Toronto Flick Picks: The films of Abbas Kiarostami


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Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up

Image: Janus Films via TIFF

This week TIFF begins a comprehensive retrospective of the masterful, and it should be said challenging, Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. He is without doubt one of the living giants of world cinema and even though his films can be distancing and at times more interested in their own technique than conveying information to the audience, there is no questioning his essential status.

That status comes down to a lot of things. First, I think, because when his films started making the rounds of festivals, particularly in the early 1990s, his look at the Iranian middle class changed some wider notions about middle class life and what we thought we knew about a theocracy. His 1991 film Close-Up is one of few films in the last 25 years that can honestly be said to have changed the way we think about the medium. It's mixing of fact and fiction are so complicated it’s a good thing TIFF has enlisted Kaveh Askari, Associate Professor of Communication in Residence at Northwestern University in Qatar and Associate Professor of English at Western Washington to explain the film to the audience at the Mar. 1 6:30 p.m. screening of the film.

By way of explanation, the film is Kiarostami’s attempt to cover an actual real-life, ongoing, trial of a man charged with impersonating a famed Iranian filmmaker. The impersonator, a lonely soul who cares deeply for the medium of film, tricks a family into being subjects in his film. Kiarostami rounded up everyone involved in the process in the attempt to make a fictionalized version of the trial, using the real participants (including the judge) as actors, as it happened. To confuse everyone further he shot it like a documentary so audiences believed portions were real as they actually happened, but turns out everything was scripted. Quite a trip. 

It’s indicative of a lot of the threads in Kiarostami’s work as he goes to great lengths to make fiction look ‘real’ and to subtract any arch constructs of narrative cinema. To the frustration of some, including the late Roger Ebert, a lot of context and information about what is happening and why we ought to care is excluded.

The trick is that Kiarostami expects you to bring that to the table as a viewer. He has said that his films are, in a way, half-made. He wants the audience to bring the rest to the films, perhaps by filling in the blanks out of their own biases and experience.

There is so much to choose from in TIFF’s The Wind Will Carry Us: The Films of Abbas Kiarostami. It kicks off with Kiarostami’s “Koker” (a small town in Iran where the films take place) trilogy which starts with Where is the Friend's Home? — in a new 35 mm print — about a boy’s trip to return his friend’s homework, then the doc-drama And Life Goes On (Feb. 26) where a search is put out for the two boys in the first film after an earthquake, and then Through the Olive Trees (Feb. 27), which is a dramatized version of elements from And Life Goes On. So it’s a trilogy of films stacked on top of each other, I suppose.

You can also catch Iran’s first Palme d’Or winner Taste of Cherry (Mar. 11) about a man searching for someone to aid him by making sure his suicide attempt has worked. He's already dug a shallow grave for himself. The man is just looking for someone to shovel the earth on him. 

Cherry features a number of sequences in a car where the camera is situated in either of the driver or passenger seat pointed at the subject in the other one. Kiarostami uses this technique to segment conversations and to make subjects out of his characters. The director himself sat in the other chair, off-camera, for much of the shoot. It’s rare you see two people talking in one shot, together, and often Kiarostami will pull back to wide shots to cover conversations.

It’s a fascinating distancing mechanism. It’s a way of controlling intimacy and holding the audience at a distance from the drama. It also controls how readily you engage with the material. He is always mounting layerings and attempting to throw you off with hints of falsity and imitation. Ten (Mar. 18), another arthouse landmark, takes up the front seat back and forth to a new level as the entire film is made up of conversations between two people driving somewhere together. To prove the director’s lasting contribution to high art, this will remind you of styles that reality TV makers use all the time.

In more recent years Kiarostami has left Iran and works out of Italy. His Certified Copy (Apr. 2) is a fascinating watch and a beautiful looking film featuring Juliette Binoche. Like Someone in Love (Apr. 3) from 2012 is also part of the retrospective. Those will no doubt be films Assistant Professor of English and Cinema Studies at the University of Toronto Sara Saljoughi will talk about when exploring  Kiarostami’s women characters, particularly pertaining to the film Shirin (Mar. 25).

Check out the full list here

And just a note, TIFF and The Aga Khan Museum have partnered to co-present The Wind Will Carry Us: The Films of Abbas Kiarostami. If you haven’t gotten enough Kiarostami they are featuring Seeing Beyond the Visible: The Films of Abbas Kiarostami at the museum until March 27.

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Paul Hantiuk is a freelance writer and journalist who attempts to pick out some interesting film events in a weekly column for Post City Magazines. By way of introduction, he doesn't have a favourite movie, Keaton over Chaplin, mid-way back with an aisle seat, the book is not always better than the movie, and you can follow him on Twitter @PaulHantiuk.

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