It’s a playground

Gilberto Perez

  • Close-Up: Iranian Cinema, Past, Present and Future by Hamid Dabashi
    Verso, 302 pp, £15.00, November 2001, ISBN 1 85984 332 8

A photograph of Abbas Kiarostami in Hamid Dabashi’s book shows him crouching over a frying pan that has two eggs in it. Beside him, and like him focused on the eggs, is the original movie camera invented by Lumière. The photograph was taken during the shooting of Lumière et compagnie, a film which, on the 100th anniversary of Lumière’s invention, enlisted film-makers from all over the world to make one-minute shorts using the original camera. Kiarostami made the best one. On the screen, against the dark background of the frying pan, we see the butter melting and bubbling and the eggs being dropped in one at a time, one of the yolks breaking and spreading – fried eggs, sunny-side up, taking shape in close-up before our eyes. Isolated and enlarged, the two eggs cooking over an unseen fire appear mysteriously primal, a microcosm of organic matter evolving in the dark. The eggs done, the frying pan is swiftly removed from the heat, and the unmoving camera lingers for an extra moment on the clean, metallic burner, now extinguished. The organic has suddenly given way to the mechanical.

The burner, with its central circle of reflective metal, may be taken as a metaphor for the camera with its central lens; and, like the burner it ends up facing, the camera is an inanimate machine yet an instrument of animation, utterly lifeless yet impinging on the stuff of life. Kiarostami’s most frequent metaphor for the camera is another machine, the car. Many of his scenes take place in cars, and many of his shots are views out of a car window identified with the frame of the screen. His new film, Ten, shown in competition this year at Cannes, consists in a series of conversations between a Tehran woman driving a car and the passengers beside her.

On the soundtrack of his Lumière short, besides the fizzing and crackling of butter and eggs, we hear a telephone answering-machine on which a woman is leaving a message. ‘Hello. It’s me. Are you there?’ The woman sounds rather anxious as the butter fizzes. ‘Hello. Not back yet?’ The first egg is cracked and dropped into the pan. ‘Hello. Well . . .’ The second egg is dropped in. ‘Listen . . . I’m here. I won’t move. Good-bye. Call me back.’ The eggs are frying. The pan is whisked away. The blank burner stares out at us. ‘Well, bye then.’ As the woman hangs up the film ends.

This disjunction between sound and image demands that we take an active part in putting them together. If we assume that the answering-machine we’re hearing is located somewhere off-screen in the neighbourhood of the frying pan, we may also assume that whoever is cooking the eggs – all we can see of that person are brief glimpses of a hand over the pan – is choosing not to answer the woman’s call. Thus we can make a story out of this documentary of fried eggs. Alternatively, or additionally, we may make a comparison between sound and image as separate elements. If we construe the image metaphorically as a meditation on the organic and the mechanical, the soundtrack – the voice of a woman trying to reach someone and talking to a machine instead – offers a parallel. If, on the other hand, we see the image as an acknowledgment of the inanimateness of film even as it registers animation, then the sound of the anxious voice, mechanically recorded, reminds us that the machines in our lives are not themselves alive, and that even those designed to connect us are apt to come between us. According to this reading, the film is concerned with the extent to which the way we live is governed by machines – and cinema is one of them – that dehumanise our human transactions.

This short exhibits, on a small scale, several qualities typical of Kiarostami’s work. It stays close to documentary, to the observed fact, and at the same time makes us aware that even something as simple as eggs in a frying pan is complicated by a context, a larger frame of reference determining its meaning. Kiarostami has a gift for embodying thought, grounding the conceptual in the material and investing the material with the conceptual, a film-maker’s gift for what Hegel termed the concrete universal. He successfully combines the documentary nature of film with its symbolic, evocative, ruminative capabilities. And characteristic of his approach, too, is the way he calls on us to complete the film. He would have the audience ‘put the pieces together on their own’, he has said. ‘When you see a film, you should come away with your own personal interpretation, based on who you are. The film should allow that to happen, make room for that interaction.’[*] I’m not sure that my interpretation of his little Lumière film is exactly what he had in mind, but I am certain that he intended to give me room for it. He draws our attention to the means of his art and invites our participation in the construction of its meaning.

