4 Crucial Cinematic Lessons from Abbas Kiarostami
Art and Experience: In the wake of Abbas Kiarostami’s death, here are four of his greatest contributions to cinema.
The film world suffered an incalculable loss with the death of Abbas Kiarostami, the legendary Iranian filmmaker whose 1997 film Taste of Cherry won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Kiarostami had been undergoing treatments for cancer in Paris, according to the BBC, where he died on Sunday. Immediately, tributes began to pour in from around the world, including from Martin Scorsese, who told The Hollywood Reporter, “He was a true gentleman and, truly, one of our great artists.”
Jean-Luc Godard once opined: “Cinema begins with D.W. Griffith and ends with Abbas Kiarostami.” Below, we’ve culled four of Kiarostami’s greatest ideological contributions to the cinematic form.
1. Cinema provides freedom for the artist (and the audience)
Kirastomi has been quoted as saying that a film should be like a novel, noting that the legacy of conventional cinema was to “take the audience hostage and dictate to them. In other words, it gives them a pre-packaged deal with determined message and a closed ending. That is why it cannot tolerate open, simple and uneventful moments. And audiences are conditioned by this kind of a cinema! They get lost and confused when they face an open end…but I believe even if for some reason you can’t watch the film to the end (for instance because of a blackout), you should feel content. A sequence should be self-contained.”
2. A movie is not a message
After the Iranian revolution in 1979, many artists fled the country, though Kiarostami elected to stay. Although the religious regime that took control was known— just as the previous, secular regime had been— for censoring artists, Kiarostami firmly believed in the primacy (and timelessness) of art. “Cinema is not a place for propagating messages,” he said. “An artist designs and creates a piece hoping to materialize some thoughts, concepts or feelings through his or her medium.”
“Cinema begins with D.W. Griffith and ends with Abbas Kiarostami.”
3. True art is timeless (and universal)
Referring to the political situation in his home country, Kiarostami noted that “in a country like Iran, where social and political issues are constantly shifting, the artist should focus beyond these mundane issues, on more fundamental realities like humanity itself, which is more universal. It’s the journalist’s job to collect news until 4 AM in order to print it in their newspapers the following day. But for an artist, that news should have been received months and years before.”
4. To be international, first be local
During a 2014 talk at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University, Kiarostami voiced his opinion on being a successful—and international—filmmaker. Asked about his international success, the director said, “To be international, you have to first be local.” He then gave a poignant and allegorical example, speaking about a tree that had been displaced.
“If you take a tree from its origin and plant it in a different location,” Kiarostami said, “will it be able to grow as much as it would have grown in the original place? Is it going to have the same roots, the same leaves, the same ability to have shade for people?” Kiarostami was referring to artists, who must have “a communication, a give-and-take with their land.” No doubt this was very true for the director, whose films focused so much on the everyday lives of the Iranian people.