In Memoriam: Abbas Kiarostami

Nema-ye nazdik / Close-Up, 1990, Abbas Kiarostami
November 11 to 30, 2016

"Cinema begins with D.W. Griffith and ends with Abbas Kiarostami." (Jean-Luc Godard)

For almost two years, the Vienna Film Academy and the Film Museum had worked on bringing the Iranian director, artist and poet Abbas Kiarostami back to Vienna: he had intended to complement a retrospective of his work with an investigation into some fundamental questions of cinema together with film students and Vienna audiences. His wish was to remain unfulfilled: on July 4, 2016, Kiarostami died from cancer in Paris, where he had traveled to for treatment.

In homage to a major creator of modern cinema, the Film Museum will show his central body of work, which bears vivid evidence to Martin Scorsese's praise of Kiarostami as "representing the highest level of artistry in cinema." Created in immediate succession, these seven feature films made the Persian director famous around the globe and brought Iranian cinema into focus more than ever before. His former assistant Jafar Panahi (whose film The White Balloon, based on a script written by Kiarostami, can be seen in the framework of "The Utopia of Film" series on November 11) is not the only important world cinema figure from his milieu.

At the same time, Abbas Kiarostami can be said to have stumbled upon film; born in Teheran in 1940 as the son of a painter of frescoes, he originally studied painting and graphic design. His work in advertising, designing posters and creating commercials, brought him to the Iranian television in the early 1960s, where he went on to direct about 150 commercials. In the late '60s, one of these led the children's book illustrator to the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults (Kanoon), where he helped set up the film department and started making his own films in 1970.

His first short efforts already demonstrated a special approach to the medium: the preferred focus on children met with an unusual style glimmering between documentary and fiction. The wonder of Kiarostami's art lies in the weightless, natural transformation of very simple, realistically presented situations into highly complex, mysterious, spiritual-philosophical test arrangements.

Such is the case with his breakthrough film Khane-ye doust kojast? (Where Is the Friend's Home?, 1987), in which a young boy sets off to the neighboring village to return his classmate's notebook; a simple enough task leading to a cosmic journey of discovery – and thereby a kind of sum total of Kiarostami's work at Kanoon. After a 1990 earthquake devastated the filming location, the village of Koker, the filmmaker returned to it on two occasions in search for traces of his protagonists: Va zendehi edameh darad (Life and Nothing More, 1992) and Zir-e derakhtan-e zeytun (Through the Olive Trees, 1994) are increasingly multi-faceted explorations of the iridescent relationship between cinema and reality, which he had already brought to the hilt in Nema-ye nazdik (Close-Up, 1990) – reminiscent of his dictum: "We can never get close to the truth except through lying."

Kiarostami gradually gave up on conventional screenplays. Instead, he engaged in months-long preparations with his amateur actors and developed his subjects around them. Their "natural" reactions were often aimed at Kiarostami himself rather than those (film characters) they were face to face with. During the editing process, he wove these moments into a work that unobtrusively reveals universal insights and the most refined reflections: a cinema of life and death (literally so in the suicide saga Taste of Cherry) and a cinema of eternal change, culminating in Bad ma rad khahad bord (The Wind Will Carry Us, 1999). This film title, a reference to the great Persian poet Forugh Farrokhzad, conveys Kiarostami's self-image – he saw himself as a poet rather than a storyteller. His cinematic landscape painting is a quest for the rhythm and geometry of the world – and their imponderability.

The film 10 (2002) leads into the next phase of his work, in which Kiarostami began to make use of the "small", flexible medium of digital video. Ten conversations in a car: a restriction he understood as a chance for expansion and deepening. In the words of Kiarostami's admirer Michael Haneke: simplicity is hardest thing to achieve.

On November 11, to start off the retrospective, Michael Haneke will speak about the significance of Abbas Kiarostami and his film oeuvre for his own work. A screening of Kiarostami's masterpiece Close-Up will follow the talk.
Related materials