Zamani Barayé Masti Asbha (2000) (aka A Time For Drunken Horses)
Bahman Ghobadi
Farsi/Kurdish

 

A Time For Drunken HorsesThe pacific snows of wintertime Kurdistan belie the despair and brutality that simmers underneath. This is a world where adults indulge in fist fights over daily wages while children make the most enormous of sacrifices to protect each other. A zone where a mule, a child and a girl are pretty much interchangeable assets. Straddling these awkwardly defined worlds of childhood and adulthood is Madi (Madi Ekhtiar-dini), a teenager whose physical disability renders him no stronger than a three-year old, and his brother and his sisters who intend to take him across the borders, into Iraq, to have him operated. These are motherless children who have just lost their father in a land mine accident, make a living by smuggling goods across the border and, yet, go to school in a subconscious belief that education will save them someday. Although not as unnerving as the director’s nearly otherworldly Turtles Can Fly (2004) or as lighthearted as Marooned in Iraq (2002), Bahman Ghobadi’s A Time for Drunken Horses (2000) still remains a stark portrait of the life and times in a war-torn land where danger lurks at every step, literally. Ghobadi’s is the kind of film that Zavattini, De Sica and Rossellini would give a standing ovation to. Favoring long shots and shooting on-location (which happens to be the director’s homeland), Ghobadi strikingly integrates his protagonists into their surroundings in a manner that highlights what the tiny, tender beings are up against. Despite that, one can’t help but accept all those adages about the artificiality of borders and the invincibility of the human spirit, when, finally, the little boy cuts through the national fence and leads his drunken horse, carrying Madi, towards redemption, perhaps.

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)]

Tabiat-e Bijan (1974) (aka Still Life)
Sohrab Shahid Saless
Persian

“It means that you’re retired now.”

 

Still LifeSohrab Shahid Saless’ Still Life (1974) is, barring Kiarostami’s Homework (1989), the greatest Iranian film that I’ve seen. To see that even during the pre-revolution era, when the escapist cinema of Hollywood and its imitations were much more popular, such uncompromising and quality films were being made is both surprising and hope-instilling. Typically European in its form but uniquely Iranian in its content, Still Life is the kind of movie that contemporary contemplative cinema takes off from. Produced by a newly formed group called Kanun-e Sinemagaran-e Pishro (Centre for Avant-Garde Filmmakers), that also produced some of Mehrjui’s early features, the film was one of the many films that were discontented with the existing way of governance. Although never overtly political, Still Life not only manages to critique deeply the disparity that existed between villages and cities of the country during the Shah’s regime, but also remains one of the best works from the country till date. Let’s wait and see what the present-day Iran brings in reply to this masterwork.

Still Life documents a period in the life of Mohammad Sardari (Bonyadi), a veteran employee of the railway services living in a rural part of the country and whose sole job is to close and open a railway crossing few times a day. He is waiting for a festival bonus from the department that is long pending. He is married and his wife (Zahra Yazdini) supplements his income by weaving carpets and carrying out minor tailoring jobs. We are only given such utterly quotidian details from his everyday life – he operates the railway gates in the morning, he rests at his accommodation near the crossing, he returns home for lunch, he goes back to operate the crossing for the evening train, he returns home for dinner and he sleeps – but that is all there is to Sardari. We are also given a few glimpses of his son who returns home for a day from the military service and a bunch of customers who exploit Sardari by underpaying him for the carpets his wife has woven. One day he receives a letter from the railway department that intimates him of his retirement from service. Sardari is unable to comprehend the meaning of the letter and starts to believe that he has been unreasonably given the sack. Heartbroken, he decides to go to the department headquarters located in the city and find out the reason.

