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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.”
The same could be said of Where Is My Friend’s House?, the first in the Kiarostami trilogy that has made him an international film-festival luminary. A charming but slight tale, it follows a boy’s quest to return a notebook to a schoolmate whose address he doesn’t know. It’s in the tradition of other Iranian films that have screened in Washington, notably The Runner and Bashu, that focus on young boys trying to fend for themselves.
“Iran or any Eastern country is very male-dominated,” says the 54-year-old Kiarostami. “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,” concedes Kiarostami; sitting in the lobby of the Wyndham Bristol Hotel wearing a black jacket, gray sweater, and blue-denim pants and shirt, he does look more like a Parisian or a New Yorker than a resident of the remote villages he’s documented. The director’s current notoriety, which includes a New York Film Festival slot for Through the Olive Trees last fall and its recent nomination for a best foreign film Academy Award, has even linked him to Jean-Luc Godard, who wrote to the New York Film Critics Circle that he wanted “the Oscar people to honor Abbas Kiarostami instead of Kieslowski.”
Of Godard, to whose name he appends François Truffaut’s and Robert Bresson’s, Kiarostami responds that he feels “so close to their ideas [although] I haven’t followed all the films they’ve made.” A bigger influence, however, is the work of the Italian neorealists, some of which he saw as a teen-ager, back when European films were more commonly screened in Iran. Like the neorealists, the director notes, he prefers to work from the lives of real people rather than literary sources. He argues that the “main similarity,” however, is simply that poor, provincial “Iran now is like Italy then.”
Despite such art-film inspirations, Kiarostami has finally achieved a commercial breakthrough at home: House, he says, was “successful,” while its successor, And Life Goes On, was a flop. But the third in the series, Trees, was “very very successful.” This, he thinks, is 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 account of a man’s relentless but pragmatic courtship of a diffident young woman, it 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 one of his earlier films that 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 Teheran, 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 that would be deemed hopelessly arty in Hollywood. He improvises around a basic story line, works mostly with amateur actors, and has based his recent films 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 AliKeshavarz, 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.”
Indeed, the difference between male and female reactions to Trees throughout the world—from Paris, where it’s now playing in five theaters, to China, where a woman offered to marry the film’s protagonist herself—has sparked the director’s next project. Aside from its focus on male-female relationships, he says, “I know less about it” than he did his other films when he conceived them. That, of course, is fine with him. “If I know exactly what I’m going to do,” he says, “I lose my interest.”