Considered by many to be one of the finest filmmakers the world has ever seen, Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami‘s works have inspired multiple generations of young students and aspiring directors. Through his poetic masterpieces, Kiarostami conducted striking existential examinations of life that transcended the limitations of the cinematic medium. On the fifth anniversary of his tragic demise, we revisit the life and career of Abbas Kiarostami as a tribute to the indelible mark he left on history.
Born in Tehran in 1940, Kiarostami showed artistic inclinations from a relatively early age. He was a talented painter and won a painting competition when he was only 18, eventually studying graphic design at the University of Tehran School of Fine Arts. Kiarostami started his career by working in the world of advertisement, designing posters and shooting innumerable commercials. In 1969, as the Iranian New Wave was gathering momentum, he worked with Ebrahim Forouzesh in order to establish a film division at the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults.
With the help of the institute, Kiarostami successfully produced his first cinematic work – a ten-minute short called The Bread and Alley released in 1970. A wonderful take on child psychology (something that would become a recurring subject in his later films) with elements of neorealism, the short displayed artistic deviations from the norms of the time. While recalling the experience, Kiarostami said: “Bread and Alley was my first experience in cinema and I must say a very difficult one. I had to work with a very young child, a dog, and an unprofessional crew except for the cinematographer, who was nagging and complaining all the time. Well, the cinematographer, in a sense, was right because I did not follow the conventions of film making that he had become accustomed to.”
Soon after, he made the acclaimed early feature The Traveler in 1974 which would be counted among his finest works even after the end of his career. The film portrayed a melancholic coming-of-age story about a young boy who copes with domestic oppression by escaping into the fantasy of football. Around that time, Kiarostami continued to produce short films like So Can I and Colours before coming up with the 1977 masterpiece The Report which raised pertinent questions about professional corruption and personal problems by following the frenetic life of a tax collector. These early artistic impressions still serve as undeniable evidence that the promising young filmmaker would reach unprecedented heights.
The 1980s and ’90s were undoubtedly the most notable period in Kiarostami’s journey as a director. The Koker Trilogy, consisting of Where Is the Friend’s Home? (1987), Life, and Nothing More… (1992) and Through the Olive Trees (1994), remains a work that is rife with staggering artistic achievements. Kiarostami’s portrayal of childhood innocence and the magical transformation of the banal into the profound in Where Is The Friend’s Home? is so special that it is impossible for it to age poorly as long as we remember what it means to be friends with someone. In the later instalments to the trilogy, after a devastating earthquake in 1990, Kiarostami blurs the distinctions between fiction and reality in order to carry out metaphysical assessments of the fundamental truths regarding the process of filmmaking.
When we consider Kiarostami’s filmography as a whole, the ’90s were remarkably important because of three truly brilliant pieces of cinema that he produced during that period (apart from the additions to The Koker Trilogy). Starting with Close-Up in 1990, the Iranian master gained international recognition as well as praise from other pioneers like Jean-Luc Godard, Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog among others. In it, Kiarostami attacked the barriers that filter truth from reality with more conviction than ever while framing the dangers of solipsistic cinephilia in a humanistic framework. Another fascinating film from that time is Taste of Cherry which was famously panned by Roger Ebert even though it won the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes. Time has proven Ebert wrong since Kiarostami’s simple story about a man searching for death still resonates with newer audiences.
The Wind Will Carry Us (1999) wrapped up an extremely eventful decade for Kiarostami during which he managed to solidify his status as one of the greatest living filmmakers. A year later, he received the Akira Kurosawa prize for a lifetime of achievements in the world of cinema. “Words cannot describe my feelings about his films,” Kurosawa said once. “When Satyajit Ray passed on I was very depressed. But after seeing Kiarostami’s films I thank God for giving us just the right person to take his place.” Kiarostami kept strengthening his oeuvre with gems like Ten, Shirin and more which fulfilled the purpose of reminding us that auteurs weren’t an extinct species in the 21st century. Until the very end, Kiarostami’s work maintained its poetic power as evident in Certified Copy (2010) – a complex meditation on the performative nature of love, starring Juliette Binoche and William Shimell.
In 2016, Kiarostami succumbed to gastrointestinal cancer which left the world reeling in shock and grief. His death marked the passing of a national and international symbol, one that provided people with hope for the future of cinema. “Kiarostami gave the Iranian cinema the international credibility that it has today,” Kiarostami’s contemporary Mohsen Makhmalbaf said. “But his films were unfortunately not seen as much in Iran. He changed the world’s cinema; he freshened it and humanised it in contrast with Hollywood’s rough version.” The final work in his filmography was released posthumously in 2017, an experimental masterpiece called 24 Frames which beautifully summed up Kiarostami’s lifelong obsessions with mortality, time, nature and creating visual poetry through photography.
In an intriguing interview where he was asked about the poetry in his work and its impact on his legacy, Kiarostami reflected: “I feel the cinema that will last longer is the poetic cinema, not the cinema that is just storytelling. In my library at home, the books of novels and stories look brand-new because I just read them once and put them aside; but my poetry books are falling apart at every corner, because I have read them over and over and over! Poetry always runs away from you—it’s very difficult to grasp it, and every time you read it, depending on your conditions, you will have a different grasp of it.”