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).


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!

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



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.