2000 San Francisco International Film Festival—Part 8

The compassionate gaze

Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami at the San Francisco film festival

By David Walsh
12 June 2000

This is the final article in a series by WSWS Arts Editor David Walsh on the San Francisco International Film Festival, held April 20 through May 4.

It would be difficult to argue that any artist has produced work of a consistently higher quality over the past dozen years than Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. We ought to be grateful. Artistic continuity should not be taken for granted. Under the conditions of generalized intellectual retrogression, confusion and stagnation that dominated in the 1990s there was no guarantee that anyone would continue to strive for artistic truth. Kiarostami was one of those who did. This is an imperishable contribution.

Seven of his films are best known to us: Where Is the Friend's Home? (1987), Homework (1989), Close-Up (1990), And Life Goes on... (1991), Through the Olive Trees (1994), Taste of Cherry (1998) and The Wind Will Carry Us (1999).

It's painful to imagine the human type that could remain unaffected by a viewing of all or some or even one of these films. Art demands complete sincerity, a serious attitude toward human pleasures and difficulties and a feeling for what life might be. Kiarostami has demonstrated these qualities time and again.

We remember almost too much: the boy determined to save his friend from a beating, the “film lover” so desperate to escape his existence that he passes himself off as a director, the poor man—against all odds—relentlessly pursuing love, the intellectual wrestling with the thought of suicide. And there are many more images. Some of the most compelling of girls and women officially excluded by Iranian society—for example, the harried assistant film director in Through the Olive Trees going about her business while attired in that odious medieval get-up; the girls who suddenly appear in Taste of Cherry. I don't know of any more compelling form of social critique.

Everything in Kiarostami's films speaks to the matter at hand. His films direct the spectator toward central human problems. He has deeply-held ideas and feelings. He wants to say certain things about life. So he doesn't waste his time or ours. Nothing has been done merely for effect, to impress the spectator, to enhance the director's reputation. There aren't so many artists like that around, unfortunately. We need more.

Kiarostami makes an appeal to the best in his audience, to its rationality, to its kindness, to its common humanity. We should act differently, he says. Brutality toward children perhaps offends him most.

In The Traveler (1974), his first feature film and screened in San Francisco, Kiarostami addresses many of his favorite themes. A boy, Qassem, in a small town has a difficult life. His family is not particularly affectionate. His teachers care only about keeping their students in line. (The basis of one lesson is a discussion of “discipline” versus “rebellion.”) He loves to play soccer. When he learns his favorite team is playing in Tehran he resolves to attend the game. This involves a considerable effort, including stealing from his parents, swindling his classmates and selling his own team's soccer nets. In the end, exhausted by the effort of getting to Tehran and obtaining a ticket, he sleeps through the match.

There are a number of memorable sequences in the film. One consists of the boy, who is in danger of missing his bus to Tehran, running through the empty streets of his town at night. As an image of loneliness and alienation it rivals the scene in Alfred Hitchcock's Marnie (1964) in which Sean Connery chases Tippi Hedren around the decks of an apparently empty ocean liner.

The most remarkable sequence in the film, however, comes toward the end. While stretched out on the grass outside the stadium Qassem has a dream in which his parents, friends, teachers gather round his prone body and beat him mercilessly. In a film which has its lighthearted moments the short sequence is deeply disturbing. It is impossible to believe that Kiarostami was not addressing more generally the harshness and brutality of life in Iran under the Shah. The Traveler is the first pre-revolutionary Iranian film I've seen and certainly hints at the role artists played, even under conditions of censorship and repression, in encouraging a climate of discontent.

Artists face censorship and repression again in Iran, under different political circumstances. The “dryness” of the situation has had an impact on the cinema too. Is it accidental that Kiarostami's last two films portrayed characters trying to survive in a physical and spiritual desert?

The present situation in the country poses the filmmakers with a set of complicated problems, and not simply artistic ones. Issues of social and historical perspective loom large, as they do everywhere. The Iranian cinema has been justly praised for its humanism. But “humanism” is not a fixed social or political position, it is a moral attitude. And one that often involves a continuous and unresolved movement between two intellectual poles: the rejection of existing conditions and the striving for more “human” ones, on the one hand, and the fatalistic, resigned acceptance (even celebration) of existing reality, on the other. This tension is present in Kiarostami's work and that of other Iranian filmmakers.

In addition to The Traveler, the San Francisco festival presented And Life Goes On..., Close-Up, Where Is the Friend's Home? and The Wind Will Carry Us.

Press conference

Abbas Kiarostami was on hand to receive the film festival's Akira Kurosawa Award, for lifetime achievement in cinema. At an April 29 press conference, introduced by the festival's artistic director, Peter Scarlet, the Iranian director addressed a number of issues.

