea of cinema is one that requires the physical presence of an audience for the completion of the enterprise that the filmmaker has set off (“There is no such thing as a movie before the projector is switched on and after the theatre’s lights are turned off.” he says in another interview). Shirin is yet another half movie in the director’s filmography not only in the sense that it provides us with only one half of the melodrama – the soundtrack – being played, but also because it leaves it to us to decide the connotations of this bizarre marriage between an expressionistic soundtrack and a realistic imagery. In fact, Shirin is made of numerous such interactions between the prime elements of Kiarostami’s cinema. Throughout the film, there are rich conversations between sound and image (by direct opposition between generic and non-generic forms), the past and the present (The women seem to be able to identify themselves with a fictional character living in a distant past), fiction and reality (As always with Kiarostami, one isn’t able to separate what was scripted and what was spontaneous), the women and the film they are watching and Kiarostami’s film and us. And that is one of the reasons why Shirin is best watched in a theatre (It’s kind of like watching the last chapter of that Tarantino movie!), where, for once, we would be tempted to take a look around.

[Where is My Romeo (2007)]

Dinner For One (1995)
Abbas Kiarostami
France/Iran
1 Min.

 

Abbas Kiarostami’s short for Lumiére and Company (1995), the film made to commemorate a century of cinema, is arguably the best of the 40 odd films in the compilation. The short films were to be made using the earliest camera that the Lumiére siblings had devised and in accordance with three basic rules, aimed at replicating the filming constraints prevalent a hundred years ago – the films could run for more than a minute, they had to be filmed using a static camera and no artificial sound or light could be used. Kiarostami, being the iconoclast he is, breaks one of the rules instantly by making sound a critical part of his film. Titled “Dinner for One”, the short film shows us two eggs being fried on a pan placed over a hot stove. Meanwhile, on the soundtrack, a woman (voiced by none other than Isabelle Huppert) on the phone urges the person (invisible to us, presumably a man) to pick up the phone and talk to her. She seems to know that he is in the house and, yet, is not willing to pick up the phone. The man, on the other hand, continues to fry the two eggs (a couple?) without paying any heed to the call. Proving once more, as he has so consistently done in his marvelous career, that minimalism actually means maximum utilization of available resources, Kiarostami presents a film that can well be regarded as a crash course in minimalism by one of the greatest exponents of the school. Having us see just a couple of eggs being fried and hear an unanswered phone call, Kiarostami paints a heartbreaking portrait of failed relationships and unrequited love.

Mashgh-e Shab (1989) (aka Homework)
Abbas Kiarostami
Persian

Punishment means getting beaten up.”

 

Homework

There are a few directors whose films I can never say no to. More Jarmusch? Yes please. More Herzog? You bet. More Kubrick? Is there even a question? Abbas Kiarostami clearly belongs to this pantheon. Trust Kiarostami to come up with something completely new and radically profound. In what may be his greatest work to date, Homework (1989), he pulls off something that world directors have been struggling to even script. But more than the content, what baffles us about all his films, more so in Homework…

Homework is, quite predictably, a plotless film. It involves the director interviewing some first graders about why they don’t complete their homework on time. If you are tempted to ask what ever can be interesting about it, please think again. Using what are decidedly banal questions, Kiarostami emphatically derives and establishes social, cultural, political, emotional and even moral patterns prevalent in the contemporary Iranian society in a fashion no spectacular cinema can provide. Without ever being overtly controversial, he successfully exposes the national mentality through the words of children that indicate the society’s complacency towards violence and the influence of the extremely competition-oriented behavior of the west.

“What do you like more – cartoons or homework?” is the question that he asks the children, who invariably reply that they prefer the latter. They are obviously lying and proved so when they contradict themselves in the succeeding questions. But why should they lie? It can be seen that they are aware of the presence of the camera and realize that someone watching them would directly mean prosecution for their petty crimes. Kiarostami then asks them the meaning of punishment. The children are quick to answer unanimously that punishment means getting beaten up with a waist band. He then goes on to ask them what encouragement means which too produces some interesting trends. Also seen in parallel is the tendency of the children to desire top grades and look at anything below that as poor. And encouragement for them seems to be a causal commodity that follows only these top grades.