Saless’ style is remarkable here. Almost throughout the entire film, he presents us long, uninterrupted extreme long shots of Sardari going about doing his routine at the railway crossing. Even when the old man is home, Saless and cinematographer Hushang Baharlu give us mostly medium and long shots that are filmed with the camera placed at the ground level, sometimes reminiscent of Ozu.  In either case, Saless’ eye is that of an ethnological documentarian – interested in what his protagonist is doing, but never wanting more than that. The mise en scène is spare, stripped down to bare essentials, with a chunk of space between the characters and the camera. Even gestures, dialogues and movements are reduced to an absolute minimum. Watching the indoor scenes in Still Life is like gazing at an aquarium in which the fishes indifferently perform the same mundane activities over and over again. Halfway into the film one is acquainted with the routines of the old man and his wife. He comes home, rolls his cigarette, and starts smoking and she continues to stitch clothes and weave carpets. Even when their son returns home after a long time, conversations are perfunctory and the character functions are unhampered.

Still LifeBut what is singular about Still Life is the way it handles cinematic time. Saless, while letting us witness individual scenes unfold in real time – be it entire dinner sessions or railway transitions – without hindrance, shuffles the order of these scenes in a way that disregards chronology. In one scene in the film we see the couple’s son return home and in the next one, he is missing. And then he’s back in the subsequent one. Soon one notices that most of the scenes could have taken place in any arbitrary order in real time and each of those orders is essentially irrelevant, given the idea of the film. What’s the use of chronology when time repeats itself by going in cycles? In Jeanne Dielman (1976), Chantal Akerman used each day of the protagonist life’s to illustrate its microscopic deviation from the previous. She seemed to be essentially constructing a spiral out of Jeanne’s life – a structure that made her life seem to go in circles but which, in actuality, ends only in annihilation. Saless, on the other hand, treats time as some form of stray deadlock that could only be resolved by an alien intervention. Within this loop, all time is one and each day is virtually indistinguishable from the other.

In one scene that comes towards the end of the film, Sardari visits the railway headquarters to seek an explanation for the retirement notice. In the building, he notices a pair of officers scanning through old photographs reminiscing about the past and talking about plans for the weekend, And just there, Saless provides the most overt and powerful contrast between the life in rural and urban Iran. The officers with a lush past and a busy future stand directly in opposition to Sardari, whose past is almost non-extant and whose future promises nothing different. Still Life would definitely form an interesting companion piece to Antonioni’s Blowup (1966), which seems to resonate more and more with the years. Both Thomas (played by David Jennings) and Sardari are perfectly alienated creatures who pass through life without an iota of an idea about their place in the world. Only that their geographical locations are poles apart. Thomas is one of cinema’s many alienated urbanites trying to impart a meaning to their lives. On the other hand, Sardari is the rare villager who believes that life will go on as it is and who is nudged to action only when that belief is shattered. But in essence, both of them are individuals wallowing in their own world unable to snap out of it.

Still LifeEven with all its serious themes, Still Life isn’t entirely humourless. There is a constant undercurrent of dark comedy throughout the film (In a masterstroke of black humour, Saless has Sardari regularly tune the alarm clock!), but, like all the other elements of the film, it remains extremely subtle and never thrusts itself upon us. Instead, Saless builds one stretch of time upon another, elevating the film from the territory of mere narrative cinema to the realm of the philosophical, the experiential and the contemplative. In the shattering last scene of the film, we see Sardari, who is now forced to accept the reality that he can no longer work at the railway crossing, vacating his quarters. After he loads the cart with his possessions, he decides to check the house one last time for any object he may have forgotten. As he stands in the middle of the now-empty house, gazing at the room of whose inanimate furniture he had become a part of through the years, Sardari notices the final remnant of his life at this place – a piece of mirror hanging on the wall. He reaches out to collect it and, in the process, looks at himself for the first time in the film. Mohammad Sardari has indeed become old.

 

Also published at Unspoken Cinema

Khesht Va Ayeneh (1965) (aka Brick And Mirror)
Ebrahim Golestan
Persian

“Do you see those panes, those windows? Behind each, there is an evil eye, a wicked tongue, a jealous black heart, each detesting the other and all unified to detest each other.

