Abbas Kiarostami: A Quiet Cinema of Absence & Intimacy

 

Only the day before, I had found myself in the middle of a discussion about the concept of magical realism in the context of cinema. I was told that this was a matter of making the “strange” emerge at the heart of the everyday and rendering the “inconceivable” acceptable. But isn’t this the very definition of our everyday life? In fact, in the countries that those elsewhere so delicately dub “the South” the strange and inconceivable is part and parcel of everyday life. Here, the acceptance of reality itself and its day-to-day integration frequently approaches the magical… Images pass before the spectators’ eyes – nothing but pure realism, exact replicas, and yet they are troubling. Such is the magic of the ‘seventh art,’ such is the power possessed by those modern-day sorcerers, the filmmakers. Which explains why, from time to time, somewhere in the South someone wants to burn them! In this heat….

Abbas Kiarostami, April 2007

Tehran

Introduction

From a distance we watch as a car winds through the Kurdish countryside. Dust kicks out behind its wheels, leaving a trail that draws attention to the disturbance this lone car makes on the quiet road. The amount of disturbed dirt tailing the vehicle might very well suggest that the road rarely sees even the lightest traffic – the ground is looser along the mountainside than it would be on a moderately traveled dirt road. Disembodied voices can be heard – we assume they are from the car even though the distance of the camera would suggest otherwise. We quickly realize how lost the passengers are when they discuss the directions they have been given. The camera keeps its distance as we listen to the voices discussing various landmarks that should be searched for along the drive if they are to make it to their destination. They are searching for a “tall, single tree” – an impossible task since “there [are] a lot [of trees] on this hillside.” But then someone sees it – he points it out to another passenger, and then a third passenger sees the tree. They signal to Jahan to look, but by the time they do the car is already beneath the hill. Both Jahan and the spectator have still not seen the tree. And then we see it: as the camera follows the car along the road, a full tree of the deepest green sitting on the very top of an empty hill appears at the very peak of the frame. The scene is hypnotic – this is without question – but it is nothing more than the realism that Kiarostami employs for his films. The condition of the “magical” is rather a question of perspective – it is purely in the eyes of the spectator.

We have returned to the words that ignited this paper. For how else can we begin the discussion of Kiarostami’s cinema than with his own words? This preface for Gönül Dönmez-Colin’s The Cinema of North Africa and the Middle East is as complex and cryptic as Kiarostami’s films. Are we listening to a critic analyzing the current state of cinema or a filmmaker that has completely divorced himself from the notion of a particular genre due to its hyperbolic nature – the “magical” condition to what is simply realism? What makes it “magical” realism – perhaps – is the unfamiliarity with what is understood to be “the real” if you were a citizen of Iran instead of a cinematic tourist. But Kiarostami does not go as far to say any of this – it is only in my interpretation of his words that I’ve arrived at this conclusion. Despite our inability to fully understand his testimony as a interpretive mechanism – or perhaps because of this inability – the work of Abbas Kiarostami has attracted attention from across the world in an attempt to comprehend a cinema that is at once both mundane and beautiful; both simple and rich; both restrained and intimate. This is the cinema of Abbas Kiarostami: a cinema of silence, intimacy, and distance.

The focus of this paper will be on three of Kiarostami’s films: The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), A Taste of Cherry (1997), and Ten (2002). These three films – along with the rest of Kiarostami’s work – have certainly captured the attention of an audience outside of Iran. Many scholars and critics have attempted to tackle his minimalistic and poetic films in readings that were largely influenced by the filmmaker’s own testimony and their perception of a conservative Iran. This is not always a mistake – merely it is a shortness of vision; an unconscious deceit that functions only as an oversimplified answer.

But before we jump into the analysis of his films, it is important to summarize how this has already been attempted. In compiling these voices I hope to illuminate some of the strengths of the research that has already been done while also filling in some of the holes that were consistently avoided. We will then move to the cultural context of filmmaking in Iran before finally taking you to an in-depth analysis of the three films.