The emotional responses of the children are simple and their priorities, straight-forward. They try to save their skin but also try not to implicate anyone in the process. They want to be fearless, patriotic and go war against Iraq but, in accordance with the morals they have been taught, do not like fights at home. The passivity of the adults towards domestic violence is alarmingly evident and the children seem to be happy enough to continue the tradition. The freedom of choice and of preference for indifference over involvement seems to have been overridden by the authoritarian and one-dimensional nature of the educational system, which in turn reflects the political-ideology and history of the country.Kiarostami integrates such macroscopic facets into a disarmingly and deceivingly simple format that one wonders if censorial prohibition is a hindrance to handle controversial subjects at all.

Earlier in the film we are shown the school’s prayer song that contains anti-Saddam lines interspersed with lines in praise of God. We also come to know that this theological element runs deep into the education system and into the figures of speech. The choice of Faith is removed and the morals made black and white. So is the cinema that the kids watch – based on war between Iran and Iraq with altruistic Iranian soldiers and Iraqi baddies. I must say that sadly, the same patterns would be revealed if such a film was made in other countries too. There is, however, a healthy pattern that is visible too. Almost all the parents seem to be illiterate and the kids seem to be helped by their sisters. Clearly, the awareness about the importance of education, especially girls’, seems to have spread largely in comparison to the previous generation.

Interestingly, there are two segments where adults speak about this homework issue to Kiarostami. I initially disliked this idea as it seemed like a tacked up summary of the film so far. But a closer inspection revealed that these guys were as camera-conscious as the kids themselves. Only that these guys were crafty enough to hide their lies and seem like being utterly objective about it all.It is extremely difficult to pin them down with their statements but it is observable that they were both trying to exonerate themselves of the blame (a laRashomon), and to criticize the state of the educational system. So eventually, no one speaks the truth in the film except the film itself. And in some ways,Kiarostami scores over Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) which at least provided a humanitarian glimmer at the end.

Like his extremely acclaimed Close Up (1990) that was to follow, Homework’s biggest success is its meditation of the nature of the medium and the tag of reality that goes with it. It is known that Kiarostami never hesitates from letting his audience know that there is a camera in operation during the film. Kiarostamiquotes:

A filmmaker has to be conscious about his responsibility. I always wish to remind the audience that they are watching a film. You see, it is very dangerous to make the audience more emotionally engaged than they need to be. In the darkness of the cinema, people are so innocent. It makes them feel that everything is closer and stronger. That is why we should not make them even more emotional: People need to think when they watch films, not to be robbed of their reason … I make half movies. The rest is up to the audience to create for themselves.

Furthermore, in Homework, even his characters are conscious of the film tools.Kiarostami crosscuts the interviews with shots of the cinematographer behind his camera – the omniscient eye – to remind us that we are watching a film and the characters that they are being watched in a film. In essence, he removes the transparency of the camera from his cinema and makes it an opaque and often intrusive object for us and the characters. Kiarostami’s technique is perhaps the smoothest form of Brechtian alienation employed in modern cinema. He trivializes the film image by exposing the tricks of the trade, yet this knowledge of the truth is ironically what makes it so complex. Like the classic case of the Schrödinger cat, reality seems to be altered by the presence of the film camera, proving that reality in cinema can indeed be achieved only through artifice and by undoing the consciousness induced by the camera.

An additional layer of complexity is added by the presence of Kiarostami, the director (over Kiarostami, the interviewer). Two possible answers evolve when one thinks how Kiarostami might have carried out the film. One – he might have told the parents about his project about homework and the parents’ involvement in it (as he does in the first scene to an admirer, possibly one of the two adults in the film). In this case, the parents would have been quick to ‘condition’ their children in order to save their faces and prepare the kids with all the statements required to conceal truth. This would be an indirect and psychologically complex way of directing children by actually directing their parents. Or Two – he might have hinted to the children that the information they provide will be delivered to their parents and teachers. This would also shape up the stimuli of the children who would try to evade the waist belts. In either case, Kiarostami’s point turns out true – that children are being made victims of a violent game of power, ego and greed of the adults.

Homework is an epic film. Not in its spectacle, but in its scope and implications. It is too profound, too complex and too vast for words. Both its form and content are uniquely and completely cinematic to the point of redefining its boundaries. This is a film that shows why the perspective of a director is more important than his ambitions. A must-see.

Bad Ma Ra Khahad Bord (1999) (aka The Wind Will Carry Us)
Abbas Kiarostami
Persian

“Well, since I’m good, can you get me a bowl to fetch milk?”
 

