Reflections on Abbas Kiarostami

By Rana Homayouni

I am sitting in the train as it is rolling and moving, rocking gently. We are stopped and I look over and see Kiarostami who is the conductor, reasoning with passengers, his voice firm and patient, his manner calm and knowing. I wake up.

Since the death of Iranian film maker Kiarostami in July of 2016, I have wanted to write something about him. Why this need to write? What is so special about Kiarostami- besides his numerous awards and critically acclaimed movies- that speaks to me? Has his death heightened his desirability? Or had he always held a special place in my heart? It is these questions I hope to explore.

Abbas Kiarostami was born in Tehran, Iran. He studied Fine Arts in the University of Tehran and graduated ten years after that. He admits being ‘rubbish at painting and drawing’ and giving up any wish to become a painter. He came across filmmaking by accident, starting by making T.V commercials and continuing onto making movies for children although they could equally have been made for adults. ‘Homework’ is one of these movies. It is a docu-drama, which interviews a set of first graders struggling with demands from teachers and parents in post-Iran-Iraq war stricken Iran during the month of February, 1988. In the first few shots of the movie, we see schoolboys walking towards their school. Noticing the camera, they wonder what the movie is about. One of them strikes an unintentionally comical pose and demands that his picture be taken. His voice is washed out by the chaos on the street. Undeterred, he keeps his awkward pose until finally Kiarostami indulges him, taking his request very seriously.

The camera cuts to Kiarostami asking students about their grades, who reads them texts for dictation? Do they get praised? Their answers are tentative and cautious, reluctant to tell the truth. One boy speaks of his regular beatings at home by his parents. “How do you get beaten?” Kiarostami asks. ” I don’t know” the boy answers shyly. ” How is it possible to get beaten and not know how? Kiarostami asks incredulously. My associations are to my own experiences as a very young student, terrified of punishment and highly obedient, my heart racing with anxiety whenever the teacher would call out names to ask questions. ” Would you like it if your teacher missed class today?” Kiarostami asks him, inviting him in what seems to be an universal fantasy that your teacher will miss the class. Even the fantasy is taboo and the boy insists on his love of homework.

Watching ‘Homework’ for the first time several years ago, I remember feeling that this ‘adult’ was on our side. Behind the camera, Kiarostami asked very few questions and gave the children what was possibly very rare: a listening ear. Although not a new concept to therapists who work with children, many adults forget the importance of listening. Good analytic training helps.

In the following years, even when he moved on to motion pictures focusing on very adult themes, children still held a spot in the limelight. In ‘Where is the friend’s home?’, we see Ahmad, having taken his friend’s notebook by mistake, climbing hills and running across fields to give back the precious notebook. Only then would his friend escape the teacher’s relentless scolding, humiliation and threat of expulsion. Throughout the film, we follow Ahmad and we encounter various adults who use him selfishly for their own gains, failing to see him with his desires and struggles. Through the lens of the camera, we are allowed to go where he goes, to see the world as he experiences it. Ahmad feels powerless yet determined, engulfed by the demands of the adult world but still relentless. He is rebellious and his feelings of empathy for his fellow classmate feeds his rebellion. Kiarostami’s ‘Where is the friend’s home?’ shows us the cost of being rebellious and of disregarding the powers above, and the value of still doing it anyway. We root for Ahmad and through him, rebel. We yearn for a time when rebellion will not have such a high cost…

To say that Kiarostami was loved and revered by all Iranians is a mistake. He was ignored largely by domestic film festivals and was seen as ‘foreign’ and too western. His appeal in international film festivals and by western critics did not win hearts inside Iran. Some thought of him as making movies for the western gaze. Others accused him of being indifferent to what ‘really mattered’: the political issues in Iranian society.

Kiarostami did shy away from making political statements, focusing instead on our shared human condition and the struggles and sorrows that smell and taste the same, wherever we are. In his 1990 film: ‘Close-up’, we witness the story of a young man who could have easily been Ahmad, a man named Hossein, who struggles with poverty and his deep feeling of humiliation of being jobless and poor. Hossein is in love with cinema and dreams of becoming a film director. During a chance encounter, Hossein portrays himself as a prominent and well known Iranian filmmaker and convinces a family of five to finance his movie. Based on a true story and using the real life character of Hossein, Kiarostami sheds light on Hossein’s psyche and it’s complexities, in a measured and non judgmental manner. Kiarostami’s camera reminds me of the work of the analyst, deeply involved yet in a safe distance. He is present, the actor does the talking. He listens and watches and waits.

My need to write about Kiarostami goes deep. At the time of his death, I was away from Iran, from my motherland. When he died, it seemed as though I had a hand in it, as if being away warranted my responsibility- something some children fear as words and wishses something equate to actions in their own minds. I was guilty and I wasn’t even aware of it. As Gohar Homayounpour asks herself and us, “Is it that if we are not suffering… we are cruel betrayers of our motherlands?” Kiarostami’s death reminded me of the losses I had endured by separating from my homeland, causing me to split unconsciously: all that is good is lost, all that is gained is worthless. However, my efforts at splitting did not last long, as I came face to face with the unbearableness of separation and the prices we pay. The least I could do was present him to my western audience, almost daring them to not accept him.

Going back to my dream, sitting in the gently moving train, my feeling is that as long as the spirit of Kiarostami moves us forward, as long as he is our conductor, patient, waiting, we will be fine.

You can also read this article on BGSP.edu.

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