In dialogue with Kiarostami
By Ali Akbar Mahdi
Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami's films seek to uncover the deepest human emotions in the most ordinary events in life. His works are a demonstration of the significance and relevance of these emotions to the restless, captive, and tormented individuals of the twentieth century.
With a profound understanding and a sharp view of the fate of the modern individual, he searches for the good and bad among a constellation of events and structures which are neither under human control nor of human service.
The protagonists of his films are the ordinary people who surround us. Their lives represent no more and no less of what constitute ours. Their presence in films provides us with an opportunity to think about the everydayness of our existence and relationships; an opportunity to see them as a mirror that reflects the depth of our human feelings and thoughts.
On March 3, 1998, Kiarostami was invited to Columbus, Ohio, to open the screening of his celebrated "Taste of Cherry" as the guest of the Wexner Center for the Arts, Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio.
He attended a public forum in which he engaged in a conversation with Bill Horrigan, the curator of media at the Center, Ali Akbar Mahdi, associate professor of sociology at Ohio Wesleyan University, and the audience present in the meeting.
Kiarostami spoke in Persian and Mahdi translated his responses for the audience. The following is the full transcription of this dialogue.
Bill Horrigan: Let me start with a funny story. This afternoon Mr. Kiarostami came to the Wexner Center and we went through the four galleries, one painting, two sculpture and one architecture. When we bring filmmakers to the Center, we usually have them visit the galleries. They often seem more interested in what is in our video production studio but you, on the other hand, seemed quite interested in the visual arts.
Abbas Kiarostami: First, I would like to thank the audience for their enthusiastic presence here. I am extremely happy to be here and I don't know if I should call me your guest or you mine. Well, most of the success of the Iranian movies outside the country depends on the relationships between Iranians inside and outside of the country. This relationship is very important, especially when it connects two generations of Iranians who are living abroad. Their appreciation of the films makes the connection stronger and makes me feel good to be here. I am very happy and thankful to Wexner Center, for having me here and for establishing this relationship between us, a relationship not limited to art and cinema alone. In response to your question, I like to say that I started painting before I moved to cinema.
Horrigan: Could you describe to me the paintings you still do?
Kiarostami: I studied painting in graphic school, but I do not call myself a painter even though I do painting. It is more important to engage in painting than to label one a painter -- I simply feel comfortable painting. When people ask me to judge their paintings, I decline and remind them that what is important is that they have been engaged in the activity of painting. The Qajar king, Nasiruddin Shah, used to write poetry. It really did not matter what the king has written. What was important is that he, as a politician, was engaged in poetry. Engaging in the art of painting itself is the worthwhile activity and so I paint.
Akbar Mahdi: I like to convey an observation to our audience. Prior to our arrival to this meeting, Mr. Kiarostami, Mr. David Filipi (associate curator of media at the Center), and I went to the bookstore. Mr. Filipi and I saw Mr. Kiarostami looking for something through the store. We thought he was looking for some souvenirs from Ohio State University. To our surprise, he was looking for painting markers.
Horrigan: It is funny, though you say you aren't a painter, one of the extraordinary things about your films is the way you picture and frame the landscape. You visualize the perspective first from one point and then a second much like a painter. But painting is a solitary activity. You couldn't find something more culturally opposite than filmmaking. It involves so many people, and a big metaphorical canvas as opposed to a real one. How did this come to be?
Kiarostami: I have gotten used to looking at reality in an artistic way, especially through the viewpoint of painting. When I look at nature, I see a frame of painting. I see everything from an aesthetic angle. Even when I am in a taxi looking out of the window, I put everything in a frame. This is the way I see painting, photography and film -- all interrelated and connected. The movie industry captures reality in frames. For me particularly, painting is a source of diversity, and refuge from daily life. When tired, everyone seeks refuge in something. For me painting is that form of refuge -- a place to go and entertain myself and perhaps recreate reality in an aesthetic sense.
Horrigan: "Taste of Cherry" is your most recent film and we will talk a little bit about that. Maybe we should begin with the amazing spectacle when the film won the award at the Cannes festival. There was the issue of the uncertainty about the film getting shown. What was that all about?