This aspect of his films – what could be called his Modernism – is part of what caused Kiarostami to be taken up in France. In the US, despite the recent popularity of Iranian cinema among those who go to see foreign films, his admirers have been scarce: Iranian cinema has mostly been looked on as a species of neo-realism, and he has been faulted for not being Vittorio de Sica or Satyajit Ray, when in fact he’s more like Godard or Jean-Marie Straub. It was French enthusiasm for Kiarostami that ushered in the international vogue for Iranian cinema. As we read in the introduction to Dabashi’s book, ‘Kiarostami is like a locomotive that has pulled the train of Iranian cinema into the global arena.’ But Dabashi is a bit suspicious of the portrayal of Kiarostami as an auteur. What he seems to admire most about him is his self-effacement. He praises the ‘ingenuous eye of his camera’ for stripping away cultural constructions and quietly enabling us to see the ‘nakedness of reality’. Kiarostami ‘became the Iranian post-Revolutionary film-maker par excellence’, Dabashi writes, ‘not because Gilles Jacob discovered him for Cannes, and Cahiers du cinéma proclaimed his genius to the world, but precisely because of the unobtrusive corner in which his camera is positioned’. An ingenuous, unobtrusive camera showing us reality plain and simple – that does indeed sound like neo-realism.

But then realism and Modernism are not as far apart as is often thought. They are both cultural products of European modernity, imported to Iran as an effect of European colonialism and, later, American influence. But they are also critical forms of art – aspects of modernity that can do service against other aspects of modernity. And, though they are of European origin, they have proved adaptable to diverse local conditions and have flourished around the world with homegrown splendour. The recent blossoming of Iranian cinema is a form of modernity – whether of realism or of Modernism – that stands as an alternative, both locally and globally, to that other form of modernity, the increasing dominance of Hollywood.

How can it be, people sometimes ask when I recommend an Iranian movie to them, that a country under an oppressive Islamic regime is producing such good cinema? One answer is that the Islamic regime has kept rapacious Hollywood out, thus giving the local talent a chance to develop. Dabashi’s book helps us towards a better explanation. It sketches a history of Iranian cinema in the context of Iran’s encounter with modernity. We learn, for example, that the release in 1936 of the first Iranian talkie, The Lor Girl, coincided with the banning by Reza Shah (who had renamed Persia ‘Iran’ the year before) of the chador worn by women under Islamic injunction: ‘The unveiling of women thus became a major feature of the newly imported art . . . Cinema played an extraordinarily significant role in the emancipation of Iranian women.’ But the ‘massive and brutal programme of “modernisation”’ carried out under Reza Shah’s rule was hardly the best way to establish an Iranian modernity. He abdicated early in World War Two when the Allies occupied the country. His son Muhammad Reza Shah succeeded to the throne but did not begin to emulate his father’s autocratic rule until years later, when Muhammad Mussadegh, a democratically elected Prime Minister who had nationalised the Iranian oil industry, was overthrown in a coup engineered by the CIA that empowered the Shah to take up his father’s role. Kiarostami was a child in those freer years between dictatorial Shahs.

No less important than the political is the cultural history Dabashi sketches – especially what he tells us about the central role played by Modernist Persian poetry, and since the 1930s by prose fiction, in the formation of a modern Iranian consciousness, and about the receding of poetry and prose fiction in favour of cinema since the Islamic Revolution. He sees one poet in particular, Sohrab Sepehri, as a ‘kindred spirit’ to Kiarostami, whose first major film, Where Is the Friend’s House? (1987), takes its title from a poem of Sepehri’s.

As Dabashi tells the story, Modernist Persian poetry emerged in the early 20th century and came to a high point in the 1960s, at a time when Iranian cinema, which up till then had been wholly given over to popular entertainment, started on the path towards a more serious art. It was a poet, Forough Farrokhzad, who made the first Iranian film of real ambition. Although she died young, her work, Dabashi writes, changed ‘the poetic disposition of her culture beyond anything before achieved’. The combination of documentary and poetry in her film The House Is Black (1962), set in a leper colony, anticipated much of the Iranian cinema that was to come. Modern Persian fiction was also an inspiration; one of its masterpieces, Dabashi notes, provided the source for Daryush Mehrju’i’s The Cow (1969), the most celebrated Iranian film of that time and the first to gain international attention.