What would cinema be without Abbas Kiarostami? Watching his films is a process of unlearning cinematic conventions and relearning the humanity within. He has time and again proved that the audience can be emotionally stimulated and for the right reason, without ever engaging them in the film. The Wind Will Carry Us (1999) is a testament why he never sacrifices Kiarostami the humanist for Kiarostami the filmmaker. The moral questions – of choices, of priorities and of conscience – which the film presents seem pertinent now, in these tough times, more than ever. I can guarantee that one ready to confront them would have understood him(her)self better at the end of it all. All it takes is a little patience and a willingness to introspect after the film has ended.

the-wind-will-carry-usMore than the apparent issue of communication and the lack of it, The Wind Will Carry Us seeks to question the definition of communication. Sure, the protagonist Behzad (played to perfection by Behzad Dorani) does have a cellular phone and the speedy vehicle to move around, but what was the use of it all? He is shortsighted in more ways than one and seems to forget details that he had voluntarily gathered moments ago (Ironically, the villages consider him to be a telecommunications engineer!). The villagers, on the other hand, are scientifically handicapped but that seems to be utterly insignificant. They commute very easily, they have multiple paths to the same destination for easy or quick access and they seem to be able to even move vertically though the village using ladders and the serpentine alleys. They seem to know who lives where and at what distance a resource is to be found. This partly is reflected in their priorities in life and their attitudes towards it – gratefulness for the present and a reverence for the future.

The Wind Will Carry Us can very well serve as a commentary on how the developed nations and the Third World look at each other, but that would only be of minor significance compared to the seething humanity within and around the film. More than anything, The Wind Will Carry Us is a meditative self-portrait, or rather an attempt to look at oneself objectively. Kiarostami observes his own intrusion in the lives of unsuspecting locals and in general, the exploitative and manipulative relationship that exists between the filmmaker and his subjects. He drops enough hints suggesting this in the film.  At one point in the film, Behzad is seen shaving facing the camera as the latter assumes the role of a mirror, which is not much different from what Kiarostami uses it as. Unlike in other Kiarostami “car trips”, the filmmaker protagonist is often filmed head on while driving the car, thereby obtaining a literal and figurative reflection of the camera on his spectacles – an indication that the person in front of the camera is not very unlike the one behind it.

Behzad, his alter ego, is the symbol of encroachment. He arrives ominously in his giant vehicle, tearing through the serene landscape of the secluded village, with a motive that is no more selfish than ours. His work involves the demise of an elderly woman of the village who is presently on her deathbed. Behzad spends time hoping against nature for the process to happen fast but things are not to be so. His attempt to strike up conversations with the village folk, more often than not, turns them off and renders them uncommunicative.  In a remarkable scene, Behzad, in a fit of frustration, overturns a turtle on to its shell and leaves the place. The turtle, after a minor struggle, corrects itself and carries on with its journey. A while later, after he realizes that there is nothing now to fret over, he comes to understand how inconsequential his attempts are to dictate nature are, much like his car which is dwarfed by the colossal landscape.

In the court sequence of his marvelous film Where The Green Ants Dream (1984), Werner Herzog cuts away from the centre of attraction after the tribal chief starts unraveling a package that supposed to contain a sacred emblem as a sign of respect for the divine and the unknown. In The Wind Will Carry Us, Kiarostami keeps a host of characters off-screen and denotes their presence employing just subdued voices and Behzad’s response to them. Nor does he show us the interior of the houses in the village. The camera is fixed on Behzad throughout the film but prefers to stay at the doorstep even if he doesn’t. And this is where the contrast between Behzad the actor and Kiarostami the director– the past and the present of Abbas Kiarostami, his mistakes and their correction – is established. It is a reverence that Kiarostami seems to have gotten the hard way. A reverence that acknowledges the right of things to exist as they are.

The final scene is perhaps the most heartwarming and ethical Kiarostami has ever filmed. Behzad, convinced that his stay of two weeks has taken its toll on both him and the villagers, decides to do away with the final physical traces of the village on him, After washing the dust off the windshield of his car, he throws into a stream the last remnant he possesses – a thigh bone that he picked up earlier – in an attempt to restore the spiritual balance of the land that he may have disturbed. Like Herzog who has consistently been against the intrusion of man in the clockwork of nature, Kiarostami calls for a “calculated indifference” towards the way various cultures work and a regard for its methods against one’s own judgment. However, it should not be assumed that Kiarostami is lashing out against the domineering and subsequently destructive nature of man. Behzad is anything but despicable. He merely acts by impulse and his notions of right and wrong, which may well differ from the villagers’. By creating a multi-dimensional protagonist whose morals and desires are very much our own, Kiarostami’s gesture comes out both as a token of heartfelt atonement and a subtle appeal for recognition and preservation of diversity.