Kiarostami: When I was at the Cannes festival and was awarded the prize, Catherine Deneuve came forward to give it to me. As a tradition in that ceremony, she hugged and kissed me. As you can imagine, such a demonstration of affection in public would have been an absolute disaster in Iran! Immediately after that event, I called my son in Tehran. He told me that I should not come back for a while because things did not look good after that disastrous kiss. So, I stayed for a week and when I went back I had to avoid the welcoming audience and go out of the back door. One of the fortunate things, though, was that this event coincided with the elections of President Khatami and so the political atmosphere was changing in Iran. As a result, it didn't take on the kind of significance that it could have without the political and social changes at the time. Nevertheless the film has not been shown in Iran yet, but it will be soon!
Horrigan: Is that primarily because it is about suicide?
Kiarostami: Partially so. It is partially due to the subject of the film, which is suicide. This could have been an issue but fortunately it did not become as problematic as it could have been since all religions view it as a taboo, a sinful act. The movie should be viewed, as I have been talking about it in many hours in the past few months, as a way of discovering taboos and dealing with them. Why are they there? The opportunity to talk about these taboos, explore what they are and why they exist, has given me a new outlook. It is the role of the art to discover, question, and expose these taboos for what they are and what they are worth -- what we are told as a child not to do and what we consequently do not do as an adult.
Horrigan: This is a good entry into showing the film clips. This is a film essentially about a man who is trying to convince people to abet him in his attempt at suicide and the various conversations revolving around that.
(A portion of "Taste of Cherry" was shown)
Mahdi: It is often said that there is a negative tone to the Iranian culture emphasizing the negative aspects of life like death and fatalism. But this clip despite its apparent subject of death displays a positive of thinking about life. Mr. Badie seems to be as much concerned about the way he is going to die than whether he could die. This represents a lot more positive thinking than we can expect from a man ready to die. To what extent is this way of thinking becoming widespread in Iran? Are we seeing a change?
Kiarostami: What you are referring to is basically the Islamic culture. The Iranian culture does not have that kind of emphasis. This negative emphasis has a permanent place in the Islamic culture where the crying and grief, in which Muslim people have been historically engaged, are very significant. These elements have carried the religion through time and are part of what keeps Islam alive.
It should be said that this positive way of looking at things is not necessarily related to culture -- I see this as an intrinsic issue in one's individual outlook. Happiness and sadness are intricately tied. Beneath any layer of despair, there is hope and a reach out for happiness.At the same time, beneath any kind of happiness there is a layer of anxiety and despair. So I see this as a cycle of life, happiness and despair go with one another and not as separate. This man could not have enjoyed that fruit so much if it wasn't for the despair connected with the experience. As you saw in the film clip, the man had indicated that in the depths of darkness he saw the light at the end of the tunnel. So thus, he came to discover that life is beautiful when he was so desperate and exhausted of options. This is not connected to culture, this is a universal phenomenon. Realities generate their own opposite and this must be viewed in a dialectical way. At the depth of sadness one seeks for happiness and at the height of happiness one has to court the reality of sadness.
Horrigan: Have you been surprised by how well received this film has been world over?
Kiarostami: This is a very difficult film and the reaction is, of course, much better than I expected, and although I can see how people can resign half an hour into the film, I have also seen enthusiastic responses where the film strikes a chord with the audience. The latter group connects with the movie well and it gets them to think about the issue. I have witnessed a situation where I have lost 200 people, 100 walk out, 50 admire and clap, and 50 look at them and wonder what the fuss is about! But the fact is that this film is one of the works I have done as part of a larger series. It has its own place in that series.
Horrigan: Do you tend to work with the same crew?
Kiarostami: I try my best to keep the same crew but it becomes very difficult because while the people who work for me enjoy it, they find it difficult. Son when they find an opportunity, they usually run away from me. It seems in some way simple to work with me, but at the same time the kinds of roles I develop in my films are demanding. For instance in "Taste of Cherry," the protagonist had to maintain his frame of mind for two months no matter what difficulties he faced outside of the production process. Such an experience is emotionally difficult and not too many people can guard themselves against the normal ups and downs of daily life. I even had a discussion with my camera man who did not like where I had asked him to position the camera. I had asked for the camera to be put in a fixed position attached to the side window of the car or on the hood. He did not like this because it did not give him much control and the reflection from the window partially obscured the faces and hid the feeling. In some other situations the actors were not engaged in dialogue with each other. I had asked them to speak to the camera. They were engaged in conversation with me rather with other actors in a real situation.