Previous Research: A Job Half Done

“One dominant thread in descriptions of postrevolutionary Iranian cinema has been an interest in what we do not see” (Lippard, 31). These are the words of Chris Lippard in his article, “Disappearing into the Distance and Getting Closer All the Time: Vision, Position, and Thought in Kiarostami’s 
The Wind Will Carry Us”, as he attempts to navigate Kiarostami’s film from a culturally contextualized perspective. It is true that we must regard the films from Iran as inseparable from the “postrevolutionary” country they come from, but this strikes me – again – as an oversimplification; by using a blanket statement like “postrevolutionary Iran,” Lippard has implied a continuity between filmmakers that fall under that context. That is not to say that what he says is not true – Kiarostami’s cinema is, in fact, extremely interested in what we cannot see – but it is important to avoid statements like this in order to not give answers, as it is the moment that we begin giving answers that we stop asking questions. In avoiding blanket statements we will be able to move beyond just representing Kiarostami’s deliberate choices as a causal relationship to his location as a filmmaker. The location – as an Iranian filmmaker who has deliberately stayed in Iran – cannot be ignored, but it also cannot explain the affect of what can and cannot be seen in his films.

Lippard – like many other scholars we will encounter – then turns his attention to Kiarostami’s words from an interview with Peter Lennon following the completion of The Wind Will Carry Us. By turning to Kiarostami, Lippard tries to make sense of a poetic cinema that appears to need a justification for every decision:

The usual way in film is to show something. But my aim is to create a cinema to see how much we can do without actually showing it. How much we can make of the imagination of the spectator . . . You see, when you make a statement, you have only made that statement. But if you don’t make any one statement you have all the others (33).

I mentioned earlier that a typical move I noticed in scholars’ arguments has been to turn to the words of Kiarostami as an interpretive mechanism. This issue will have to be tackled later in the essay, as right now it is more important to notice how Lippard has successfully transitioned our thinking over to spectatorship. By opening up the narrative, Kiarostami invites the audience to engage with the film; by not making a singular statement, all the others become possible. In the three films we are exploring, Kiarostami attempts to intimately involve the audience in the story by placing the spectator in close proximity to the characters, but at the same time he can hold us at a distance – barring us from the answers and single meanings we desire from film.

Presence of Absence: Exploring the Active Role of the Spectator

This transitions us to a phrase I will be appropriating in this essay. I say appropriate because I am not sure of its origin – instead I will have to define it based on my own understanding of a term that I was first introduced to while reading James Joyce. The term is “presence of absence,” and what I hope to convey in using this word is the balance between what can and cannot be said or seen. The “presence of absence” is the spectator’s consciousness of the missing – it is a recognition that something is deliberately left absent because it cannot take existence on the screen. The audience’s awareness of this absence is part of what allows Kiarostami to open up the narrative. Perhaps an example may illuminate this idea and perhaps even define the term that is so vital to my research.

Let us look at the end of A Taste of Cherry. After following around Mr. Badii for the entirety of the film, we now watch – when the moon or lightning allows – as he lies in his grave and stares up at the night sky. We do not know whether or not Mr. Badii took all of his sleeping pills. The two moments when he may have had an opportunity to do so on-screen were obscured: one behind a curtain as the camera – positioned outside the window – watches him move around his apartment, and another as he sits on the hill before lowering himself into the grave – his back turned to us. Kiarostami does not give us this information. We can only watch Mr. Badii as we anxiously try to figure out not only what he has done before this moment but also what will happen next.