 

Ebrahim Golestan’s Brick and Mirror (1965) begins inside a taxi. The man at the wheel changes the radio station and a voice begins to narrate:

“The night had settled over the forest. The hunter trod through the thicket stealthily. Danger throbbed in the dark. Fear filled the forest. And terror sparked the night. The night was hard. The night seemed long. Nothing was reflected in the eye of the owl but anguish. And fear was life’s only sign. The hunter trod stealthily through the night. Beasts were staring. And the eyes of the thousand-eyed perils were wide. It was dark. And in the dark, there was no one to tell the hunter and the hunted who was the hunter and who was the hunted.”

The camera, meanwhile, gazes safely from behind the windshield, the vast city of Tehran. Night has well fallen and all the street lights are up. It seems like thousands of gigantic eyes staring at the camera, hiding behind the darkness, waiting to pounce on the unsuspecting taxi. After a couple of minutes, we cut to the face of the driver – a thirty-ish gentleman resembling De Niro during his prime. Golestan’s composition is immediately striking. The taxi driver, here and throughout the film, is placed at the margin of the frame, with the dark city pushing him to the boundaries. One gets the feeling that this one might just be the (premeditated) Iranian reply to Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976).

Brick and Mirror

Brick and Mirror is unlike anything I have seen from Iran, for it is my introduction to Iranian cinema before the revolution. With the world’s eyes keenly focused on Iran, – politically or otherwise – there prevails a risk of drawing a monolithic portrait of the country. Watching Brick and Mirror, one can see how starkly different the two ages are and how drastic a cultural shift its citizens were subject to after 1979. Golestan’s film, more or less, also testifies the strong relation between France and Iran that prevailed during the Shah’s regime. He, evidently and interestingly, draws inspiration from both Godard and Bresson, apart from incorporating tenets from other famous schools of filmmaking. With complete control over every aspect of the film (writing, directing, editing and producing it by himself), Golestan churns out a film that is clearly Iranian in content, yet could pass of as one of the French New Wave movies.

Brick and Mirror
takes place over the course of 24 hours in the life of this taxi driver, whom we come to know as Hashemi (Zackaria Hashemi). That fateful night, a woman in a veil (apparently played by the iconic Forugh Farrokhzad) boards his taxi and leaves behind a baby. Unable to locate the woman, Hashemi is forced to provide shelter to the child for the night. He is helped by his love Taji (Taji Ahmadi), a woman who works at the local pub. But the most important of all characters in the film is the city of Tehran itself.  The city is also the most powerful of all characters, devouring mentally and physically one character after another. Never has a metropolis been filmed so beautifully yet menacingly. Using the cinemascope judiciously and employing camera movements that are seldom meaningless, Golestan and cinematographer Soleiman Minassian ensnare their characters, like the city itself, surrounding them and locking them to their environment. And how often do we see a tracking shot that is as pregnant with emotion and significance as the final shot of Taji standing at the end of the long, dark corridor of the hospital?

Hashemi and Taji are two well written characters, who complement each other emotionally and ideologically. He is a thorough fatalist, classifying every outcome as good or bad luck. He prefers to live in the dark, literally and figuratively, away from prying eyes of the society. She, on the other hand, is the quintessential existentialist (Again, a possible influence of contemporary French philosophy), believing strongly that we make our own lives and being too prude is no good. But she is also an extreme romantic, always giving Hashemi hope for a new beginning, who seems to shrug off her philosophies (At one point, Golestan even frames Taji in such a way that she appears as one of the photos on the walls of Hashemi’s house). In an explosive scene shot on the streets, both of them plunge into a heated discussion after he delivers the baby to an orphanage against her wishes. The camera tracks in front of them as they walk arguing with each other. And all of a sudden, in a humbling manner, they break into utter silence after a funeral procession cuts through them, reminding the about the futility of their words and the ever tangible presence of death.