Horrigan: Then it must take time to develop trust in order to have this illusion of improvisation. A lot of it feels like a real conversation that we are eavesdropping on.
Kiarostami: This is inevitable in making this kind of film. Since I do a lot of things spontaneously, we have to control a lot of things and this leaves both my actors and my cameramen with little control over their functions. Because they do not know what the totality of the scene looks like, they have to do only what I ask them to do. For parts of the film, the man who is working on the sound did not know where pieces were going to fit and where I would be using them later. I don't have a person to record the scene and this causes a lot of problems. Since I make most of my movies this way, the technicians have a very difficult time working with me. They have to trust me and be comfortable with how I would use the various scenes and where they would fit.
Question from audience: The actors in the clip we just saw were involved in a conversation. Was this an spontaneous dialogue or were they following a script developed prior to shooting? How much of what goes on in the movie is spontaneous and how much it is planned by you?
Kiarostami: Sometimes that is how it goes. Some of the actors had to follow the script but some could be spontaneous. For example when we talked to the soldier it was a spontaneous conversation between him and myself. It was later that we told him that our conversation would be in a movie. I had told him that if he would come to the top of the hill and agree with our work for him he would get paid. On the top of the hill, he was getting really frustrated and tired. The fact that he ran away that day was all natural, because we hadn't paid him and since no movie was forthcoming he ran away.
The case of the seminarian was different. He really got involved and was engaging me in discussion continually. He thought I was really going to commit suicide and wanted to change my mind. He even forgot that there was a camera against the window of the car. So that was an entirely different story.
In case of the Turkish man, we had a different situation. He wasn't a professional. I actually found him on the scene. We had given the script to different people to try and test it because for the parts that actors have to follow the script we generally have them practice several times. In his case none of the people tested were coming across successfully in my view. What was particularly important in this scene was that the actor engages in the dialogue and poses the issue in such a way that it doesn't look too serious. This would reduce the philosophical burden of the discussion. He would be a more real folkish ordinary person. We found this man all of a sudden on the scene. I liked the natural tone and expression of his accent. The accent was constant and there was no sense of imitation to it. He was being himself and this gave us an opportunity to rely on the naturalness and constancy of his accent.
It might be interesting for you to know how we found him. We ran into him up on the hills. He asked us "What are you doing here?" and we asked him what he thought we were. He said "You are a bunch of thieves!" We asked him why he thought we were thieves and he said "because you are probably speculators from the city who come in with their cameras and instruments to measure and divide up the land to sell to developers who will sell it to the people and suck the blood out of them, that's what you've come here to do!" It was that kind of dialogue that made us think this man was a natural selection for this film. We gave him the script, he worked through it, sat in the car, and all worked beautifully.
Question: I have two questions. The ending of this movie, "Taste of Cherry" had me very baffled. Even in your other films, which I love, there are parts that I do not understand. But this part in particular bothered me because I didn't understand it. What is supposed to happen? Your ending leaves us in a blank. Why do you have a scene in which Mr. Badie is smoking cigarette after he committed suicide? That is my first question. My second question is related to politics. Obviously a lot of films have been made about Iran that have become the great films of the nineties just like Chinese movies were the greats of the eighties. It seems to me like a lot of great art is coming out of oppressive cultures or regimes so that while the Westerners can praise their art they condemn their cultures. How much of this factor influences your work and would you be the same person, would your films be the same, if you were making films in the West?
Kiarostami: I start with the second part of your question. I like to use the phrase restrictive to describe the conditions I work under rather than oppressive and I understand that oppressive means many different things under different contexts but for us as artists and filmmakers what we are dealing with are the realities of restrictions and I like to approach it from that angle. I look at these restrictions not in the context of the film alone but in the broader context of life. For me these restrictions exist everywhere and have always been there. Life in the East has never been without them. We have to always live within certain boundaries. Life is the combination and movement between restriction and freedom -- the field of action is limited, the field of power is limited, when we were kids we were always told what we could do and what we couldn't and how far we could go in doing things we could.