When asked why things were not spelled out more clearly in his films, Kiarostami noted that he had written “a piece for the Cannes film festival this year where I specifically addressed this question about the cinema of the future.” In his view the critical question is: “How can a viewer participate in the filmmaking process.” In this regard he advances the notion of “the half-made film,” in which “everything should not be made clear. A film that the spectator must complete with his mind. The cinema of the future is the cinema of the viewer and the director.”

I asked about the poem in The Wind Will Carry Us and the poet who wrote it. Kiarostami replied that “the title of the film is the title of a poem by an Iranian poet [Furugh Farrukhzad (1935-67)],” which treats the central conflict in the film, “life in the face of death.” The director observed that he had just come back from a trip to Africa where he had filmed AIDS patients. “I've never seen life and death anywhere so close together,” he went on. “It was terribly sad, it was also extremely exciting to see so much life.” The root of all culture “is life,” he said.

In reply to a question about Close-Up —the remarkable reenactment of an incident in which an unemployed man convinced a wealthy family that he was filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf—Kiarostami explained that he had been planning to make a film about children and pocket money when he'd read the magazine article about the impostor. “When I woke up the next morning it was still in my mind. On the Saturday when we were supposed to start shooting the pocket money film we started the other instead.... I didn't believe that the individuals would be willing to play these negative roles.” Why were they, he asked rhetorically? “The love of being before a camera. Being even in a negative way is better than not being.”

Kiarostami expressed pleasure and sadness at receiving an award named in honor of Kurosawa, the great Japanese filmmaker. He explained that each time he thought of the award it created the illusion that Kurosawa was still alive.

One journalist noted that Kiarostami is often called one of the best directors of the 1990s. “Who would be your rivals for that praise?” he was asked. Kiarostami expressed particular admiration for Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien and Spanish filmmaker Victor Erice (The Spirit of the Beehive, 1973; The Quince Tree Sun, 1992).

Was he interested in exploring new technology, such as digital video? Kiarostami indicated that he'd used the latter in Africa and found it very valuable. “The future belongs to digital video,” he asserted. Peter Scarlet pointed out that the Iranian director was nearly as well known for his still photography as he was for his efforts in film. Kiarostami suggested that still photography, video and film were all elements of one spectrum. The question, he said, is “how we can best get close to our subjects.”

A female journalist asked in a friendly, but critical fashion about Kiarostami's attitude toward the situation of women in Iran. She noted that most of the protagonists in his films were male, and she wondered if he employed women on his crew.

The director replied that the question was a complex one. He explained that he didn't like conventional female roles in films. “I don't like the role of women as mothers, women simply as lovers. Or women as victims, beaten, long-suffering. That's not my experience. Or women as exceptional. I don't like showing exceptions. Or women as heroes, it doesn't correspond to the real situation. And there's another role, women as decorative objects—not only in Iranian but in world cinema.” Musing out loud he acknowledged that he was likely to “think of a boy-child, more readily than a girl-child” when he let his mind wander. He explained that he did work with women on his crew.

Asked about the overall evolution of Iranian cinema, Kiarostami pointed to the strong presence once again of Iranian films at the upcoming Cannes festival. He spoke about the manner in which Iranian filmmaking had “evolved in the face of censorship and the way in which filmmakers have found ways of expressing themselves in the face of that censorship. The cinema of today is distinct from the rest of the world because of its unique vision and perspective, which is Iranian, but also it reflects the way in which each filmmaker has come to terms with and found ways of expressing him or herself within the limitations that exist.”

I suggested that his films demonstrated compassion for people's suffering and difficulties and asked whether he thought it was possible to be a serious artist without that compassion.

Kiarostami replied, reasonably enough, with a smile: “Thank you very much for your praise, implying that I do have that compassionate gaze and attitude, but I'm hard put to reply, because by replying I would be saying that I'm a compassionate and great filmmaker.”

In that case, I continued, would he care to comment on the work of another filmmaker, Robert Bresson, who had recently died?

Intriguingly Kiarostami replied, “What I've read of Bresson's writings has affected me more than his films themselves.” He referred to a book by Bresson that had appeared 10 years ago, about sound. “When I was making Where Is the Friend's Home? I learned a great deal from this book. And this is not to downplay his directing, but I was most affected by his writings on sound.”

A conversation

Later in the afternoon I had the opportunity to speak one-on-one with the Iranian director, through an interpreter. He began generously by explaining that the review of Taste of Cherry posted on the WSWS had been translated into Farsi and published in a film magazine in Iran.