According to Dabashi, Iranian cinema took off from this moment. He has seen more of these movies than I have, but it seems to me that though there were significant precursors, the flourishing of Iranian cinema did not really begin until the 1980s – that is, not until after the Revolution. Yet this would leave unexplained how a modern visual art developed alongside the reimposition of a tradition inhospitable to visual representation. In Russia and Cuba revolution had a vitalising effect on cinema, but that this should have happened in Islamic Iran seems ‘utterly strange’ to Dabashi, who throws up his hands: ‘it will be some time before Iranian cultural critics will be able to account for it.’

Kiarostami got his start making films for children. This was in the 1970s, when the Shah was tightening his grip, and as Dabashi notes, Kiarostami ‘was an entirely tangential and peripheral film-maker’ working at the state-supported Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults. The films he made look simple at first glance, yet already invite a more complicated response. The roots of his Modernism may be found in them: he was laying bare the device, drawing attention to the medium, like a teacher making clear to children how things work; and, like a good teacher, he was encouraging the children to think for themselves. His ‘tangential and peripheral’ position under the Shah has served him well under the Islamic regime: he learned to make films that imply as much as they state, that are at once lucid and allusive. When asked in Lumière et compagnie why he makes films, he replied: ‘Film-making is a pleasure for me. But I don’t take it very seriously. It’s a playground for me, as when I was a child.’ The man who started his career making films for children identifies with them as a film-maker, yet there is also a certain lofty detachment in his suggestion that film-making is mere play. Kiarostami’s art combines the two, identification and detachment.

In Where Is the Friend’s House? Kiarostami focuses on a boy who is a traveller in a strange world. The friend is a schoolmate threatened with expulsion by their teacher, not for failing to do his homework, but for failing to do it in his notebook as the teacher requires. When the boy gets home at the end of the school day, he finds that he’s brought with him not only his own but also his friend’s notebook, and though his mother has other ideas about how he should be occupied, he embarks on a search for the friend’s house to return the notebook that means so much. For most of the film we follow the boy in his quest. He makes his way up a hill to the next village, where he’s heard the friend lives, and back down to his own village, where he’s led to suppose the friend and his father have gone; then he dashes up the hill again, chasing after a man he surmises is the friend’s father. The man, paying little attention to the boy, rides off on a mule. As the boy returns to places he’s been before – including his own home, which he goes back to after nightfall without having found the friend’s house – he brings different feelings to them, and they are revealed to him in a different light.

Usually we’re invited to identify with children from a position of superiority – we find them endearing and feel for them without ceasing to feel that as adults we know better. Our identification with the boy in Where Is the Friend’s House? is not like that: as we follow him in his search, we too become searchers. What we feel is something like the heightened empathy the schoolboys in Zéro de conduite evoke. In that film we are immersed in a world seen wholly as the boys see it. Watching Kiarostami’s film we share the boy’s experience while also standing back from him. The world seen through his eyes, and revealed through his quest, retains its otherness. We are astonished, but it is not the transporting astonishment of Zéro de conduite: this astonishment leads, rather, to reflection.

Although the boy never finds the friend’s house, as the day darkens into twilight he does find a friend, an old man who thinks he knows which house it is, and slowly guides the boy there. The only adult to join him in his quest, the old man used to make doors and windows for local houses, and he points these out to the boy along the way. They look beautiful in the dusk as the lights inside shine through the carving. The old man represents the artist: a traditional artist, in contrast to the man who rode off on the mule, who is also a maker of doors and windows but in a more modern, businesslike fashion. Although he doesn’t succeed in taking the boy to the friend’s house – instead he leads him to the house of the man with the mule, where the boy has already been – he offers him, and us, a haunting experience of beauty in the twilight. And he gives him a flower to press inside the pages of the friend’s notebook. The next day in school the boy returns the notebook to the friend, having done his homework for him. The teacher looks over the notebook with approval. And there, as he flips through the pages, the flower suddenly comes into view, just as suddenly bringing the film to a close. This is a wonderful instance of the astonishment that leads to reflection. The flower is a metaphor for the beauty of what the boy has done, for his sweet and sustained act of friendship, and also a reminder of the old man and the beauty of his carved doors and windows. It feels as if this successful conclusion to the boy’s quest were somehow the old man’s gift. Ethics and aesthetics come together here: the beauty of an action, a bit of human doing, and the beauty of a work of art, a bit of human making.