Five Dedicated To Ozu (2003) (aka Five)
Abbas Kiarostami
Silent

“…”

Five

Unquestionably, Kiarostami’s films are unlike any film ever seen, leave alone Iranian ones.  But one film that is extreme and decidedly avant-garde even by Kiarostami’s standards – Five: Five long takes dedicated to Yasujiro Ozu (2003) – has turned out to be one of his finest works. In what can be described as a super-slow version of Koyaanisqatsi(1982), Kiarostami presents us five shots of the sea, filmed during various times of the day, at various distances and of varying lengths. Kiarostami quietly integrates the five elements of nature to create a film that is as warm as Ozu’s and as puzzling as his own, in a way, forming a singular connection between them.

The first shot shows us a piece of log lying on the beach as the incoming waves unsuccessfully try to pull it in. There is instant engagement here. I do not know about others, but I have spent hours watching such insignificant dramas of nature – the wind trying to knock off a fruit of a tree, a crow trying to pull out a twig that is stuck and the waves trying to sweep my feet at the beach. There is complete focus on the log and the incoming waves here. These are the only two components of the frame and these alone form the foreground of the image. Interestingly, this is the only segment where the camera actually moves in order to accommodate the object under consideration. Kiarostami shows us a very ordinary piece of event, but our mind conjures up a narrative of sorts – with its own formulation of safe-space and danger zones of the “narrative”.  And things become complicated as the log breaks off and the larger part is swept off into the sea. Though completely unrigged, this “turning point” makes our attention shuttle between the drifting piece in the water and the struggling one on the beach. Is Kiarostami alluding to Floating Weeds?!

In the second one, we are shown the image of the sea as seen from an embankment on the beach. We are drawn into the horizontal waves that decorate the widescreen in the form of broad white lines. Gradually, we have people walking across in front of us pushing the sea into the background. People of all ages flood the screen in many amusing ways, regularly diverting our attention from the sea. There are even critters that wallow into the frame and easily gather focus. There is a feeling of watching a Béla Tarr film – but only in a sense. That is, in Tarr’s films, the dynamics of the foreground, though initially attractive, feel like clockwork after a while. Slowly, we sense the background – the still life – gathering a presence of its own and even imposing itself upon us. There is a feeling of intimidation and ill-omen whereas here, it works the other way round. The patterned backdrop is quite fascinating to start with, but as the humans start coming in the foreground, our attention is naturally devoted to them. We start studying them and even start expecting some new ones (I was hunting Jafar Panahi’s cameo). This segment ends the way it started – the sea alone occupying the stage.

The next shot presents us the sea sandwiched between the sky and land. This is shot from considerable distance and looks like a painting. It is early morning and there are dogs lying on the beach. Almost nil action takes place notwithstanding the stray movements made by the canines. Everything is in the background here as opposed to the previous two shots. Gradually, the contrast of the image starts reducing and after one point we are unable to differentiate between the sky and the sea. The shot fades to white after all the three elements of nature dissolve into one another.

The fourth shot is perhaps the most “interesting” of all. In a direct homage to Ozu’s style, Kiarostami places the camera at knee level and in close proximity to the sea. Soon, the screen is infested by ducks of various sizes, colours and gaits. This is the as close to comedy as the film gets. The ducks move at almost a fixed speed and their footwork seems like a musical rhythm.  Suddenly, all the ducks that have gone past retreat as a bunch as if in a panic. The concentration is completely on the foreground here and the sea becomes no more than a comfortable backdrop.

The final shot lasts about half an hour and is the boldest of them all. It is night time and we can hear the loud croaking of frogs and barking of dogs. And it is only after a while we come to know that we are staring at the still sea. The reflection of the moon appears in a distorted way on the dirty surface of the water. Once more we desire the reflection to settle down to form the perfect circle. The notions of foreground and background are completely eliminated as the pulsating moon appears like a milk drop that falls into abysmal vacuum. And just when everything seems unperturbed, rain comes. The annoying frogs disappear and so does the reflection. Kiarostami has probably shot this in time lapse as the rain stops suddenly to restore the noisy atmosphere. The moon “settles down” and soon disappears behind the clouds. It is interesting to see that all the dynamics of the scene here is off-screen and their presence indicated only by the sounds they produce. We stare at nothing but dark blank space for most of the time but never once lose hold of what is happening in the film’s environment. A little later, we hear the rooster’s call and sure enough, bright sunlight strikes the image to reveal the clear blue water. This part is truly a revelation as one feels a fresh lease of life in the hitherto mundane and contemplative frame.

