Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Abbas Kiarostami

“I don’t like to engage in telling stories,” says Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami in an interview packaged on the DVD of his masterful 2000 feature, The Wind Will Carry Us. “I don’t like to arouse the viewer emotionally or give him advice. I don’t like to belittle him or burden him with a sense of guilt.”

As a result, his films can seem meandering and slow-moving, even a bit boring at first, to attention spans calibrated by Hollywood movies and cable TV. Time and again, in fiction films like Ten, Taste of Cherry, Crimson Gold, and The Wind Will Carry Us, Kiarostami follows a frustrated protagonist as he or she traces and retraces a path through the Iranian landscape. The talk reveals character and conflict that can be literally life-and-death as the lead character interacts with various locals – mostly nonactors playing people much like themselves – in a seemingly random series of encounters.

Even a documentary like ABC Africa feels loosely structured and somewhat repetitive. Bearing witness to the millions of Ugandan orphans who lost parents to their country’s long-running civil war or to AIDS, Kiarostami does the usual interviews with local experts and films evidence of the ravages of the disease, but he and his crew also walk or get driven around a lot, filming as they go, and they frequently linger on groups of kids mugging for the camera, on people singing and dancing, or simply on the signs and scenes they’re passing in the street.

But the rich texture of his settings and the realism of his characters reward those willing to slow down for a walk through one of Kiarostami’s worlds. His work is simple without being simpleminded, always accessible yet never predictable or trite. Kiarostami credits the children he worked with for years early in his career, when he made movies for and about children, with simplifying and clarifying his approach. He has made a conscious effort, he says, to see things as clearly and honestly as children do and to live as fully in the present. And his movies, he thinks, have developed “a kind of childlike playfulness.”

One of the leading directors of the Iranian New Wave film movement that took root around 1970, Kiarostami won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for 1997’s Taste of Cherry and the Jury Grand Prize at the Venice Film Festival for 1999’s The Wind Will Carry Us. His films are thoughtfully and intricately constructed. Mixing long shots that situate people in their environments with close-ups that stay on one face for minutes, not cutting away even to show a glimpse of the people or animals we hear offscreen, Kiarostami concentrates our attention like an observant host giving a visitor a tour of his town, always aware of what is happening off screen but always filtering it through the perspective of his protagonist. Slowing down to look through his eyes, we start to tune into the soul of the person or place he’s observing.

In one memorable sequence in the African documentary, Kiarostami and his men venture outside their hotel during one of the nightly blackouts imposed to conserve the scarce electricity in Kampala. As they talk about how isolated it feels to be someplace with no lights whatsoever – not to mention no TV, no radio, no internet, and no other electronic distractions – we peer with them into the oppressive blackness, humbled by its power to shut down almost everything. Then a storm boils up, illuminating the landscape with crackling bolts of daylight-bright lightning.

A gifted photographer with a deep love of nature, Kiarostami has published some of his landscape photography. New York's Museum of Modern Art is holding a major retrospective of his films and photography this spring, and the filmmaker will stop briefly in Princeton during a visit to the U.S. for that event. He’ll join Ivone Margulies, a film historian and critic who has written about his work, for a Thursday afternoon discussion, following a Sunday afternoon screening of 1994’s Through the Olive Trees.

That’s a rare chance for local film lovers to see a movie by a gifted director whose movies seep quietly and unobtrusively under your skin. “I absolutely don’t like the films in which the filmmakers take their viewers hostage and provoke them,” he says on the Wind Will Carry Us DVD. “I prefer the films that put their audience to sleep in the theater…. Some films have made me doze off in the theater, but the same films have made me stay up at night, wake up thinking about them in the morning, and keep on thinking about them for weeks.”

Written for TimeOFF