But we do not get to see what comes to our protagonist – whether it is death and twenty spadefuls of dirt, or the helping hand of Mr. Bagheri as he pulls Mr. Badii out of the grave. Instead the film suddenly cuts to soldiers as they march up the hill where we know Mr. Badii has gone to die – we recognize the hill since it is the fourth time that we have made the trek during the day. However, the quality of the film is different; the noise and color of what we see has dramatically changed. We see several members of the film crew setting up a camera and a tripod before we see him: not Mr. Badii, but the actor, Homayoun Ershadi, as he lights a cigarette and walks over to Abbas Kiarostami. The film cuts again to the sound technician quietly recording the sounds of the bugs as he lays down in the grass. It cuts again to see the soldiers marching before Kiarostami comes over the radio to stop them. And then, for the first time in the film, music comes on, and we watch as soldiers sit scattered on the hill waiting for directions. The last shot of the film holds as we watch a car drive around the corner of the road and disappear behind a hill.

This ending – in a phrase – can be attributed to the aforementioned “presence of absence.” What we cannot see is a cultural condition – a taboo that has been approached only to be denied conclusion. We know from the film that the act of suicide is a taboo subject in Iran – the seminary student that Mr. Badii attempts to recruit to bury him makes this all too well known:

Yes I understand you. But suicide is wrong. Since the Hadiths, our twelve Imams and the Koran refer to suicide and say that man mustn’t kill himself. God entrusts man’s body to him. Man must not torment that body. I understand you, but suicide, viewed from every angle […] my hand does God’s justice. What you want wouldn’t be just.

We see this revealed through dialogue again when Mr. Badii finally finds someone – Mr. Bagheri – to help him. When asked to repeat back to Mr. Badii what he has agreed to do, Mr. Bagheri responds: “Some things are easier to do than to say.” Mr. Bagheri – when Mr. Badii returns to find him in the museum – consoles an obviously distraught Mr. Badii by reassuring him that he will do the job: “Even if they behead me, I’ll keep my promise.” It becomes clear by the end of the film just how difficult it was for Mr. Badii to recruit help once we understand the consequences of the actions about to be taken. Mr. Bagheri tells us that if it was not for his anemic daughter’s desperate need for treatment, then this conversation would not have even been permitted – giving the spectator justification for his violation of a law. His motivation is what allows the concept to be tolerated on screen, but even his promise cannot be fulfilled on screen. In fact, not even the notion of a fulfilled promise can be fulfilled on screen, since the film directs our attention back to the filmmaking process, reassuring everyone that it is only a film they are watching.

A similar treatment of context occurs in Ten. The ten conversations in the constraints of the vehicle reveal a great deal to an audience that is not situated in Iranian culture and politics. The driver of the car engages in conversations with her son, her sister, an older woman going to pray, a prostitute, and a bride who has found out her fiancé is sleeping with another woman. These various conversations reveal a lot about contemporary Iranian society. At one point the driver tells her son:

It was a good way to get a divorce. The rotten laws of this society give no rights to women. To get a divorce, a woman has to say that she is beaten or that her husband is on drugs […] a woman has no right to live […] a woman has to die so as to be able to live.

Amin – the driver’s son – is still holding the divorce against his mother, and perhaps her lie is at the source of his confusion. He is unable to fully understand that – under the conditions – lying was the only way for his mother to get the divorce. This is one of countless moments in the film where we get clues as to the cultural context of Iran. It not only informs the spectator about the characters’ lives, but also the conditions under which Kiarostami works. In recognizing the comments about the patriarchal laws of Iran in Ten, we begin to understand why Kiarostami is able – as a man – to make films; but to be able to make a film about women critiquing the culture continues to evade me – and perhaps points to how arbitrary these censors really are.

Despite this possible oversight, what is important is that Kiarostami continues to make films that are more poetic than they are narrative. Even Ten, in all its apparent simplicity, lends itself more to the non-narrative style that Roxanna Haghighat explores in her article, ‘“Disciplined Silence” and “Wandering Talk”: Poetry and Punctuation in the Films of Abbas Kiarostami’:

The problem with narrative films is that people from all walks of life come out
of watching it with the same story. Non-narrative film allows people to use their own mind, frames, and experiences, and walk out with experiences they have created from watching the film” (13).