Brick and Mirror

Hashemi does bear a striking resemblance to Schrader’s Travis Bickle, in the sense that both of them are marginal characters who are forced to witness a society that is vigorously dragging itself to doom. But the commonality stops at that. While Bickle is an alien frustrated by what he sees in the rear view mirror, Hashemi is the one in that mirror (In one scene, the driver of the taxi that Hashemi boards cribs about his profession and tells the latter that he is lucky not to be a taxi driver). Moreover, Bickle’s decision to do something about it all is exactly contrary to the borderline-agoraphobic Hashemi, who believes it is better to stay low and go through life unnoticed by anyone. True that he comes to know of all the rotten crevices of the city and the breakdown that it is leading to, but, being the determinist that he is, is satisfied with having posters of heroes in his room rather than becoming one. In fact, it is Taji who is closer to Bickle than Hashemi. Only that her search, here, is for inner peace.

Jonathan Rosenbaum describes the film as being Godardian. I doubt if there is any other way to describe it at all.  Take a look at the narrative structure of the film, whose episodic nature and style reminds us of My Life to Live (1962) than any other Godard film. Like the French director, Golestan lets his script freewheel all the way. Characters come and characters go. Their lines are seldom relevant to what is happening. But as always, what they speak is less important than why they speak so. The spirit of the 60s, especially of Paris, seems to show clearly in Tehran too. Intellectualism seems to have taken control over pragmatism and emotionality. People sit all day in pubs philosophizing and indulging themselves with tangential conversations. Consider the scene at the bar where Hashemi arrives, carrying the baby. One of the well dressed gentlemen, out of the blue, begins a monologue about the importance of alphabets in the search for truth and the relation of crossword puzzles to all that (Don’t ask me!). One is reminded immediately of the scene at the pub in Made in U.S.A. (1967), where, too, one of the characters goes on talking about the futility of words and sentences!

Brick and Mirror

Furthermore, Golestan never cares about the progressive coherence of these episodes. He generously shifts gears and tones throughout the film. Hopping regularly between vérité, expressionism, documentary and realism, he concocts something very fresh and unique, even by the New Wave standards. Yes, the jump cuts are there too.  Additionally, Golestan’s shot composition shows influence of Bresson also. Golestan breaks down action into atomic parts with no history or future, attaining the same effect that the French master achieved. Also Bressonian, and one that would go on to become the forte of directors like Kiarostami, is Golestan’s use of off-screen space through sounds. Often, we see that the camera is fixated on certain characters, even when they are not the ones talking. When Hashemi and Taji are out in the streets, their voices are regularly consumed by the noise of the city. One scene would perhaps sum up the entire attitude of the film. There is a sequence at an orphanage where Hashemi is trying to admit the child he is holding. There is also a middle-class woman in the room who, at one point, breaks down revealing that she has been feigning pregnancy all the time. This is an intensely melodramatic moment in the script and the natural reaction for a director’s camera would be to gradually zoom in to the crying lady’s face. Surprisingly, Golestan shows us the face of the receptionist of the orphanage, who turns teary-eyed for a reason that might not at all be related to the drama of the instant.

Almost the whole film, both formally and script-wise, never conforms to the popular law of cause and effect. Golestan refuses to explain everything and seems to want us to not understand the city, much like Hashemi himself.  Who is that crazy female at the hell-hole that Hashemi meets earlier? No answer. What is the guy, whom one might have called a charlatan earlier in the film, doing on the national channel talking about the ethics of living? No answer. Could that female, whom Hashemi sees the second night be the same lady who left the baby in his car the previous day? May be. But surely, all these aren’t merely confusing or distancing devices. Each of these scenes reveals something about the city and the era, in one way or the other. Each of them has indirectly managed to document history – cultural and cinematic. Consequently, now more than ever, it feels that these seemingly stray events are the very elements that can help us perceive better a country that has been unjustly homogenized using, what Brick and Mirror shows us, a faux identity.