David Walsh: I have so many things to ask, I don't know where to begin.

Abbas Kiarostami: We have an hour, we can take our time.

DW: Can you feel that you have a great deal of support in this country?

AK: I am very happy about that. I'm happy that this support comes from within one of the powers. This is the place whose films dominate the world's cinemas. And it's perfectly possible that films such as mine would not be seen at all. The very fact that the films are being seen is an affirmation and a sign of support, never mind that they're praised.

DW: The American people have been told by the government and the media for years that Iran is a country of terrorists. Do you think that if American people were able to see Iranian films they would have a different impression?

AK: This is a policy that is conducted basically to separate people and create rifts as opposed to bringing peoples together. Through film we're able to see another reality that does not resemble the one being propagated by the media.

For example, I've seen films, documentaries, about Africa on television that have no similarity whatsoever to my impression and my experience in the time I spent there. Therefore one of the manifestations of art cinema is to show reality beyond the headlines.

DW: Could you speak a bit about this African film?

AK: Everything there is very green and plentiful. I saw people who are poverty-stricken but extremely rich within. They're very happy people. Something I've almost never seen. I asked my friend why these people were so happy. He said it was because of the three things these people do not have: pollution, tension and competition.

The competition that they do have, however, is a big one, between life and death. And that's why their lives have so much meaning, because death is so close at hand. They're happy just to be alive.

DW: This is in Uganda?

AK: I went to Uganda because it had less civil strife. Have you ever been to Africa?

DW: No. Well, I saw a bit of it from a boat.

AK: It's a very strange experience. We drove for hours at night without there being a flicker of light. And people would be lining the road, dressed in white. There was no light at all. No electricity, no candles, no light at all. But sometimes you see a bonfire. The land was completely empty. Clumps of trees. I cooked bananas for the first time. They make various things with the bananas. And with fruit I didn't know. Carefree and happy.

DW: Are you going back?

AK: I'm hoping that the filming I did will not be satisfactory so that I'll have to go back.

DW: I saw The Traveler for the first time here. I found the last few minutes, the dream, especially disturbing. It showed a brutal, harsh situation. I wondered what the response in Iran was at that time to the film.

AK: I remember when we came out of the theater at the first screening there was a child crying and his mother said, “Look, this man made the film.” And the kid said, “You're very bad, why didn't you let the boy see the game?” And I still don't know if I were to remake that film if I would or wouldn't have the boy see the game. I find it hard to believe that I would end it a different way.

I believe that if there's any poetry there's some sadness in it, that in all beautiful things there's some sadness. But I think the critical thing is that it shouldn't be imposed upon a film, it must be part of it, an experience that occurs to everyone.

There's a Van Gogh painting of a beautiful woman sleeping and a man, whose arms are long and weary, sleeping next to her on a farm. They're lovers asleep on that farm, but it's clear that exhaustion has created a huge difference between them.

DW: There is a lot of money and corruption in the film industry, and the artistic results in general are not very good. What can we do to oppose this?

AK: You're obviously doing your part because you point out the films that are made with smaller budgets, smaller films. It's not possible to change this situation dramatically because the wheel of film is being turned by industry, by business. Many people are workers who work within that film industry. A lot of people go to see films just to be entertained. That sort of film exists and that is as it should be. And that is the cinema that allows our films to be made because otherwise there would be no reason to show our films. What you do, pointing a finger at the films that are different, is all that can be done.

DW: Can you envision artists organizing some kind of alternative structures as well?

AK: I think is going to happen, little by little. This year there are three Iranian films at Cannes and they are films from this sort of cinema, which is an exception, because Cannes does not usually showcase that kind of films. And there seems to be an appreciation for films from Asia, as far as Cannes goes. There is no choice for cinema other than to become a little bit more internalized, more intimate, more profound. To begin with, the technique and the facilities created by technology are going to self-destruct eventually. The bombastic film will destroy itself, because it is so full of itself, it will become so full that it will implode. So there will be a return, a reference to a past cinema at that point.

I was channel-surfing last night with the remote control in the hotel room and the two times I paused anywhere and focused were on black-and-white films. And that wasn't even a conscious choice. One was a Tarzan with Johnny Weissmuller. It was at least watchable, even though it was just entertainment, it felt like a healthier thing. The other, newer films I couldn't even watch, because there was so much going on and they were moving so fast that it just disturbed my vision, disturbed me. Therefore I believe that even the eyes of the commercial viewership is going to need some serenity, some calm. This itself will increase the opportunities for independent films. And of course your finger pointing at this as well.

DW: You feel sometimes that people are hungry for something, but they don't know yet what it is.

