Called the grandfather of the Iranian New Wave of Cinema, director Abbas Kiarostami drew comparisons to Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni and Jean-Luc Godard, and no less a personage than Japanese auteur Akira Kurosawa considered him the rightful heir to Satyajit Ray's mantle as the greatest practitioner of social realist filmmaking. His pictures depicted a country far different from the medieval Iran of the nightly newscast. Underneath the surface orthodoxy of the present regime beat the heart of Persia, a cosmopolitan culture of long-standing artistic and literary sophistication. Working in the tradition of Italian neo-realism, Kiarostami captured a lyrical but concrete feel for the particulars of place and visual atmosphere and elicited strikingly natural performances from non-actors, blurring the boundaries between fiction and documentary to serve a simple, elegant painterly direction that elevated his stories to the level of poetic allegory. From his international breakthrough "A Taste of Cherry" (1997) through later works including "The Wind Will Carry Us" (1999) and "Certified Copy" (2010), Kiarostami redefined not only Iranian cinema, but how western audiences viewed his homeland. Abbas Kiarostami died on July 4, 2016 in Paris at the age of 76.
The former graphic artist and illustrator accepted the invitation (offered partly because of his work designing children's books) to help found the cinema department of the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults, which would fund his early movies and provide Kiarostami with a stable artistic home. His immersion in films about kids proved particularly fortuitous in the wake of the jihad as the child's world remained an open and fertile ground for metaphor, in contrast to the restrictions placed on other areas of dramatic inquiry. Though his failing marriage ("a revolution going on in my house") precluded his fleeing the country during the revolution of 1978-79, Kiarostami could argue that weathering the storm made him a better filmmaker, and indeed the artists who stayed at home have produced, on the whole, better films than their contemporaries who emigrated.
Kiarostami's first dramatic short, "Bread and Alley" (1970), in which his young protagonist confronts a vicious dog in an alley, demonstrated the esthetic qualities that would distinguish his later films, although he claims naivete led him to choose the difficult subject matter, not realizing how many hours it would take to coax the appropriate reactions from the beast. Once the Islamic Republic decided that a productive, culturally responsible film industry offered more benefits than the reactionary practice of torching cinemas, Kiarostami made his third feature and first since the revolution, "Where Is the Friend's House?" (1987), a simple tale of a rural boy trying to return a friend's notebook after school in order to save him from punishment, encompassing universal geographies of childhood, school, fear and honor. At the time it was winning him fame at Western film festivals, he had no idea it was the cornerstone of the trilogy that would secure his reputation.
After an earthquake devastated the area where he shot "Where Is the Friend's House?," Kiarostami returned to the region in 1990 to ascertain if his young actors had survived. Tragically, they had not, but he turned this experience into the meditative, documentary-like fiction of "And Life Goes On" (1992), in which a director (played by an actor) and his son drive around the ravaged landscape searching for clues to the young boys' fate. In "Through the Olive Trees" (1994), Kiarostami recreated the making of "And Life Goes On" to serve as the backdrop to a tale of the unrequited love of two bit players, both victims of the quake. Playfully pointing up the artifice of the device, he has the actor portraying the behind-the-scenes director identify himself at the outset as the director, and later an assistant responding to a call from one of the actors brings water on to the set. Another scene shows the director shooting multiple takes, although that repetition enabled Kiarostami to get in an exchange where the Young Man is murmuring to the woman he loves, between the takes.
Kiarostami has also directed intriguing documentaries like "Case No 1, Case No 2" (1979), which so confounded officials of the new Islamic regime that they initially awarded it a prize before banning it, and "Homework" (1990), inspired by the difficulties his son was experiencing at school. His most famous documentary, "Close-Up" (1991), depicted the trial of a poor man (Sabzian) who had gained illicit entree into the upper classes by posing as the famous Iranian director Moshen Makhmalbaf. Kiarostami wryly blends in fiction, persuading Sabzian and the deceived family to reenact certain events that led to the arrest and arranging for the real Makhmalbaf to meet the pretender on the latter's release from prison. At one point the real Makhmalbaf visited the family to impress them in Sabzian's behalf, and the mother said to him when he was leaving: "Mr. Makhmalbaf, the other Mr. Makhmalbaf was more Makhmalbaf than you are." Kiarostami has never more brilliantly invoked his contention that "We can never get close to the truth except by lying."