The Cinema Of Abbas Kiarostami
Alberto Elena (Translation: Belinda Coombes)
SAQI and Iran Heritage Foundation, 2005
 

Film begins with D. W. Griffith and ends with Abbas Kiarostami

– Jean-Luc Godard

 

The Cinema of Abbas Kiarostami

Thus reads the cover of Alberto Elena’s book “The Cinema of Abbas Kiarostami”, one of the very few books available in English on the works of the Iranian auteur (the only other renowned book is by Jonathan Rosenbaum which is rebuked by some scholars, according to this book). Before anything, I have to say that the book succeeds right away – by giving an update to the film world about the status of those elusive early Kiarostami films that seem to visit certain festivals now and then. I’m not sure if this is one of the best books on an Asian director, but I can testify that this is one of the most well researched books that I’ve read. To get a measure of what I’m saying, consider this: more than a third of the book is dedicated to foot notes, references and bibliography! Mr. Elena meticulously grounds his arguments and theories on numerous articles, theses, interviews and other books, hence developing an unchallengeable set of inferences and managing never to be speculative – an achievement indeed.

Mr. Elena explores Kiarostami’s films in ways that the western critics have seldom cared for. He carefully avoids (and sometimes criticizes) the terms the west uses to describe Kiarostami’s films – humanist, neo-realist, experimental, artistic and universal, to name a few. He takes a stance against the filtering of these movies using western norms and theories. Not once is a comparison to a western filmmaker made or a movement or technique from Europe recalled to elucidate analyses. Mr. Elena emphasizes Kiarostami’s desire to engage the audience in order to complete his films without ever reminding us of similar works of European filmmakers (Bertolt Brecht is not even mentioned in this context). He regards Kiarostami as a truly “Iranian” filmmaker with genuine social and political concerns. In order to justify his position, Mr. Elena refers to a plethora of native Iranian critics who have very aptly pointed out the influence of various facets of classical Persian art on Kiarostami’s works.

This, precisely, is the biggest strength of the book and a critical value-add as far as literature on Kiarostami is concerned. Mr. Elena resorts to Persian poetry – both classical and modern – and demonstrates regularly how Kiarostami’s work is closer to poetry – especially the overtly visual haikus – than any other form of art. He takes examples from Jalaluddin Rumi, Omar Khayyam and Hafez to illustrate Kiarostami’s preoccupations with the illusory nature of everyday reality and the inevitability and the possibilities of death. With the same conviction, he also establishes the influence of the modernists (the new poetry movement of Iran) – Forugh Farrokhzad and Sohrab Sepehri in poetry, Amir Naderi in film and Sadegh Hedayat in literature – on his own films and poetry. Additionally, Mr. Elena draws parallels between Kiarostami’s use of “human figures” and the Persian miniature painting.

But the most rewarding aspect of Mr. Elena’s linking of Kiarostami’s works to the Persian art is his illumination of the Sufi themes in the director’s works. Always (and quite naturally) overlooked in the discussion of the films, the Sufi influence is what makes Kiarostami films very “Iranian”. The emphasis that Sufism places on journeys – inner and physical – evidently finds its way into many of Kiarostami’s films. Kiarostami’s protagonists are almost always seen traveling in cars but what is more important is the metaphysical journey that they subconsciously embark on. Mr. Elena analyzes the various elements of the “Sufi journey” such as the presence of an omniscient Pir (guide) and closeness of man to nature and to the present that are present in some form in the director’s films. This way, he places in perspective even the most obscure and taken-for-granted components that define these works.

As an added bonus but also an ineluctable facet while charting Kiarostami’s career, The Cinema of Abbas Kiarostami examines the political situations in Iran right from the Shah’s oppressive rule, through the Islamic regime that had its own shortcomings, to the relatively liberal yet largely unsatisfactory Khatami democracy. Mr. Elena describes how Kiarostami’s prosperous years at the Kanun (the Center for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults) were actually safer from the supply-demand rules of the movie industry and the excessively stringent and often absurd rules of the censor. And more importantly, he studies how Kiarostami’s films have always been conscious of their society and the politics that governs it. Albeit their cheeky and subversive form, Kiarostami’s films, as Mr. Elena points out, have always reflected the politics of contemporary Iran, be it the economic downturn in the pre-revolutionary period as in The Traveller (1974), the educational and domestic structure of the country as in Homework (1989) or the women’s issue in Ten (2002).

