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The Iranian film industry, explains its most celebrated contemporary practitioner, began about 60 years ago. What Abbas Kiarostami doesn’t have to say, of course, is that it all changed some 45 years later, with the Islamic Revolution. Since then, he notes through a translator, the industry has remained vital, producing about 60 features a year, but those films are “mostly for children.”

Children—young boys, mostly—are characteristic protagonists of recent Iranian cinema. Many Iranian films seen in Washington, notably The Runner and Bashu, focus on young boys trying to fend for themselves. (Recently, the Kiarostami-scripted The White Balloon varied the formula slightly but significantly by spotlighting a girl.)

Kiarostami’s work is no exception. The retrospective of his films that begins today at the American Film Institute includes Traveler, about a boy from a small village who contrives to travel to Tehran to see a soccer match, Where Is My Friend’s House?, in a which a boy’s attempt to return a classmate’s notebook becomes a desperate quest, and First Graders and Homework, whose emphasis is clear from their titles. (The director will introduce screenings of Traveler tonight, Saturday, and Sunday, as well as selected showings of Fellow Citizen and Close-Up, which Werner Herzog has called “the greatest film about filmmaking ever made.”)

“Iran or any Eastern country is very male-dominated,” says the 55-year-old Kiarostami, who was interviewed during his 1995 visit to AFI. “Naturally our stories are about male characters. Naturally our memories are of young boys. Even female filmmakers [in Iran] make films about men. The East is like this.”

“We make other films about grown-ups,” he adds, “but they are mediocre films and they are very commercial.”

“I’m accused in my own country that I make films just for the festivals,” notes Kiarostami, whose black jacket, gray sweater, and blue denim pants and shirt do make him look more like a Parisian or a New Yorker than a resident of the remote villages he’s documented. Actually, his films have been commercially successful in Europe, although they haven’t been given much of a chance in the U.S.

A year ago, Through the Olive Trees was positioned to be the director’s American breakthrough. Acquired by Miramax after it was included in the New York Film Festival and nominated for a best foreign-language film Academy Award, Trees won the endorsement of no less than Jean-Luc Godard, who wrote the New York Film Critics Circle that he wanted “the Oscar people to honor Kiarostami instead of Kieslowski.” After lukewarm box office in New York, however, Miramax dropped plans to open the film in other U.S. cities. That seemed a curious choice for the D.C. market, where the Iranian film retrospective that included several Kiarostami efforts had just proved AFI’s most popular series in recent years.

Though not conceived as such, Where Is My Friend’s House? turned out to be the first in a trilogy that marked Kiarostami’s evolution from Iranian neorealist to Brechtian ironist. In the second film, And Life Goes On…, a director returns to the village where House was filmed to see if the young stars have survived a major earthquake. Trees, the last of the three, is based on an incident that occurred during the shooting of Life: A young man playing a new bridegroom proposed to the young woman playing his wife; the woman, considering herself of higher station, refused even to respond.

The latter films, with their musings on the relationship between filmmaking and real life, are a bit cerebral for mainstream entertainment, and Life flopped in Iran. Trees, however, was “very very successful,” although for a reason that probably wouldn’t occur to a Western viewer. Kiarostami thinks it’s because it is “the first love story made in Iran after the revolution. People were craving such a story.”

Trees is not exactly Last Tango in Paris or even Sleepless in Seattle. The man’s courtship of the diffident woman is relentless but pragmatic, and includes no romantic dialogue, let alone physical contact between the two. Depicting even the most chaste such contact is not allowed in Iranian cinema.

Making films in Iran is “not as bad as it seems from far away,” says Kiarostami. There is no “systematic censorship,” he argues, noting that the government actually sponsored the overseas distribution of Homework, which criticized the Iranian educational system. Still, there’s much that simply cannot be shown. “We don’t call it censorship,” he clarifies, “but religious restrictions.”

Nearly all American and European films are banned in Iran, Kiarostami says, not because the West is the Great Satan, but because such films violate Islamic codes of propriety; the sexless Dances With Wolves was allowed to open in Tehran, and was a big hit. (Western movies that would never be approved by Islamic authorities, he notes, are widely available as bootleg videos. He prefers to see such films abroad, however, because the bootlegs are of such low quality.)

Trained as a painter rather than a filmmaker, the director works in a manner partially derived from the Italian neorealists who originally inspired him. He improvises around a basic story line, works mostly with amateur actors, and bases his narratives on incidents that involve the real lives of his cast members. “I learned filmmaking watching ordinary people,” he says. “It’s kind of a habit for me” to work with amateurs.

“It’s now difficult for me to work with professional actors,” he acknowledges, although he did cast one, Mohamad Ali Keshavarz, in Trees. “The first take for the nonprofessional actor is usually the best one; for the professional actor it can be the 10th.” Keshavarz, the director recalls, thought the experience “a catastrophe.”

Where House reaches a narrative resolution, Life and Trees are intentionally open-ended. That’s why, Kiarostami explains, they end with extended long shots. “A close-up is like a full stop,” he says, and he wanted these films to continue, at least in the mind. “Some films last longer than two hours”—by which he means, potentially, forever.

He develops his movies this way “out of respect for the audience,” he notes. “I think it’s a fake film if they all leave the theater and they all have the same idea.”

“One of the things we as filmmakers should do is take the [viewers] somewhere and leave them there,” he suggests. “We come halfway. I make half of the film and they make the rest.”

Sometimes filmgoers and critics “can explain it a lot better” than he can, Kiarostami says. “I enjoy seeing people talking about the end of the film.”

Struck by the differences between male and female reactions to Trees throughout the world—in China, a woman offered to marry the film’s protagonist herself—the director is now committed to spontaneity and serendipity. “If I know exactly what I’m going to do,” he says, “I lose my interest.”—Mark Jenkins