Artist figures occur quite frequently in Kiarostami’s work. Where Is the Friend’s House? was filmed in Rostamabad, a region in the north of Iran that was devastated by an earthquake a few years later. Kiarostami returned to make Life and Nothing More (1992) – or Life and then Nothing, as Dabashi calls it, or And Life Goes on, as it’s also known – in which a film-maker drives to the devastated region looking for the boy who played the lead for him in a film, a poster for which he is carrying. The film is Where Is the Friend’s House? so the film-maker is plainly a stand-in for Kiarostami. In the earlier film the point of view was the boy’s. In Life and Nothing More the film-maker’s son, a boy of about the same age as the one they’re looking for, accompanies him, and rather than giving the point of view to the adult figure alone, to the stand-in for himself, Kiarostami shares it with the child. At times it shifts strikingly, in a characteristic signal of detachment, to a perspective far removed from the human figures, rendering them minuscule in the landscape.

Kiarostami’s next film, Through the Olive Trees (1994), again has a central figure standing in for him, an actor playing the director of Life and Nothing More, seen directing take after take of a scene about a newlywed couple setting up house in the aftermath of the earthquake. As actually happened during the filming of Life and Nothing More, the young man locally recruited to play the husband is, between takes, earnestly courting the young woman, his social superior, who has been recruited to play his wife. The third film in the trilogy and the most self-conscious, Through the Olive Trees, was the first Kiarostami film I saw, and not the least thing that impressed me about it was the poise, the naturalness of its self-consciousness.

To a greater extent even than the neo-realists who inspired him, Kiarostami uses non-professional actors in his films, people who bring their reality to the characters they play; and he in turn has inspired other Iranian film-makers to follow him in this, most notably Mohsen Makhmalbaf. For his latest film, Kandahar (2001), Makhmalbaf recruited a black American for the part of a black American practising medicine in Afghanistan, and this non-professional actor has turned out to be ‘real’ with a vengeance. He’s under indictment for murder in the US, alleged to have been the man who, in 1980, at the time of the Iranian Revolution, wore a postman’s uniform to get close enough to shoot a member of the Shah’s secret police in Bethesda, Maryland. Kandahar was topical, to say the least – a rumour went around that George Bush wanted to see it, but the truth is that an attempt was made to arrange a screening for him in the hope that if he saw it he might take a more humane view of the Afghans.

Kiarostami gives a twist to neo-realism, however, a transforming twist of Modernist self-consciousness, and this, too, has influenced other Iranian film-makers, including Makhmalbaf. Close-Up (1990), one of Kiarostami’s most penetrating meditations on film-making, involves Makhmalbaf in person and as an Iranian cultural figure. It re-enacts the true story – enlisting the actual participants as performers – of a man who passed himself off as Makhmalbaf. The man, who in real life gave a performance that persuaded a family to welcome him into their home as the famous film director, plays himself in the film; and at the end, Makhmalbaf appears as himself, the real person joining the impostor. Taking neo-realism to an extreme – the non-professional actors here aren’t playing characters like themselves, they are playing themselves – Close-Up turns its representation of life into a reflection on how life is represented on the screen. Through the Olive Trees does much the same thing, and even more palpably reminds us that the act of filming reality affects the reality being filmed.

Makhmalbaf’s films do similar things and have similar concerns. A Moment of Innocence (1996) re-enacts an incident from Makhmalbaf’s own activist youth in the days of the Shah – or, rather, depicts him making a film re-enacting what happened when, 17 years old and armed with a knife, he attacked a policeman who, twenty years later, joins his attacker in the film. The two play themselves beside young actors playing them when they were young; the portrayal of their youth is an examination both of their place in the world today and of the position of the young on whom it now falls to play the parts that were once theirs. Also known as The Bread and the Vase, and concluding with an image of a piece of bread and a flower in a vase displacing the young Makhmalbaf’s knife and the policeman’s gun, A Moment of Innocence is an exercise in personal and political reconciliation.