Again, Kiarostami’s words haunt the pages of an essay. This time it is as Haghighat attempts to navigate Kiarostami’s films by focusing more on the poetic – the non-narrative filmmaking that Kiarostami appropriates as a stylistic choice. Even in Kiarostami’s most dialogue heavy film, Ten still leans towards the poetic in its pacing of shots and structure. But do not confuse non-narrative with non-linear – the non-narrative that Kiarostami mentions is the denial of a traditional narrative of arch, action, and intrigue in favor of something that more closely resembles poetry – it is not the complete rejection of linear storytelling that plays with the teleology of the plot.

This is a poetic tendency that Babak Tabarraee – in his article “Abbas Kiarostami: A Cinema of Silence” picks up as well:

The abundance of poems, poetry, poetic layering, and even references to Iran’s old and modern poets is as much tangible in Kiarostami’s cinema as his often nationally criticized detachment from politics. A poetic silence, then, filled with not only the unspoken, but also the unspeakable. (Tabarraee 12)

They both obsess over Kiarostami’s relationship with the poetic – the name of The Wind Will Carry Us is taken from Forough Farrokhzad’s poem of a similar name and Kiarostami’s cinema has been broadly placed upon a similar spectrum of poetic realism. This is not a mistake to say this, but it does risk falling into a similar oversimplification that we have seen before. The “criticized detachment” is a misreading of the film – it focuses on the visual and the narrative without any articulation of the presence of what is absent. While this is not part of Tabarraee’s critique – being just an observation of what exists in conversations around Kiarostami’s work – the poetic silence is what engages with the politics. I think that Tabarraee implies this, but it is important here to make the implicit, explicit.

Babak Tabarraee also recognizes the scattering of voices in the world of film scholarship and attempts to organize these voices under a single term: silence:

So, silence, as an enriched lack, a half-charged space, a relative – and sometimes even total – abandonment of acoustic, visual, narrative, linguistic, musical and political elements for poetic, aesthetic, and morally democratic reasons and consequences […] my use of the term silence is completely interdisciplinary and similar to its conceptualization […] as a metaphor for communication (6).

He gets us closer to where we want to arrive in his synthesis of these voices. What Tabarraee recognizes in Kiarostami’s cinema is a tendency to fall into silence in many forms. He goes beyond silence as a aural element and perceives it to be “interdisciplinary.” This recognition – and well-meaning organization – is important in understanding the films of Kiarostami, but it must not limit our perspective when making grand observations – silence is only part of the answer, even if it reaches beyond the acoustic.

Michel Chion in the chapter “Phantom Audio-Vision” from her book, Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, may help to shed some light onto the issue of limiting this perspective and the role that silence can play in the cinema:

The acousmêtre is this acousmatic character whose relationship to the screen involves a specific kind of ambiguity and oscillation […] We may define it as neither inside nor outside the image. It is not inside, because the image of the voice’s source […] is not included. Nor is it outside, since it is not clearly positioned offscreen in an imaginary “wing” (129).

This brings me back to the opening of The Wind Will Carry Us and the disembodied voices with no source but clearly not without source. Chion in this passage might have articulated the presence of absence that exists in the relationship between the audio and the visual in Kiarostami’s films with the word “acousmêtre.” What is implied is the assumed – the role of the spectator in engaging with the film in order to understand it. By placing the sound in this liminal space, both Chion and Kiarostami force the spectator to do exactly that.

This is the perfect place to start. The research suggests that Kiarostami’s cinema has been concerned with silence and what we do not see; although the “presence of absence” is not a coined term in this research, it amounts to about the same. We also need to be able to articulate the role that sound plays in that coined term. But I want to go beyond recognizing that the absent is present. Kiarostami has done more than just create a cinema concerned with the absent; he has also created intimacy in a space concerned with the presentation – or rather representation – of the real. This is where I will attempt to build. There is a reoccurring space in Kiarostami’s cinema that has been neglected . All three of these films – as well as several other Kiarostami films – are brought together through the use of the vehicles that either contain or control the narrative. These vehicles do not only carry his characters through space, they also determine the proximity of the spectator. These are the spaces – inside these vehicles – where intimacy between the characters, and intimacy – if allowed – between the film and the spectator is present.

