Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami is often counted among the greatest directors in the history of cinema. A pioneer of the Iranian New Wave, Kiarostami’s poetic explorations of the fundamental nature of our existence through the cinematic medium have changed the lives of generations of young artists who have sought inspiration, comfort and guidance from his works. While he has several prestigious accolades to his name including the Palme d’Or, Kiarostami’s greatest achievement is undoubtedly his wonderful oeuvre of multiple masterpieces.
Kiarostami once said, “Each movie has an ID or birth certificate of its own. A movie is about human beings, about humanity. All the different nations in the world, despite their differences of appearance and religion and language and way of life, still have one thing in common, and that is what’s inside of all of us. If we X-rayed the insides of different human beings, we wouldn’t be able to tell from those X-rays what the person’s language or background or race is.
“Our blood circulates exactly the same way, our nervous system and our eyes work the same way, we laugh and cry the same way, we feel pain the same way. The teeth we have in our mouths—no matter what our nationality or background is—ache exactly the same way. If we want to divide cinema and the subjects of cinema, the way to do it is to talk about pain and about happiness. These are common among all countries.”
On the 81st anniversary of his birthday, we take a look at 10 of the best works from Abbas Kiarostami’s illustrious filmography as a celebration of his invaluable contribution to the world of cinema.
Abbas Kiarostami’s 10 greatest films:
10. Ten (2002)
This 2002 work of docufiction paints a compelling portrait of Iran through fascinating conversations that a female taxi driver has with her passengers while driving around Tehran. Considered to be one of the greatest films of that decade, Ten earned a nomination for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
Kiarostami explained, “There are some films that are really essentially and by definition digital, like Five or Ten or some video art that I’ve made that you haven’t seen yet. And some others, like the last two, could have been made with film or digital cameras. Digital filmmaking is a specific way of filmmaking, in which you are free, you are totally free of every kind of constraint.”
9. Certified Copy (2010)
One of Kiarostami’s final works, Certified Copy stars Juliette Binoche as a French antique dealer who spends a day with an English writer (played by William Shimell). Over the course of the day, their relationship begins to transform into something more complex. Binoche ended up winning the Best Actress award at Cannes for her wonderful performance.
While talking about Juliette Binoche, the filmmaker said: “The script was written for her. That’s how it all started. When she won the Oscar for The English Patient, a journalist friend asked her, ‘Now that you’ve won this award are you going to become a Hollywood actress?’ And she said, ‘Well, no. The director I really want to work with is Abbas Kiarostami.’ I was so surprised to hear something like this from her and I happened to meet her a few months later.”
8. The Report (1977)
The Report is a difficult drama about the life of a tax collector who has to navigate the labyrinths of professional corruption and family issues. Kiarostami constructs an atmosphere that is rife with palpable anxiety, a perfect setting in which the exploration of ordinary life unfolds.
“Whatever theories had to offer me, they should have offered it long before I stood behind the camera. One should already have digested what he or she has read or learned before starting an artistic project. If one has really understood some theories, concepts or philosophy, they will appear in his/ her work in a subtle way,” Kiarostami commented.
Adding, “A fast and emotional reaction against social and political issues reduces the film to newspaper with an expiry date. And when those particular social intricacies change or end, the film becomes worthless. If the filmmaker creates a work with some raw and undigested ideas in his agenda, the film becomes an animated slogan.”
7. The Traveler (1974)
This 1974 film is a simultaneously beautiful and sad coming-of-age story about a 12-year-old boy who is absolutely crazy about football. In order to orchestrate a temporary escape from the oppressive conditions of his home, he embarks on an epic journey to accumulate enough money for the opportunity of watching his favourite team play.
“A few years ago, twenty years after I made it, I watched The Traveler at some festival in Japan. I found it still fresh and that the audience can still get along with it,” Kiarostami reflected. “If I were to have made The Traveler today, I might have been able to correct some moments, but, for sure, the film would have lost some great moments, too. These films were made in the past and they belong to those moments.”