The best example I can give for this concept is when our teachers told us to do a composition for the class. When he gave us a topic, we would write about that topic and come up with something worthwhile. But when he did not specify the topic and left us free to choose our own, we usually couldn't come up with something worth writing about. We needed to be told what the boundaries and restrictions were. This has been the nature of our society and has been replicated in the realities of our film industry. For instance, during the first four years of the Iranian revolution, there was a great deal of chaos in the film industry because not many rules were set yet. Interestingly enough, most of the Iranian movie-makers didn't produce much during this time though a great deal could have been done. No one used the opportunity because everyone was waiting to find out what the restrictions were!
Most of the time we seek an excuse for running away from the responsibility. Restrictions give us this kind of excuse. Therefore, unfortunately, we seek energy from these boundaries set for us. I don't want to imply that these limitation are good and should be there, but we have been brought up with these and it is in our mentality. This is not limited to my profession -- it's in every profession, creativity is a necessity and limitation makes people more creative. I have a friend who is an architect. He tells me that he is at his best professionally when he designs structures for odd lots because these lands do not fit into the normal patten and he has to work within a great deal of limitations. So, he must be creative and he enjoys this. It is these restrictions that provide an opportunity for people to be creative.
Now, I like to answer the first question: I understand how difficulty you have comprehending the last scene of this movie. I sympathize with you. But this has been deliberate on my part. In "Taste of Cherry" I have tried to keep a distance between my spectator and the protagonist. I didn't want spectators emotionally involved in this film. In this film, I tell you very little about Mr. Badie, I tell you very little about what his life is about, why he wanted to commit suicide, what his story is I didn't want the spectators get engaged in those aspects of his life. For that purpose I had to keep Mr. Badie away from the audience. So he is a distant actor in a way. First I thought to end the movie at the point when he laid down on his grave but later I changed my mind. I was uncomfortable to end it at that point because I was very concerned, and am always concerned, about my spectators. I do not want to take them hostage. I do not want to take their emotions hostage. It is very easy for a flim-maker to control the emotions of spectators but I do not like that. I do not want to see my audience as innocent children whose emotions are easily manipulable.
I was afraid that if I ended the movie where Mr. Badie laid down on his grave the spectator would be left with a great deal of sadness. Even though I didn't think the scene was really that sad, I was afraid that it would come out as such. For that reason I decided to have the next episode where we have the camera running as Mr. Badie was walking around. I wanted to remind spectators that this was really a film and that they shouldn't think about this as a reality. They should not become involved emotionally. This is much like some of our grandmothers who told us stories, some with happy and some with sad endings. But they always at the end would have a Persian saying which went like this "but after all it is just a story!"
Horrigan: That's actually the second clip we have which has just been described as a kind of epilogue after the ambiguous ending. So we'll do the second clip now. This is basically the epilogue to the film.
(Another clip from "Taste of Cherry" shown)
Kiarostami: The very last episode reminds me of the continuation of life, that life goes on, and here the audience is confronted with the reality they had hoped that Mr. Badie would be alive and there he is a part of nature and nature still continues and life goes on even without Mr. Badie. And if one could really think about being or not being present in life, or if one thinks about it in terms of the real implication of such presence, one might not in fact engage in committing suicide at all. The person committing suicide might think that s/he is taking revenge from the society, nature, life, powers to be, and so on. But s/he don't realize that after a suicide life still goes on and things stay the way they are. I could interpret this in a different way. If my audience is as creative as I imagine them to be, they can take this in a variety of interpretations and I can sit here and every time make a different interpretation of it, as every time one can creatively reinterpret the reality.
Horrigan: What is the significance of the music you have used in the end at this part?
Kiarostami: I was looking for a different kind of instrument but I found that this music extremely attractive because it has been used in both occasions of funeral and happiness. Since I wasn't sure myself for which purpose I wanted this music to be used here, I found it a excellent piece for this moment of the film. It could fit in here because depending on how you interpret the situation you could take the music in that sense.
