One of the true masters of contemporary cinema, Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami has won not only the admiration of audiences and critics worldwide, but also the support of directors as distinguished as Jean-Luc Godard, Nanni Moretti (who made a short film about opening one of Kiarostami’s films in his theater in Rome), Chris Marker, and Akira Kurosawa, who said of Kiarostami’s “extraordinary” films: “Words cannot describe my feelings about them and I simply advise you to see his films... When Satyajit Ray passed on, I was very depressed. But after seeing Kiarostami’s films, I thanked God for giving us just the right person to take his place.”
Though Kiarostami emerged in the West as a major filmmaker in the early ‘90s—with films like CLOSE-UP and THROUGH THE OLIVE TREES—he had already been making films in Iran for two decades. Born on June 22nd 1940 in Tehran, Kiarostami was interested in the arts from an early age. He won a painting competition at the age of eighteen, and left home to study at Tehran University’s Faculty of Fine Arts. As a designer and illustrator, Kiarostami worked throughout the ‘60s in advertising, making commercials, designing posters, creating credit titles for films (including Gheyshar by M. Kimiai), and illustrating children’s books.
In 1969—the year that saw the birth of the Iranian New Wave with Dariush Mehrjui’s seminal film The COW—Kiarostami helped to set up a filmmaking department at the Institute for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults. The department’s debut production was Kiarostami’s own first film, the twelve-minute BREAD AND ALLEY, a charming, neo-realist gem about a small boy’s perilous walk home from school. The department would go on to become one of Iran’s most famous film studios, producing not only Kiarostami’s films, but also such modern Iranian classics as THE RUNNER and BASHU, THE LITTLE STRANGER.
Though Kiarostami’s films have been compared at various times to those of Satyajit Ray, Vittorio de Sica, Eric Rohmer, or Jacques Tati, they remain uniquely Kiarostamian. Effortlessly simple and conceptually complex in equal measure; poetic, lyrical, meditative, self-reflexive and increasingly sophisticated, they mix fiction and documentary in unique ways, often presenting fact as fiction and fiction as fact. (Kiarostami has said “We can never get close to the truth except through lying.”)
In the 28 years since BREAD AND ALLEY, Kiarostami has made more than 20 films, including fiction features, educational shorts, feature-length documentaries, and a series of films for television. He has also written screenplays for other directors, most notably The WHITE BALLOON, for his former assistant Jafar Panahi.
But it was not until the late ‘80s that his films began to be shown outside Iran. AND LIFE GOES ON (1992)—the first of Kiarostami’s films to be shown at the New York Film Festival—and THROUGH THE OLIVE TREES (1994), the last two parts of what has become known as the Earthquake Trilogy (started with WHERE IS THE FRIEND’S HOME? in 1987) were the films that made Kiarostami’s reputation in the West. In 1996 he was honored with a retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, New York, and in 1997 he came to the Cannes Film Festival at the eleventh hour with TASTE OF CHERRY, only to walk away with the grand prize, becoming the first Iranian director ever to win the Palme d’Or.
In 1999 Kiarostami won the Special Jury Prize for THE WIND WILL CARRY US and in 2000, at the request of the United Nations’ International Fund for Agricultural Development, he travelled to Uganda to make the documentary ABC Africa, his first film shot on digital video. In 2002 he premiered his newest film, TEN, at Cannes.
Kiarostami is also a noted photographer and poet. A bilingual collection of more than 200 of his poems “Walking with the Wind” was recently published by Harvard University Press.
Photo by Robin Holland