“Film begins with DW Griffith and ends with Abbas Kiarostami,” says French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard. The warm month of July turned out to be a sad and unfortunate month for the Iranian cinema scene. The loss of world-renown filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami, left many national and international artists speechless around the world. On July 10th, a week after his sudden death in Paris, the artist’s coffin was brought back to Iran and was carried to the cemetery through chests of hundreds of Iranians.This month, Iran lost perhaps its most prophetic visionary, a luminous light that shed sparks on the deepest layers of Persian art and poetry for more than 40 productive years. Echoing the sentiment, film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf told The Guardian that, “Kiarostami gave the Iranian cinema the international credibility that it has today.”
To Iranians, Kiarostami has always been more than a beloved artist. At a time when almost all filmmakers and artists of the Iranian New Wave left their country to seek more creative freedom during the cumbersome years leading to the Islamic revolution of 1979, Kiarostami decided to stay. His life was marked by his devotion to the documentation of real lives of all classes, keeping the citizen’s images at the forefront of international screens. He stayed to witness and capture the birth of a deeply traumatized society of post-revolution decades.
In fact, the artist was very well-known among fellow artists for his sense of patriotism and attachment to the motherland. When he acknowledged that his friend Hamid Dabashi (Iranian-American Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University of New York) had been away from Iran for almost 20 years, his sole response was, “Oh Lord, you are something to behold!” For him, it was nearly impossible to imagine a life away from his homeland.Throughout the 1970s and early 80s with films such as The Bread and Alley (1970) and First Case, Second Case (1979), Kiarostami attracted national attention. But this was all prior to his big “discovery” in the West. He first made an impression outside Iran with the Koker trilogy including Where is the Friend’s Home? (1987), Life and Nothing More (1992) and Through the Olive Trees (1994). For years, he continued to honor his country by bringing home international awards from Palme d’Or of Cannes Film Festival to Federico Fellini Gold Medal and several Honorary Doctorates.
Kiarostami was the master of long takes. Done with “the patience of a Sufi master” as Dabashi observes, his shots dwelled on a vision of reality that could touch any viewer. His camera made the foreign familiar for the international audience and by making the familiar foreign, he opened up images in a way never experienced by national viewers before. It is Kiarostami’s complex sound-images and philosophical approaches to ordinary life that makes him the Iranian equivalent to mystical filmmakers such as the Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky.
Man is mortal, his art is not. With his Close Up (1990), Kiarostami left students of world cinema with a masterpiece to behold and wonder at for generations to come. His cinema challenged the deepest layers of the viewers’ perception of reality and pushed the boundaries of the form in a way that captivated artists and critiques all around the world; from Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino to Laura Mulvey and Jonathan Rossenbaum.
According to Rosenbaum, even though many of Kiarostami’s spectators need a Persian cultural context to fully grasp the delicate cultural references within each film, his powerful portrayal of universal human values resonates with anyone from any cultural background.
Farewell dear Abbas Kiarostami, you will be missed deeply!
For a comprehensive reading of the director’s oeuvre and a broad philosophical interpretation of his art, see Alberto Elena’s The Cinema of Abbas Kiarostami (2005), Jean-Luc Nancy’s L’evidence du Film: Abbas Kiarostami (2001), and Alain Bergala’s Abbas Kiarostami (2004).