What Can Be Talked About in a Cinema of Silence?

A word of caution moving forward: despite having mentioned it already, I remind you that using Kiarostami’s words as a way to directly interpret his cinema is a mistake – it is a vehicle into his work, but it is potentially veiling itself in the same silence that his cinema is. This does not mean that his words are not important – just as what is said in his films is just as important as what is not – I just ask for the recognition that almost all of these film scholars turn to Kiarostami’s words in order to understand his work.

There are a couple of ideas that must be established before diving too deep into Kiarostami’s cinema. We return to the notion of a “presence of absence,” an idea that is existing within what has historically been a medium dominated by the visual. Trinh T Minh-ha in her article, “The Image and the Void”, lends a hand to establishing this dynamic:

In a consumerist context where the eye is a dominant organ, to create is to give form to the seen. Thus, acts of recording, informing, and revealing are often subordinated to sight − or to what one can see − while writing, filming, and video-making, for example, are reduced to producing what remains legible to the eye. Whether a work is explicitly visual or not, the claim to ‘making visible’ is ubiquitous (131).

We have subordinated our senses to the visual pleasure of cinema, but this is not the way to interpret a cinema of intimacy. We must look at the “making visible” that is always present when films are created – which are a product of all the deliberate choices that manipulate our senses. It is the relationship between a visual absence and an aural presence – and vice versa – that we must explore; it is the push and pull between what we are allowed to experience and what is implied in what we are not.

Take for instance, the absence of music in the films Kiarostami makes. Certainly a score is the best way of expressing the internal or manipulating the spectator to think or feel a certain way. But in Kiarostami’s cinema, the silence fills this void that is typically occupied by music. I think we can see this as a deliberate attempt by Kiarostami to open up the narrative – not just with what we don’t see but also with what we don’t hear. In refusing to manipulate the senses of the spectator with music, Kiarostami once again invites the spectator to engage with the film.

In her essay Minh-ha really only deals with the contextual intricacies of China – speaking towards the significance of an empty chair – but this strikes me as an image that can find fluidity across cultural borders:

Worth noting is the recurrence on the world stage of such features as the lone chair and the unoccupied seat; the blank page, blank space, bland sign; the screen gone white, with no content; the empty frame or the frame with no art; and last but not least, the interval of silence − all potentially endowed with a powerfully haunting effect.

This “haunting effect” is a way of articulating the “presence of absence” Kiarostami wants us to notice. It sits on the periphery of every sequence and haunts each of his films. By leaving the narrative open, we are left only to work with the implied: a fluid and adaptive interpretation that is both contextualized by culture and individualized by each spectator. The “empty chair” takes on a new form in Iranian cinema: it loses its culturally significant roots in China and shifts to a constructed consciousness of exactly what this “empty chair” looks like in Iran.

Context: Iran and Personal Politics

Here we can transition to the cultural context of Iran – where the three films in discussion are both made and set. Hamid Dabashi in his book, Close Up: Iranian Cinema, Past, Present, and Future discusses the era in which Kiarostami found himself – illuminating the context of a filmmaker born and raised in Iran:

Kiarostami was born [1941] in the glorious age of modernist Persian poetry and grew up to wed that poetry to the best in Iranian cinema […] a child of postwar Iran, an Iran temporarily occupied by the Allied forces, an Iran abandoned by an old dictator and yet to be effectively ruled by his successor, an Iran of the new Tudeh party [Iranian communist party], where the daily details of the political culture were charged with a new force of anxiety and expectation […] a child of the Mosaddiq era [1951-53], a time of temporary relief from the frightful claws of absolutist monarchy, an era in which the active memories of the constitutional revolution of 1906-11 had once again come to color the hope for a tolerant society and a democratic state […] the generation of his parents and his teachers could still vividly remember the revolutionary euphoria that at the turn of the century had mobilized a huge orchestra of sentiments, power, and ideology to awaken an ancient land of to the realities of its colonially militated modernity […] born into a nation-state that had become conscious of its political and cultural identity through a century-long process of secularization of its political culture, a semibourgeois revolution, a foreign occupation, the bloom of literary and poetic self-awareness, and a series of catastrophic and debilitating colonial interventions. (33-35).

