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On Kiarostami: A Retrospective 1970-1975

When Abbas Kiarostami died this past July after a battle with cancer, there was a veritable deluge of tributes from across the world

Beloved by many cinephiles and even more fellow directors (like his friend Martin Scorsese, who lovingly memorialized him recently, this towering figure of Iranian cinema and culture was a fixture in film conversation, from Tehran to Cannes to Venice. His short The Bread and Alley appeared in 1970, the first production of the newly-founded Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults in Tehran. But it took another two decades and the release of Close-Up to bring him to international prominence.

To hear Kiarostami tell it, this was never much of a problem, or at least not something on the forefront of his mind. He seems always to have been making films for himself. Beguilingly self-reflexive, fixated on the ethics and mysteries of filmic representation itself and with a clear soft spot for children, Kiarostami carved out a unique position for himself. Taken as a whole, his films reflect both a plain-spoken truth-teller and a philosopher of the image, cloaking increasingly complex reflections on texts, viewers, and engagement in a veneer of simplicity.

Still, even as the heartbroken odes to his genius continued in the days that followed, there remained a lingering sense that many of Kiarostami’s films are more known than watched. Even among the cognoscenti, he was never the most approachable of filmmakers, despite the cute kids who populate so many of his images.

While someone like Godard might, in appropriately Godardian fashion, feel comfortable declaring that “cinema begins with D.W. Griffith and ends with Abbas Kiarostami,” more populist commentators differed. Roger Ebert confessed, in a blistering pan of Kiarostami’s film Ten, to being “unable to grasp [his] greatness,” alleging, with all the barely-concealed scorn of a befuddled museum-goer, that “anyone could make a movie like” this. (In fairness, Ebert did love Certified Copy when many others did not.) 

If such a sharp division exists among die-hard cinephiles, imagine how Kiarostami’s films were received by more general audiences. My suspicion is that, outside of some pockets of art film fandom, they simply weren’t received, even though most of his films aren’t really art films at all.

Speaking for myself, Kiarostami was always on that list which we don’t exhibit in mixed company, or only sheepishly make public on a Letterboxd account — the films we know we should’ve seen by now, and really will (we swear). We just haven’t got to them yet.

Determined to remedy that oversight, I’ve embarked on a quest to watch as many as I can get my hands (and eyes) on, and report what I find here. Consider this a remorseful retrospective of (mostly) first-watches.

To those already familiar with Kiarostami’s body of work, perhaps it will remind you of those first encounters and help see the films with fresh eyes (or, alternatively, laugh at me). To those with a more limited familiarity, perhaps it will help put this Iranian master’s art into a more approachable context.

Let’s be honest, though: it’s mostly an excuse to finally view and reflect on a much-admired and discussed body of work that has eluded me thus far. It’s a shame it took Kiarostami’s death to set this in motion, but better late than never.

We begin with the earliest works, dating from 1970 through 1975. These include a number of shorts as well as the heartbreaking, neorealist-indebted The Traveler, which Kiarostami considered his first proper feature.


When The Bread and the Alley appeared in 1970, Kiarostami was 30, emerging from the world of television advertising and credit title design. A 12-minute black and white short, the film launched the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults and told a simple story, one that married pedagogical intent with a neorealist aesthetic that would become characteristic of his style for years.

bread

Its narrative — of a small child trying to figure out how to get past a hungry dog in an alley — is typically unremarkable in and of itself. But even as a young director, Kiarostami marked himself as something of a quiet rebel, with specific ideas about framing, movement, and, especially, time and rhythm, as he explained in 2004.  

“Particularly the unified timeline was attractive to me. The story itself is only twelve minutes long, so there was not much need to break up the time. But I was also aware that breaking up a time frame in order to show the passage of time makes filmmakers submit to clichés and conventions. Therefore it was an interesting challenge for me to bring cinematic time and real time close to each other as much as possible without employing those conventions.”

This same narrative simplicity, focus on children’s small relatable struggles, and thoughtful approach to the aesthetics of time apply to Kiarostami’s next short, Zang-e Tafrih (1972) , about a boy forced to find a new way home after a run-in with other children. The following year, The Experience (longer, but still clocking in at less than hour) finds Kiarostami expanding these approaches into realms that will preoccupy his vision and approach.

Off-camera and non-diegetic sound shape the world of young Mamad, who works in a photography shop and falls in love with a girl out of his league (and class). The presence of the photography shop alone ties The Experience into Kiarostami’s growing focus on representation and image itself.

The Traveler (1974), however, marks the exact moment when Kiarostami became “Kiarostami”. If he had never made another film, The Traveler would remain a classic, a distillation of social concern, neorealist “purity” (to borrow a term from Scorsese’s tribute), astute psychological characterization, and the kinds of beauty that flourish in the margins, available to anyone willing to pay attention.