6. Through the Olive Trees (1994)
The final instalment of Kiarostami’s famous Koker Trilogy, Through the Olive Trees is an intensely philosophical investigation of filmmaking and the intricacies of represented reality. It earned a nomination for the Palme d’Or at Cannes and was cited by multiple critics and directors as one of the greatest films ever made in a Sight & Sound poll.
Kiarostami said: “I don’t write elaborate screenplays. For Through the olive trees I wrote a fifteen-page treatment. I knew what I wanted to do, but my collaborators did not understand at first. It was simple, if you see that there are three directors: myself, behind a camera, Keshavarz, as a director in the film… For the rest I played it by ear, finding dialogue as it came from the characters in the story, making them speak lines that they would speak.”
5. Life, and Nothing More… (1992)
Life, and Nothing More… is the celebrated second part of the Koker Trilogy which shrouds its humanism with a veil of docufiction. It follows the journey of a filmmaker and his son as they search for the stars of Where is the Friend’s Home? is a region that was ravaged by an earthquake in 1990.
The filmmaker elaborated: “I am certainly very influenced by the Italian school of Neorealism, and this sometimes causes people to mistake my films for documentaries. When I went back to the Rudbar area after the earthquake of 1990 I didn’t even have a camera with me. Yet, after I made Life, and nothing more people were always asking me how much of the film was showing reality. They didn’t believe me when I said that every single set was made from scratch.”
4. The Wind Will Carry Us (1999)
Kiarostami’s 1999 film focuses on the shifting perspectives of an arrogant engineer from the city who arrives in a tiny village and ends up forming completely revised beliefs about the world. Although The Wind Will Carry Us received recognition from people who witnessed its majestic vision at international film festivals, the film was only rediscovered by a larger audience in the late 2000s.
Kiarostami recalled, “While making The Wind Will Carry Us, I was aware of how boring it could be seeing the same man climbing up a hill repeatedly. But what I found challenging was figuring out how to express the fact that I want that boredom—I want to bore you.
“Characters in the film are also bored. Nothing is happening, just some mundane activities and some scenery. Even the main character in the film—all he does is wait for something to happen. The very fact that nothing is happening creates some sort of expectation.”
3. Where Is the Friend’s Home? (1987)
Where is the Friend’s Home? is one of the finest moments of Kiarostami’s career. It is a deceptively simple story about an innocent young boy who sets out on an arduous quest to return his friend’s notebook against all odds. Very few films have managed to capture the essence of childhood, innocence, loyalty and friendship as this masterpiece.
“Each of these three films was born of the other,” Kiarostami said of the Koker Trilogy. “I first made Where is the friend’s house? then, when the earthquake of 1990 happened, I went back to the Rudbar area to see what I could do to help and out of the trip came the idea of making a second film, Life, and nothing more, describing the search for Ahmed the little boy in the first film.”
2. Taste of Cherry (1997)
Despite being brutally panned by some critics like Roger Ebert, Taste of Cherry has come to be cherished by audiences all over the world. It is an enigmatic tale about a disillusioned man who drives around looking for someone willing to bury him after he commits suicide.
Kiarostami revealed: “One night, when I was conceiving the ending, I did think this was a huge twist in the end. I wasn’t quite comfortable with it and throughout the night, and when I woke up in the morning, I did think this was a really big risk, but it was a risk worth taking. Even when I have people arguing about the ending of the film, I like it because it means the movie hasn’t ended.”
1. Close-Up (1990)
Close-Up is Kiarostami’s most famous and influential work which has revolutionised the world of docufiction. Constantly testing the barriers of fiction and reality, the film recreates actual events for his seminal examination of obsessive cinephilia.
The director explained, “In this type of cinema, whether working with actors or non-actors, as much as you do direct them, if you allow yourself to be directed by them, then the end result will be much more pleasing. The real and individual strengths of the actors is allowed to be expressed and is something that does affect the audience very deeply.”