What Dabashi reveals is a post-revolutionary Iranian state that is married to its politics, revolutions, and creative expressions – ideas that do not always coexist within the country. During his childhood, there was no cinematic industry due to the outbreak of war – transferring the strength of cinematic tradition to that of a profound poetic tradition (Dabashi, 36).

This would all come to an abrupt halt in 1953, when the CIA-sponsored coup of the democratically elected Mohammad Mosaddiq – returning the Shah to power and beginning a period of repressive regime (Dabashi, 38). It was during this decade that the cinematic tradition of Iran began to establish itself in the multiple movie houses that had been set up around the country (Dabashi, 38). This was not so much a tradition of quality as it was the establishment of an awareness and enjoyment of the cinema as a vehicle of entertainment (Dabashi, 38). Unlike the cinema, poetry in Iran continued to build upon the quality of its traditions – adopting a style of social realism in response to a politically anxious and tense state (Dabashi, 40). One can imagine how the political became personal in a culture where the art was becoming increasingly conscious of the politics.

It would not be until the “White Revolution” of 1963 that the cinema would begin to work in a similar vein – turning from the largely commercial thrillers and melodramas of the 50s and 60s to a cinema that responded to the political and cultural turmoil in Iran (Dabashi, 42). In the 1970s Kiarostami and a generation of young filmmakers would become students of the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults’ (Kanun) film division – leading the way to the realization of a profound cinematic tradition that had begun to take root a decade before (Dabashi, 44).

The climate of Iran would radically change in 1977, when Ayatollah Khomeini came back from fourteen years of exile and created an Islamic Iranian State (55). By this time, Kiarostami had already directed ten short films and a feature film. It would be another ten years before Kiarostami would return to feature narratives. But in between that time he would continue to make work concerned – on the surface – with children and their banal issues. But Dabashi suggests something more:

The kind of redrafting of reality in which Kiarostami has been engaged, his persistent attempt to show us how to look differently, sketches out a mode of being that survives all the pains and promises of a revolution […] Kiarostami’s has been an entirely different kind of agenda, an agenda of liberation from the received mandates of the culture of death and negation, metaphysics and mysticism, concealment and doubt. His cinema is the vision of life on earth, certainty in the real, a celebration of the transitory, the festive embracing of being-toward-now (59).

His cinema was able to flourish because Dabashi’s interpretation was not at the surface. On the surface was a filmmaker concerned with the mundane; below was a filmmaker dearly concerned with the revolution and the “redrafting of reality” that subverted it.

Again we can return to Kiarostami’s words to achieve some further context, this time in a collection from Zanganeh L. Azam called, My Sister, Guard Your Veil; My Brother, Guard Your Eyes: Uncensored Iranian Voices – in response to a question: what is the current state of censorship in Iran?:

Censorship, in realty, has now replaced outright banning. It is as though they had decreed: We will not ban, but we will censor. For [Ten] they simply asked me to remove half an hour of the final version. The Wind Will Carry Us had nothing for them to remove. So they said: Remove two verses by Forough Farrokhzad. And I couldn’t do that. It wasn’t the poetry of Forough with which they had problems, it was the sequence – they claimed it was pornography… But no matter, because of these scenes, the film was banned and is still banned. (88)

The state of censorship seems to be almost arbitrary – remember that Taste of Cherry (1997) was screened in Tehran, and it wasn’t until after it won at Cannes that suspicions rose (Azam, 88). Accompanying this nature of censorship is an open invitation to filmmakers: to work creatively within the cultural context. To imply – through absence – all that cannot be said.

