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International Film Festival of India 2016

The irrepressible artist

The ongoing 47th International Film Festival of India in Goa is paying tribute to the great Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami by showing seven of his masterpieces

November 25, 2016 12:31 am | Updated 12:31 am IST

Censorship has been the buzzword in almost any discussion on Iranian cinema. Jafar Panahi’s case has been examined endlessly; the representation of women, the depiction of sensuality and the pressures of the religious establishment have regularly been a part of any discourse on film from Iran. I remember attending a screening of the now London-based filmmaker Mania Akbari’s 2012 film From Tehran to London at a festival a few years ago and staying back for the Q&A with the director afterwards. Given the conditions in which the film was made, it was perhaps natural that the discussion had drifted towards censorship. Akbari (Abbas Kiarostami fans will remember her as the actress from Ten , 2002) had been forced to flee Tehran after a few of her cast members had been arrested during the production of her film, its title pointing to that fateful journey. I had sat in the dark theatre, my eyes flitting between Akbari and her translator who had narrated to the audience the circumstances which had forced the filmmaker to live and work in exile. I still remember walking home that night wondering what it really meant to be banished from one’s homeland.

Abbas Kiarostami believed that it was censorship that forced filmmakers to find new ways of expression. In an interview, he admitted to feeling offended upon being repeatedly asked by the western media about censorship faced by filmmakers in Iran and felt that there were ways to circumvent it. His response was to invent a cinematic language so radically and refreshingly different from accepted modes of filmmaking that it amounted to his own clever form of subversion.

It is hard to describe a Kiarostami film to a friend who may have missed a show that you were meant to catch together. The premise is generally simple enough. But the viewer is often denied a narrative satisfaction or resolution. Like Mr. Badii (Homayoun Ershadi) in Taste of Cherry (1997), who drives around looking for someone to bury him after he commits suicide; the plots set out with an idea and an intention, but end up getting waylaid. They are artful decoys that tantalise viewers who had initially taken the bait hoping for an ending that was actually never intended.

For the viewer, a constant narrative frustration pervades. In The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), like Behzad (Behzad Dorani), we keep expecting to see the old woman die so that the film crew can document her funeral rites. But the moment never arrives. Instead, after successfully luring us in, Kiarostami pushes Behzad and ultimately his viewer to stop and smell the roses, to cherish the place, its people and their conversations. One characteristic feature of Kiarostami’s cinema has been his frequent disruption of the conventional flow of the shot and reverse shot while filming conversations, to the point where the reverse shot has been completely done away with. In Shirin (2008), women in a theatre are filmed as they watch a movie which the audience never gets to see and whose plot they are meant to decipher only through the women’s reactions. The film is the ultimate playing out of Kiarostami’s rejection of the reverse shot.

Similarly, towards the end of Taste of Cherry, when the Azeri taxidermist finally agrees to throw earth on Badii’s grave, we are given to feel that after his long and tortuous search, Badii has at least attained what he had set out to do. As he lies in his grave waiting to die, thunderclouds gather and the screen goes dark. But just as the audience prepares to leave, they are made conscious of the essential artifice of cinema. They see the film’s crew handling equipment as Ershadi casually shares a smoke with the director who announces: “The shoot is over.”

After the profoundly philosophical journey that the film has taken us through, this anticlimax is deeply disorienting. It snatches away the comfort of fiction as we are forced to become aware of the cinematic apparatus, and of the film itself, as a construct. It calls attention to Kiarostami’s own artistic process and invites us to reflect on the nature of his art form. Moreover, the moment betrays Kiarostami’s willingness to constantly transgress the boundaries between fact and fiction, reality and art. The most famous realisation of this was perhaps in the critically acclaimed Close-Up (1990), a film about the true story of a man who pretended to be the filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf to get a family to act in the film he was apparently making. Close-Up is as reflexive as it is compassionate, and its brilliance lies in the way it exposes the artistic sensibilities of all the filmmakers involved, both fake and real.

A Kiarostami retrospective is a potential treasure trove for the cinema enthusiast. There is so much to take in: the beauty of vast, unpeopled landscapes, the cinematic potential of moving cars and the charm of conversations and filmed through their open windows, the insight into human nature which is reassuringly universal. Ultimately the glorious canvas makes you want to reflect upon the inspirations of its creator. Abbas Kiarostami’s remarkable body of work makes you wonder at what made him the irrepressible artist that he was.

The author is a Mumbai-based freelance writer

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