A generation younger than Kiarostami, Makhmalbaf gained prominence as a film-maker while still in his twenties; at first an adherent of Islamic fundamentalism, he has changed remarkably over the years. His work is more uneven than Kiarostami’s, but, though there are certainly other Iranian film-makers of importance – Bahram Beiza’i, Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, Jafar Panahi – Makhmalbaf stands beside Kiarostami above the rest. A Moment of Innocence makes clear not only what these two film-makers have in common, but also what sets them apart. Makhmalbaf is more directly, more heatedly involved in social and political matters; he involves himself and his past in the film as Kiarostami never does. Even when he has a stand-in, Kiarostami keeps his distance. Failure to take this into account leads Dabashi into an intemperate misunderstanding of The Wind Will Carry Us (1999) – or Carry Us Away, as Dabashi has it: the title is derived from a poem by Forough Farrokhzad – a film in which Kiarostami again sets up a figure recognisably standing in for himself but not one he exactly endorses or asks us to endorse. The film, as Jonathan Rosenbaum has pointed out, is an auto-critique. It’s significant that this time the boy in the film comes into conflict with the director figure, and though we mostly share the director figure’s point of view, when their rift comes about our sympathy is with the boy.

Makhmalbaf’s work of the 1980s reached a peak in Marriage of the Blessed (1989), a film so intense it verged on the incoherent. The protagonist is a young soldier, wounded in the war with Iraq and traumatised by his experience of violence and pain, which he projects onto the poverty and suffering he sees around him. He’s also acutely distressed by the return of capitalism and corruption to Iran, which he feels is a betrayal of the Revolution. Adopting his point of view, the film leaves little room for detachment and reflection. And yet its protagonist is another substitute for the artist, a photographer and sometime film-maker who goes around taking pictures of everything that appals him – and who even looks like Makhmalbaf. An artist deeply troubled by the world, Makhmalbaf is just as seriously concerned with art and what it can achieve. How seriously art is taken in Iran became clear to me when I saw Close-Up: what chiefly motivated both the impostor who assumed the role of Makhmalbaf and the family who accepted him in that role was admiration for the artist, respect for art and the effect it can have on the lives of ordinary people.

For a while now it has not been that way in the West. By and large aesthetics has become divorced from ethics, art from the things that matter in real life. When our art has wanted to deal with things of social and political consequence, it has tended to ignore or even repudiate the aesthetic. Iranian cinema knows no such split. Kiarostami never retreats into the purely aesthetic; and Makhmalbaf, always anxiously involved, never leaves behind his aesthetic concerns. From their culture, and especially from the tradition and the modernity of Persian poetry, they appear to have inherited the conviction that art is something that matters.

Among Makhmalbaf’s films so far, The Silence (1998) is his masterpiece. Like most of his films, it is a parable. It begins with the familiar four notes from Beethoven’s Fifth, which directly resound in the knock of a landlord threatening to evict a boy and his mother from their home. The boy protagonist, blind but endowed with very sensitive hearing, is a portrait of the artist. He rises to the knock on the door, whose four notes recur through the film when the landlord returns, and which may be construed as the call of the West – as the threat, or the challenge, of the West knocking at the door. The Silence is a parable about local art rising to meet this challenge. The mother relies on the boy, who has a job tuning musical instruments, to provide money to pay the landlord. Unless he puts his fingers in his ears on his way to work, however, he’s likely to be irresistibly drawn to some beautiful voice or piece of music. The blind boy’s consciousness is evoked in images of heightened tactility and a diminished visual field, so that space in the film is not so much displayed as put together out of the sounds we hear and things we touch. On the bus, taking a finger out of one ear, the boy overhears two schoolgirls reciting lines from Omar Khayyám: seize the moment, the poet says, and the boy repeats the lines and has the girls repeat them with their eyes closed. The girls miss their stop. The boy can’t help being led astray – he’s late too often and loses his job. As his mother is being thrown out of their house with all their possessions, we hear once again the notes from Beethoven, played by nomadic tribesmen on their strings, and we realise that they were the ones playing it all along. At the end of the film, the boy, who has lost his job and his house, triumphantly conducts a performance of the Fifth Symphony with local musicians and instruments: when it comes to art the local beats the global at its own game.

[*] Abbas Kiarostami by Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa and Jonathan Rosenbaum (Illinois).