AK: The viewers leave a film today unfulfilled, hungry and uncertain as to what happened, this is where the filmmaker has the chance to ensnare them, to win them.

DW: My feeling is that people don't expect very much today. They don't expect great pleasure. They expect action, whatever.

AK: It's because the films have gotten them used to expecting action and not pleasure, because the technicians are making the films, not filmmakers. We're going to get to a point where that will become clear and it will have to change.

DW: Doesn't the future of cinema also depend on an improvement in the social and political atmosphere?

AK: I don't think so, I don't think we should depend that much on what happens politically. I actually sometimes think that at least in our country art has grown the most when the social situation has been the worst. It seems to me that artists are a compensatory mechanism, a defense mechanism in those kinds of unfavorable circumstances.

DW: Humanity has suffered a great deal in the past and continues to suffer. How do artists treat that honestly without surrendering to fatalism or pessimism?

AK: It's a difficult question and I can't answer precisely how artists do that, but the ones who do are the artists, the ones who accomplish the task of turning that painful experience of humanity into art. Without becoming cynical. Making it possible for everyone to get some pleasure out of pain, to make beauty. The same question arises when people ask how does carbon turn into diamonds, and not all the pieces of carbon turn into diamonds; some do and some don't.

DW: There is an idea in many of the Iranian films that I've seen that art is for everyone, and I think that's entirely healthy and democratic. But sometimes with some directors, in my opinion, the artistic problem is presented too simply, as though art were an automatic reflection of life. Don't we have to defend the idea that art requires a special study and knowledge of the artistic process?

AK: Yes, because the exact imitation of life is not art. There is a comment by Godard that life is a film that is not well-made. When you make a film you have to make it well, you have to edit it, you have to choose, you have to eliminate. You have to create its essential truth, not what is.

DW: Oscar Wilde said that life is a failure from the artistic point of view. Is there always in poetry, in art, a utopian element?

AK: There's another quote from Oscar Wilde that doesn't relate to this discussion. Would you like to hear it?

DW: Yes.

AK: He said that when the critics start arguing, the artists can breathe a sigh of relief. [Laughter.] Could you repeat the other question?

DW: Does serious art always create in the spectator the desire for some other reality?

AK: Yes, I believe so, because otherwise art would have no purpose. Should religion not prove successful at accomplishing that mission, art always can attempt it. They both point in the same direction. Religion points to another world, whereas art points to a better existence. One is an invitation, an offering to a faraway place, the other to a place that is close.

DW: In some of your films there is the figure of an intellectual, whom we take to be somewhat autobiographical. Does that figure appear, from your point of view, accidentally, or are there certain stories appropriate for that figure? Or, why does he appear in some films and not others?

AK: I wouldn't know the answer to that in any exact detail. In a general way I feel a compulsion to do that, that is my instinct. Then I look for those characters who have emerged from within me and I find them and direct them and present them.

DW: It seems difficult for many artists today to treat individual psychological truth, social reality and artistic form with equal seriousness, those three aspects, with commitment. Is that a reasonable statement?

AK: I completely agree. The focus is on the excitation and manipulation of the audience. The question to which I don't know the answer is whether or not the viewer wants to be manipulated. I don't know. Not simply in the cinema, but in encounters between people I have observed someone pleased at being manipulated. Someone saying, “Instead of letting me see reality, manipulate me. I would prefer it.” It's an illness that comes from somewhere in society. And that addresses the question about the artists not focusing on the psychological truth or the social and political realities—it's an escape.

DW: We've just come to the end of the century, at least according to the Western calendar, a century in which it has proven more difficult than people would have thought one hundred years ago to solve some of the great social problems, inequality, injustice. Do you retain confidence that those questions can be solved in the next century?

AK: Who knows? In my short lifetime I have not, even in my own country, experienced a reduction of injustices, never mind a solution. People keep referring to the ‘global village,' but I've just come from Africa where people put the corpses of their children on the back of their bicycles as they pedal away, barefoot. And at the same time on the television all they talk about is Elian Gonzalez.

It's coincidence that the two events were taking place simultaneously, but I was in a hospital in Africa and, on the one hand, I could see CNN on the television monitor and through the window I could see parents putting the corpse of a kid in a box and tying it to the back of a bicycle they were going to push.

I'm quoting an author I don't know who said that in the year 2000 humanity will only be four years old. I think that applies. Humanity today is just about at the stage of a four-year-old. So we'll have to wait a long time before humanity even reaches adolescence.

DW: What is the artist's central responsibility?

AK: People are or aren't artists, and I don't know that you can establish a duty or a responsibility for an artist, as you would for certain occupations. The artist has been given the task of being an artist.