As it happens, we lucked out. This first masterpiece would be followed by several more. But no less an authority than Akira Kurosawa, who came to this earliest film last, called it out, as Kiarostami told Screen Anarchy:

Well, if there were any changes in my method, it should be reflected in my films. I think best way anyone put it comes from my friend Nogami Teruyo who told me a story. She hesitantly told me the reaction of Kurosawa when he saw my first (feature) film, The Traveler. She said, “I don’t know if I should tell you this because I don’t know if you will take it as a compliment or an insult.” I said, ” No, tell me. Tell me.” It happened that he (Kurosawa) had seen my other films but it was much later that he saw The Traveler. And apparently he said, “Oh that Kiarostami fellow, he hasn’t progressed a bit!”

The Traveler is about a little fuck-up called Qassem. He lives in Malayer, a day’s journey from Tehran, and can’t stop thinking about football. Schooling, friends, basic decency — none of these things are really on Qassem’s mind. He just wants to think about sport. He has pictures of footballers on his wall, organizes village matches in alleys among the kids, shows up late to school and fakes toothaches in the hope that he’ll get a pass. He’s a lot like every little obsessed kid you ever met, if arguably a bit more duplicitous.

Like previous iconic childhood ne’er-do-wells — Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows is a clear influence) — Qassem takes his licks at home and in school, but he’s got bigger things on his mind. Namely, football.

There is an important match in Tehran. Qassem is going to get there, one way or another, despite the facts that a) it’s hours away, and b) he’s a child. The Traveler is the story of how Qassem begs, borrows, and steals his way to a dubious dream, driven by the sort of single-minded passion adult society aims to beat out of the young while secretly admiring it.

Nothing comes easy. A bit of petty theft from his mom fails to bring him particularly close to his goal, and he’s promptly caught and disciplined (fascinatingly, by the school principal, who also goes out of his way to chastise the mother for her failures to raise a virtuous child). Qassem’s attempts to pawn various other items are met with either disinterest or suspicion by local vendors.

Finally, Qassem and his friend Akbar – who, it should be noted, receives no real thanks for his troubles from his myopic buddy — hit upon a different idea. Instead of selling Akbar’s uncle’s box camera, Qassem charges younger school children to take their pictures, despite the rather significant fact that the pair lacks any film for the camera. It is a justly famous scene and a striking precursor to the Kiarostami to come. In a series of jump-cuts, we see the children pose seriously for portraits that will never exist outside the moment (or, for that matter, outside of The Traveler).

The poignant and resonant desire to be recorded is, here and elsewhere, the desire to exist. Qassem’s artifice could be written off as mere duplicity, the desperate act of a selfish child, but it actually taps into a felt need already present in the other children. To be photographed is to become important, but even more, it’s to become real. The Kiarostami twist is his recognition that the authenticity of that existence is founded on a dream, a fiction, a lie. Our personal truths exist only by way of the falsehoods we allow.

With the money from this exploit, combined with the sale of his own alley-football squad’s gear (a transaction he consults none of his friends about, despite the fact they pooled their meager funds to buy it in the first place), Qassem is off to Tehran. He nearly misses his bus, but arrives just in time. He’s nearly refused entry to the stadium, but, with all the unscrupulous canniness he’s already exhibited, it’s no surprise that he weasels his way in, sitting overjoyed with the grown-ups, ready to cheer for his hero on the field.

I won’t ruin the ending of The Traveler, but the film’s insistent sense that Qassem has been skating on thin ice this entire time probably tells you all you need to know, from a narrative standpoint. Its impact should be experienced.

One of the amazing things Kiarostami quietly pulls off throughout his first feature, though, is a resolute refusal to either sentimentalize or condemn Qassem. The final moments of The Traveler are haunting and melancholy. You see them coming without dread or surprise, just a sad sense that of course it will be this way. They arise organically from Qassem’s character and choices, from his social station and the way of the world. Even from the very start for Kiarostami, there will be no fireworks: just the slow, steady unraveling of best-laid plans, depicted with both a distant cool and real empathy for others, even (or especially) in our failures.

These, along with the focus on artifice, will be animating aspects of his career, sometimes rising to the fore and sometimes eclipsed by a constant need for re-invention and imagistic exploration.

But Kurosawa’s amused insight holds true in its essence. The Traveler is a neorealist treatment, a specifically Iranian poeticism gazing back on that tradition while simultaneously announcing concerns which would be refined, subverted, and made increasingly complex over the years.

Thirty-six years later, the film holds up in and of itself as an affecting tale of a small, relatable kid making bad, selfish choices for love. It also points the way toward a future filmography from an affectionate director who never tired of watching and wondering at the small, intense dramas of his world.

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Rick Kelley is interested in overlooked cultural artifacts and outmoded critical theory. He believes in film preservation, horror movies, love stories and dangerous images. Rick also once sold his guitar to buy berries, as well as things he thought would pair well with berries. You can find more of his writing at ludditerobot.com.

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