Mahdi: Your movies represent a reflective form of cinema. You consciously try not to end the movie with a predetermined conclusion. Often in some of the scenes and episodes at the end, you leave your actors to basically improvise. Your films are often un-concluded. What is your expectation from your audience by leaving them with a blank and what do you want to get from this kind of expectation? Do you want the spectator conclude your story or you generally see the reality in this unending format?
Kiarostami: The idea not to end movies with some kind of conclusion occurred to me several years ago. I have always thought that the audience is much more creative than we credit them to be and I feel they can do a lot with the stories we pose for them. The only difference between my spectators and I is that I have a camera in hand and they don't. I don't see the spectators as any less creative that I am, and believe that sometimes, left to themselves, they can come up with a better ending than I can! Often people go to see a film with the expectation that a story will be told. I do not like this arrangement where there is a dichotomy between me, as the storyteller, and the spectator, as the one sitting there and watching the story as such. I prefer to believe that the spectators are much more intelligent and actually see it as unfair that I get the chance to captivate them for two hours telling them the story, ending it the way I say it must end and so on. So I actually want to give them more credit by involving them and distributing the sense of belonging between myself and the spectator, so I leave it open and that way s/he could end it the way he/she wants to end it.
This idea of leaving a great deal of open space for the spectator is not limited to the end of the film. I have always had the desire to have the kind of film where I have created a great deal of spaces inside the film, where, like a puzzle, the spectator has to fill in the spaces -- I like to create those kinds of spaces where the personalities in the film begin to engage with one another and at the same time leave room for their spectator to connect them in a way in which they would like to see them connected. Some people like their movies to be perfect as they describe it, but I don't seek that kind of perfection. To me perfection is defined by how much the spectator can engage in the movie, and so a good movie is one that involves the spectator as a part of it and not as a captive person.
Question: From the beginning of the flim it becomes clear that Mr. Badie is not the kind of guy who is going to commit suicide because he is so involved with life. He wants to know what is going to happen to him after committing suicide. He is concerned with covering all the details. He is not the kind of guy who would commit suicide. The episode in which he goes back to Mr. Bagheri and gets assurances that he would through two stones at him in order to make sure that he is dead indicates that he was not actually that serious about it.
Kiarostami: I have the same kind of interpretation of this scene in the film as you have. As a spectator I see this too. There is actually a scene where he says egg is not good for him even though he is going to kill himself. Also as you can see through the window of his home prior to his departure for his final project, he goes and checks his own temperature. Statistics show that these are the typical actions of those who contemplate suicide. About 12,000 to 14,000 people a day intend to kill themselves and about 13,000 fail by finding some kind of excuse to hang onto life: such is the powerful the need to seek survival.
There are actually more indications in the movie that reveal this fact. He goes to pick up the people who might help him commit suicide, and if you look carefully, a number of those who approach him in the beginning were aggressive. No only would they have buried him but would have hammered on his head as well. But he didn't choose them. He felt that belligerence. He went for the types of people who were soft and gentle toward him, those who he could connect to, those who would understand him, those that have characteristics to show they were the kind of people who would provide him with some kind of excuse, some kind of reasoning and some kind of engagement whereby they might actually change his mind. These are not black and white realities, and are open to some kind of interpretation and empathy, by putting oneself in the shoes of others and understanding in that context what people do. I did investigate this thoroughly, because I had to worry about censorship. I wanted to make sure I got all the information -- the kind that would get through the filter.
In Japan, when they showed this movie they wanted me to give them some kind of message as it is customary there to ask the director what his message is and post that in front of the cinema hall for the people to read before they go in. So they came to me and wanted me to write up something indicating what my message. I talked about those 13,000 people that intend to kill themselves and reminded them of the 1000 people that are successful; I said today is November 10th and 1000 people have exited life. Those who have existed tell us to those who are left on November 11th that "since you have chosen to stay, you have taken the responsibility to live better, and thus your life has to be better today than November 10th."