However, like a lot of “definitive” books that are hurt by partiality and pace, The Cinema of Abbas Kiarostami too suffers from abruptness towards the end. Mr. Elena devotes a large chunk of the book for the director’s early short films and medium length features. In fact, a lot of matter-of-fact readings of the films by western critics could have been completely done away with by Mr. Elena, for all these seem to be products of hindsight and over-analysis. The “Koker trilogy” and The Taste of Cherry (1997), too, are discussed in considerable detail and with formidable authority. But from what may be Kiarostami’s most enigmatic and critical film, The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), the book slides downhill. Once the analysis of The Wind Carry Us is hastily completed, Mr. Elena wraps up Kiarostami’s subsequent features – ABC Africa (2001), Ten (2002), Five (2003) and 10 On Ten (2004) – are wrapped up within a few pages in spite of the fertility of the films. Perhaps be Mr. Elena thought that from these films onwards, there are enough printed materials elsewhere for the readers to refer to (The original Spanish version was printed in 2002).

 
Verdict:
 

P.S.: Here is a gargantuan review of the book at Senses of Cinema (which is even bigger than the director’s bio page at their site) that deserves a review of its own!

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.

Ten (2002) (aka 10)
Abbas Kiarostami
Persian

“You are wholesalers. We are retailers”

 

TenThere are not more than a handful of directors who have the special ability to look beyond the boundaries and hop over the conventions of the medium. Abbas Kiarostami, with his radically fresh perspective and consistent streak of “different” films, undoubtedly is in the cream of that list. Read More

Pedar (1996) (aka The Father)
Majid Majidi
Persian

“Mehrolah, your mom has married a police officer”

 

For a large part of the world Majid Majidi’s filmography begins with the disarmingly charming Children of Heaven (1997). But the Iranian auteur had already struck gold a year before the first Oscar nomination from Iran. The themes, style and idiosyncrasies… Read More

Bicycleran (1987) (aka The Cyclist)
Persian
Mohsen Makhmalbaf

“His name is Nasim (Breeze), but he resembles a typhoon. He rides bicycle blindfolded. This man has stopped a train in India with his eyes. In Pakistan, he’s lifted two bulls on a finger and this time he is gonna ride and live on a bicycle for 7 days round the clock.”

 

The cyclistThe objectives, outlooks and needs of different levels of a community, naturally, do not concur. One man’s grief is another man’s pleasure. Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Bicycleran (1987) captures this difference in the context of an event as viewed from people from different sections of the society. Though a bit more dramatic than most films then from Iran, Bicycleran has enough raw power and truth value to be classified under the neo-realistic genre.

Nasim is a Afghani labourer whose wife is sick and is in need of immediate treatment. Times are hard and labourers cannot expect more than 50 Tomans per day for their work. But Nasim’s requirements are higher and he tries everything he can including a feigned suicide attempt to blackmail people into giving money. Finally, through a bookie, Nasim agrees to put up a show where he would be riding a bicycle for 7 continuous days. The show begins amidst a lot of objections and . with time pedestrians and vendors begin to gather around him. Nasim witnesses his own exploitation by various people from different strata of society – vendors making it their sales hub, middlemen betting and common people getting relief from his plight. In spite of a lot of physical, emotional and social obstacles Nasim manages to finish the 7 days. At the time of glory, Nasim is asked to dismount from the bicycle by the reporters. He is indifferent to all the commotion (possibly because of the physical and mental fatigue) and continues to ride in the circular path.

The film can be viewed as an allegory of the struggles of the working class, a society that exploits them and an upper class that views them as objects of amusements. The recurrent themes of roundness that occur through the images of wheels, cycles and structures signify the vicious circle of fate and inevitability that the working class treads in. The film won the best film at the Hawaii Film Festival in 1987.