Abbas Kiarostami's piercing, observational eye helped revolutionize cinema. His 1998 A Taste of Cherry was a surprise winner at Cannes. His international masterpiece Certified Copy was both an Italian travelogue and an exploration of a mysterious relationship. And there's so much more.
Kiarostami died July 4 in Paris. The loss wasn't just to his homeland Iran, but to the entire world.
Iran is this week's enemy. It's been reported that Steve Bannon's computer password was "Sparta." One wonders if the man gets his news of Persia from the movie 300. Misinformation and prejudice makes "A Life in Film: Remembering Global Filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami" particularly important. Organized by San Jose State University's Persis Karim—a professor of English, who also teaches courses on ethnic literature and global Muslim culture—the event features San Francisco's Ahmad Kiarostami, the son of the director. He'll be appearing with visiting scholar Hossein Khosrowjah, author of a book on the director.
"He's brought a positive portrayal of everyday people in a nation constantly branded as an enemy," says Karim, who sometimes screen's Kiarostami's 2002 film Ten for her students. "But his work isn't an apology for the Iranian regime. Since directors there don't have the pyrotechnic abilities of American filmmakers, they focus on the complex relationships between people. Since the characters can't have sex explicitly, they're challenged to express intimacy and discord in new ways."
Karim is a U.S. citizen, but she has been personally affected by the Trump administration's draconian travel restrictions. "I have a cousin," Karim says, "a cancer survivor, who was waiting for a visit for her parents for Iranian New Year; her father has been a diplomat for 35 years and he can't get into the U.S.A. I have a lot of family in Iran, and I always think of them. They've had a lot of deprivation because of the sanctions. Many of my students don't know what their future holds, what their status is, or whether they want to remain in a country that is so hostile to them. I've lived through the hostage crisis, and then 9/11, and now this."
Ahmad Kiarostami is a naturalized citizen who has lived here for 17 years. He handles his father's legacy; he also programs a monthly series of documentaries on Iran, screened in some 22 cities in the U.S. It was news that the Oscar-nominated Asghar Farhadi (The Salesman), a green card holder, was barred from entering America. Ahmad's father had the same problem in 2002, trying to attend the New York Film Festival. "The U.S. asked my father for a background check," Kiarostami says. "He got a letter from the French Ministry of Culture that said, 'If you want to check Abbas Kiarostami's background, go look in a video store.'"
A Taste of Cherry is a movie shot mostly in a car, as a man searches for strangers who will help him commit suicide. The innovative storytelling device is revisited in other Iranian films—from Kiarostami's Ten to Jafar Panahi's recent Taxi.
"Shooting in cars is a great situation to capture talking," Ahmad says. "There's no TV, and you don't have to serve tea. If you have uncomfortable silences, you just have to deal with it. There's nowhere to go. There's also the matter that my father loved road trips. "
As for Abbas's problems with censors: "He talked about it more openly inside Iran than outside of it. He said when you have these rules, you have to be more creative. I had friend who had an architect who said to me, 'Whenever I have a big square piece of land, I build something normal. I get more creative trying to build on pieces of land that are difficult.'"
The upside of censorship is that it produces movies that have a real reason to exist—not always the case for the average mall movie. I wanted to track down a quote I'd heard attributed to Kiarostami. The gist of it was that Iranian film excels because it has 5,000 years of storytelling behind it.
"I've heard it said as 5,000 years of poetry," Ahmad says. "It is true but it's a very personal thing—if tradition was the only reason we had poets, we'd have a lot more poets."