Question: After the Iranian Revolution we have seen a number of movies coming out of Iran in which actors are amateurs and ordinary people. Interestingly, we often see that these amateurs perform much better. Are there financial reasons for this trend or there are some other reasons?
Kiarostami: Acting is a profession and requires specialization and training. As a good actor you have to know a lot and good actors are those who do a great deal of work. On the other hand ordinary people don't know a lot and this gives us the opportunity to work with them. Mediocre actors are actually the worst because they have some knowledge but don't know how to do a good job with it. Mr. Badie was recruited for two more films after his participation in my film but he wasn't successful in either of them, at least not as successful as in mine. This was because for my movie he didn't know anything. But for the following two he knew a little and that was his problem!
Question: Can you explain more about your choice of these spaces you talked about in your films, especially with the landscape, the backdrop, the inside and outside, say, of the car, etc.?
Kiarostami: Every selection has its own reasoning and we do not include anything without reason, even if there is no reason for the spectator there has to be a reason for us, for it to be on camera. So we are very careful. I'm not sure about which scenes and space you are specifically talking about but generally I can say that in any dialogue we make the selection of the spaces and their framing so that they are appropriate to the dialogue and contribute to the totality of the picture created.
Still, I have to say that what we produce is subject to interpretation, taste, and preferences. Movies, like other cultural objects, are interpretive objects. There is a meaning in them intended by the author, a meaning understood by the audience, a meaning generated as a result of the interaction of these different meanings. For instance, a critic did not like "Taste of Cherry" because he didn't see the grave and he wanted me to actually focus on the concrete grave. But he missed the point that I had so many scenes in which I depicted the grave in a symbolic way. Every time the soil was being poured down by the truck, Mr. Badie was seeing his own grave. In every down pouring of the soil and gravel, he was imagining himself under their weight.
Question: At the end of the movie there is a blackout, what is the purpose of this blackout? What did you want to imply by it?
Kiarostami: The reason I included this blackout was because I wanted to show death, but I didn't want to show the person actually experiencing the tortures of the process although that would have been the easiest for me to show, with the actor tormenting himself in preparation for death. So I took out the voice and the light, as that is the deeper way about thinking of nothingness and death, for death is lack of voice and light and that's a better way to express it than actually showing a person experiencing it.
Question: In two of your movies, "And Life Goes On," and "Taste of Cherry," we see the relationship between life and nature and you constantly show symbolically that life and nature reproduce themselves. Now in the industrialized world this connection between nature and life is becoming strained. How do you view this relationship?
Kiarostami: I can only answer part of your question the other part neither relates to the issue at hand nor to my work. I'm very sorry to hear that in the Western world this relationship between nature and life is getting weaker and blurred. It's an unfortunate reality of modern life and there is nothing one can do about it. The existential and personal aspects of this for me is that as I gradually step into my old age I slowly have to separate from a great deal around me and replace those losses with nature. Every time I leave a relationship or lose a belonging, I have to replace it with something else. It is very unfortunate that we lose a lot of things as we age. We lose friends, relatives, our appetites, our strengths -- there were days I thought if I didn't see my son for two days it was the end of the world, then it became two months and nothing happened, now two years and still nothing happens.
My solution for this problem has been to establish or strengthen my relationship with nature. This is the nature of human beings. I go out of Tehran several times in a week and try to visit some scenes of natural splendor. Film and painting are both ways of connecting with nature. I actually wonder, and this is a difficult time for me to think about, how it would be if I leave this life and what will happen to nature. And my friend tells me, that he can see from my films what will happen, and that there are different kinds of nature, and hopefully, as I show in my films, a time will come when soldiers will have flowers in their hands as opposed to guns. I go on with that hope.
Mahdi: Western culture is so accustomed to background music, and there was an absence of any kind of soundtrack in this movie. Is this a practice you employ often in your films or just this one?
Kiarostami: Music is a perfect art by itself. It's very powerful and impressive. I dare not try to compete with music in my films. I can't engage in that kind of activity as the use of music has a great deal of emotional charge and burden and I do not want to place this on my spectator. Music plays on the spectators' emotions, make them excited or sad, and takes them through a veritable emotional roller coaster like ups and downs and I respect my spectator too much to do that.
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