There is naturally a problem with a film that is as provocative as “Five”. How much of the content we derive out of the film is intentional? Was there a set of objectives for the director while filming the footage? Was every element in the mise-en-scene completely controlled by the filmmaker? Would the film have been different if each shot was prolonged or shortened?  Here lies the classic tale of the emperor and his clothes. With a name as great as Kiarostami’s in the title cards, one directly gets ready to attach significance to the images, however banal they are. At the same time, it is but natural to feel awkward while watching such material. There is that absurd feeling of watching a Stan Brakhage film (I’ve seen over two dozen of his films and I must admit I can’t recognize most of them!) to the point of laughing at yourself. You get the feeling that Kiarostami is probably toying with his audience after all.

But surely, this isn’t anything like what Warhol did. Here is a filmmaker who understands what Ozu stood for and how big a responsibility the title of the film places on him. A filmmaker in the tradition of Ozu himself, Kiarostami does not go for cheap attention using complicated mise-en-scene and steady-cam shots. He doesn’t just see the world but observes it. He studies the relation between the various planes of the image. He experiments with the distance of observation and the range of emotions they evoke. In essence, he analyzes the subjective and objective components of the cinematic image never once losing the most important ingredient of his entire body of work – humanity. And that is why “Five”stands as a fitting tribute to one of cinema’s greatest humanists, by another.

Ayneh (1997) (aka The Mirror)
Jafar Panahi
Persian

“I’m not acting anymore.”


Ayneh

Iranian cinema has been getting a lot of attention in this first decade of the new century and rightly so. The contribution of stalwarts like Abbas Kiarostami is being progressively applauded with Kiarostami himself being called as the unofficial leader of the whole movement. And if we jot down the names of the most vital of his Iranian contemporaries, we would almost instantly arrive at one name that has been surprising the audience with the sheer power of the films he has been creating with shocking consistency – Jafar Panahi. The charming The White Balloon (1995) put him on the world cinema map firmly and films like The Circle (2000) just added to his glory. But a quiet little film that he made in between these two films, Ayneh (1997), is one that has intrigued me for years and has made me return to it multiple times.

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After seven months, 700 tags and several thousand keystrokes, The Seventh Art reaches its 100th post (or as many Indian bloggers would like to call it, my 100th ranting/rambling/musing). First off, my thanks to the handful of readers who have been increasing my hit counter over the months. It couldn’t have been possible without you (Well, it could have been, but thanks anyways). So being the 100th post, I would like to take the opportunity to scribble about an event that celebrated the number 100 in some other way.

It is now a widely accepted fact that the Lumiére brothers are the fathers of the seventh art, though a few films had already been made as early as 1888 (Roundhay Garden Scene, Dickson’s experiment, Carmentica et al). Their series of films starting in 1895 notably Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat and Employees Leaving the Lumière Factory have become pieces of historical interest. It is said that the audience fled the theatre thinking that a real train is heading their way!

Take a look at the piece:

Cut to 1995. To commemorate the event of 100 years of cinema, a project called Lumiére et Compagnie (Lumiére & Company) was undertaken. Its intention was to gather the most important contemporary directors at one place and give them a task – To make a film using the same camera that was used by the Lumiére brothers!. Not just that, there were three more rules:

1.    The movie should not be more than 52 seconds.
2.    The directors should not used synchronized sound
3.    Only 3 takes allowed!

The film as such follows the directors making their films with the bizarre device interspersed with miniature interviews upon various questions including their views on mortality of cinema and their own motives for taking up the medium in order to express themselves. Some interesting opinions come out during these sections.

Lumiere and Company - Gabriel AxelThe list of 41 directors by itself is mind boggling with the likes of Abbas Kiarostami, David Lynch, Theo Angelopoulos, Michael Haneke, Zhang Yimou, Wim Wenders and many more (See Tags for the list!). The result- 41 minute films with totally different perspectives. Abbas Kiarostami’s “Dinner for One” is typically his style as he makes an omelet.  David Lynch’s bizarre piece, as usual, set in a quiet little suburban town that has more mystery than meets the eye is an instant hit. Zhang Yimou’s “cultural piece” near the China Wall, Gabriel Axel’s tracking sot of the various arts and Wim Wenders’ extension of Wings of Desire are all immensely amusing to watch.

Here is David Lynch’s piece for you:

And Spike Lee’s cute one:

The film by itself is not very extraordinary. But it is all about the event and the massive operation of bringing all the masters under one place and putting them under such constraints that no one else would dare to in any other year. A celebration of Cinema and one for the cinephiles.