Postmodern Need Not Mean Post-Human: Abbas Kiarostami and the Paradox of Cinema


The Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami was 76 years old when he died, and his last feature was 2012’s Like Someone in Love — so why does it feel like he’s been taken away from us at a moment of such creative promise and vitality? Perhaps because his cinema always seemed to be in mid-mutation, forever testing the limits of film to convey great complexity and humanity. With Like Someone in Love and his late-period masterpiece Certified Copy (2010), he seemed to be conquering new territory: He was telling stories outside of Iran, tackling the ever-changing relationships between men and women, in movies that themselves changed in remarkable ways before our very eyes. But when was Kiarostami not transforming? He was the shape-shifter of modern cinema, a man whose restlessness spoke through the constantly refracting nature of his work.

You can sense that restlessness in his earliest films, many made for Iran’s Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults. A mesmerizing obsessiveness marks his shorts and documentaries from the 1970s and ’80s, works that are simultaneously moving and self-reflective. In Homework (1989), we are treated to interview after interview of schoolchildren describing to the director their feelings about homework. In First Graders (1985), unruly boys are called into a principal’s office for questioning and repentance — the interrogations are by turns ridiculous, hilarious, and heartbreaking. In Fellow Citizen (1983), Kiarostami watches a dogged but overwhelmed Tehran traffic cop explain to pissed-off motorists why a major road has been closed off.

These movies identify the filmmaker as a student of behavior. But the repetitiveness also has a cumulative power. By the end of each film, you’re overwhelmed by the humanity you’ve witnessed; all those individual interactions, coming one after the other, suggest a world of breadth and density. The word that always comes to mind when I think of these documentaries is voracious: You get the sense that Kiarostami could spend his whole life in that principal’s office, or that intersection, or that classroom, just watching people be. And you might gladly stay there with him, sharing his fascination.

Even in these early works Kiarostami questions form, occasionally undercutting directorial authority and supposed objectivity with clever edits or random digressions that draw attention to the artificiality of his endeavors. But he never undercuts sincerity; rather, the structural and stylistic playfulness always ends up reasserting the dignity of his subjects.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the incredible run of narrative films the director made from the late 1980s through the 1990s. The most seismic of these was 1990’s Close-Up, based on a real-life case in which a poor, movie-obsessed hustler took advantage of a bourgeois Tehran family by pretending he was the celebrated Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Kiarostami restaged the events of the case, with the real people — victims and perpetrator — playing themselves, and then intercut those scenes with what appears to be documentary footage of the man on trial. Except that the documentary footage itself would turn out to be staged: Kiarostami had scripted the defendant’s lines, as well as the family’s forgiveness; he’d even handled some of the questioning from off-camera. The endlessly fractured perspective complicates our ideas of reality and fiction, of celebrity and identity, of directorial distance and intervention. But unlike so much of what we call “self-conscious cinema,” Close-Up never denies us emotion: At the end, the con man meets the real Makhmalbaf and promptly bursts into tears — a discomfiting and deeply heartbreaking moment. All the frames collapse into one; postmodern need not mean post-human.

Close-Up was a watershed for Kiarostami’s career as well as for the New Iranian Cinema. You can see its immediate effects in the director’s own celebrated “Koker Trilogy.” In the first film, Where Is the Friend’s Home? (1987), a young boy goes off looking for a classmate in order to return an all-important notebook; the repetitive structure and the tale of a child’s frustrating journey feel very much of a piece with the director’s earliest work. In And Life Goes On… (1992), however, made after Close-Up, a director returns to the remote setting of Friend’s Home after a devastating 1990 earthquake, to seek the two boys who starred in the previous film. In the third, Through the Olive Trees (1995), another director attempts to shoot a scene from the second movie, And Life Goes On… — a brief one, involving a pair of newlyweds — but struggles with it, because the young man who’s been cast has real feelings for the woman playing his bride, and she doesn’t seem to reciprocate. (Kiarostami had planned to make a fourth installment, in which the girl would be in love with the boy; this time, he wouldn’t reciprocate.)

Fragmented points of view, cinematic constructs laid bare, form interrogating itself — these are the hallmarks of postmodern, intellectual art cinema, and they probably speak to why Kiarostami found such favor on the international festival circuit. But with each successive shift of perspective, Kiarostami’s work becomes more emotionally engaging, not less. His experimentation doesn’t explain or unnerve so much as it evokes the boundless mystery of life. The final shot of Through the Olive Trees — a long take watching the young man from afar as he follows his beloved through a thicket of trees and across a field, and then suddenly starts to run back — is exuberant, overwhelming…and entirely open-ended. We have no idea if she’s finally agreed to go out with him, if she’s told him off, or what; the two characters are the size of ants in the landscape. In the 1990s, that blend of playfulness and emotional integrity was refreshing, eye-opening, and enormously influential. Without Kiarostami’s example, we might not have gotten Michel Gondry, or Apichatpong Weerasethakul, or Nuri Bilge Ceylan — at least, not in their current versions.

Kiarostami’s work continued to mutate after his anointment in the 1990s as one of cinema’s most important figures, a period that saw him win a Palme d’Or at Cannes for 1997’s Taste of Cherry. I must admit, he briefly lost me with ABC Africa, a 2001 video documentary about his negotiations around a project concerning Uganda’s AIDS orphans. It seemed at the time like a scattered digital doodle, lacking the visual finesse and framing intelligence of his best films; gone, it seemed, was the obsessive focus of his earlier documentaries. What I neglected at the time was that characteristic Kiarostami restlessness, that ceaseless search for something — a technology, an idea, a self-imposed limitation — that would open new windows. I also missed the fact that he had turned the cameras on himself, and on his status as an acclaimed international director — an idea that clearly echoed the concerns of Close-Up.

But in his subsequent, pioneering work with video — in projects like Ten (2002), Five Dedicated to Ozu (2003), and Shirin (2008) — the focus came back, with a vengeance. There was a confrontational austerity to these experiments that made them feel something like art installations. The stripped-down aesthetic continued to call into question Kiarostami’s own status as director, observer, as shaper. Despite the fact that they completely did away with anything resembling story, these films never stopped being captivating; Ten, a series of exchanges as a woman driver transports mostly female passengers through Tehran, might be the most hypnotic movie I’ve ever seen.

When we speak of great humanist directors, we often speak of the generosity of their camera, the vibrancy of their exchanges, their attention to community. Kiarostami certainly demonstrated all that, but there was also a loneliness to his films — a kind of solitude he captured in his subjects, even when he framed them within groups. I think of those nervous kids in those early documentaries, alone in the principal’s office, or that traffic cop stuck on that dreadful intersection. The loneliness of the scared, compassionate young protagonist in Where Is the Friend’s Home? — desperate to do the right thing, but his soft squeak of a voice almost inaudible to the adults around him. The methodical melancholy of the suicidal truck driver in Taste of Cherry, traversing the dirt roads outside the big city, looking for a stranger who will bury him. The lovesick torment of the young man in Through the Olive Trees. This solitude is the paradox of cinema itself: the communal experience in which we sit silently in the dark and all turn our eyes to the screen, each of us alone in the throng. No director better cut through that tantalizing loneliness than Abbas Kiarostami. No director better understood the poetic, vital nexus between subject, viewer, and filmmaker. We are all his children.