Kiarostami's "Taste of Cherry" (1997), a lyrical, sun-drenched existential meditation on suicide--an Islamic taboo--ran afoul of the Iranian government which nearly prevented its inclusion at Cannes. When it went on to win the Palme d'Or, the official government reaction was one of icy silence, although his faux pas at the award ceremony caused a scandal at home. In the heat of the moment, Kiarostami disregarded a code of fundamentalist Islamic behavior by kissing presenter Catherine Deneuve on the cheek. His films are not wildly successful in Iran, but he understands the breadth of his increasingly Western audience, saying "I'm happy that only a few people see my films, a select few. It is not realistic to expect this kind of cinema to attract a larger audience." In addition to his own films, Kiarostami wrote the screenplays for Alireza Raisian's "Safar/The Journey" and Jafar Panahi's "Le Ballon blanc/The White Balloon" (both 1995), the latter winning the Camera d'Or at Cannes. Following his international breakthrough, Kiarostami directed "The Wind Will Carry Us" (1999) and the deliberate, experimental "Ten" (2002), filmed entirely through a dashboard video camera. After writing the screenplay for Jafar Panahi's "Crimson Gold" (2003), Kiarostami moved back into documentaries with "Five" (2003) and "Ten on Ten" (2004). The following year, he collaborated with Ken Loach and Ermanno Olmi on the anthology "Tickets" (2005). For his last film shot in Iran, "Shirin" (2008), Kiarostami filmed a number of well-known Iranian actresses (and French star Juliette Binoche) as they appeared to be watching a retelling of the fable of Shirin. Binoche also starred in Kiarostami's "Certified Copy" (2010), a romance set in Tuscany. For his final film, the director moved even further from his homeland with "Like Someone In Love" (2012), an elliptical romance set in Tokyo. In 2014, Kiarostami was diagnosed with gastrointestinal cancer and settled in Paris, where he underwent treatment for his disease. Abbas Kiarostami died in Paris on July 4, 2016. He was 76.
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Invited to help found the cinema department of the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults in Tehran, Iran
Directed first short film, "Bread and Alley"
First feature, "The Traveler"
Second feature, "The Report"; made outside the Institute's auspices
His 53-minute documentary "Case No 1, Case No 2" condemned highschoolers who ratted on their neighbors; confused officials of the new Islamic regime first gave it an award, then banned it; also made without Institute money
Third dramatic feature and first since the revolution, "Where Is the Friend's House?", told a simple tale of a rural boy trying to return a friend's notebook after school; eventually became the first film of a trilogy inspired by a 1989 earthquake that devastated the area where it was filmed
Locarno Film Festival screened "Where Is the Friend's House?", introducing him to a European audience
The most famous of his documentaries, "Close-Up", depicted the trial of a poor man who gained illicit entree into the upper classes by posing as a famous film director
Second film of trilogy, "And Life Goes On", was a documentary-like fictional tale of the filmmaker and his son searching to see if his actors had survived the earthquake; won the Rossellini prize at Cannes
Third film of trilogy, "Through the Olive Trees", was his first film to gain major notice in the states
Contributed to two group projects: "A Propos de Nice, La Suite", a tribute to the French filmmaker Jean Vigo who died at age 29, and "Lumiere and Company", featuring 39 international directors' work with the original Lumiere camera and homemade film stock
Wrote the script for former assistant Jafar Panahi's "The White Baloon", which won the Camera d'Or at Cannes
"Ta'm e Guilass/Taste of Cherry" won the Palme d'Or at Cannes
Wrote, directed and edited "The Wind Will Carry Us/Le vent nous emportera"
Exhibit of photographs featured at NYC's Andrea Rosen Gallery