This absence is inseparable from the position of the spectator – what we will call distance. It is important in Kiarostami’s films to think of how and where the viewer is located – this is our entry point into spectatorship. In a cinema that is obsessed with intimacy, distance – and exactly what that distance represents – is at the heart of the visual language. Since Kiarostami operates on an intersection between documentary and narrative fiction – his is a cinema situated in a collapsed binary of realism and poeticism – he is able to address a fictional moment with a style that feels all too real. The proximity of the camera to the character – and consequently the proximity of the spectator – is manipulated by this style to suggest something more real. Realism – as described by André Bazin in The Ontology of the Photographic Image – exists in cinema as an objective force: “Viewed in this perspective, the cinema is objectivity in time… the image of things is likewise the image of their duration, change mummified as it were” (14-15) It is a function that runs its course in a slow moving cinema that prefers to interact with both the Iranian community and the deep Persian relationship with poetry. If realism is a mode of spectatorship – and a mode we recognize well – than it is important to turn our attention to how the poetic – a term that is contextualized differently from culture to culture – and the real – something we might all recognize – interact. In Kiarostami’s films, the binary collapses: the real is poetic; the magical is everyday.

The Wind Will Carry Us

The Wind Will Carry Us is an exceptional example of the role that the vehicle plays in Kiarostami’s films. We return to the beginning of the film: opening with disembodied voices as a car drives through the countryside. We are kept at a distance from our characters, but our access is not indicative of our distance – our ears are closer than our eyes. From the very start, Kiarostami holds a certain amount of information from us – all while simply watching a car drive on a road.

This vehicle becomes a catalyst to the plot. Several times in the film, a phone call disrupts the narrative – not because everyone around the protagonist is disrupted, but because he must drive out of the town – to a graveyard – to get cell reception each time his boss calls. We watch from a distance as the car takes him to his phone call – winding up the dirt road as we hear him ask for the speaker to wait patiently. In what could largely be considered his most self-reflexive film – the plot is about a filmmaker coming to a small community to capture what is considered a dramatic and ancient tradition – Kiarostami speaks through what is left absent: the voice on the other end of the phone, the subject [the invalid] of the narrative within a narrative that we never see, the film crew that is constantly disembodied voices, and the man who we never see that is eventually buried in the hole he is digging. Even when we are inside the car with him, we still cannot hear the voice on the other end of the phone. What does it all mean? By leaving these things absent Kiarostami actually draws more attention to their removal from the screen – partially or entirely – as it allows the spectator to step in and assume or imagine what we cannot see. In opening up the narrative, Kiarostami presents the spectator with an invitation to engage with his cinema.

Now this essay is not – by any means – an attempt to interpret Kiarostami’s individual films and the meaning behind each sequence. I do not mean to choose a single, implied answer to the absent. No, instead what I want to do is simply draw our attention to the role of the implication – the absent – and not limit the reading of what it might mean.

But let us not get so easily distracted. We have seen this technique before. In 1990 Abbas Kiarostami directed Close-Up (1990), an intersection between documentary and drama that recreated a true story using all of the people involved and putting Kiarostami in the courtroom with the case. My attention – in this essay at least – goes directly to the end, when Kiarostami sets up a meeting director Mohsen Makhmalbaf and his impersonator, Hossain Sabzian – apparently watching from behind a cracked window of a car and with failing microphones. We can barely understand what the two say to each other as the sound goes in and out. Here is the climax of the film – and yet we cannot access it. Instead we follow from behind as the two speed along on a motorcycle behind a cracked windshield.

This film [Close-Up] could have easily been regarded more carefully in this research – this is by no way meant to create a hierarchy in Kiarostami’s films. I simply wanted to point directly to this point without any muddle that may come up in tackling such a complex film. The sound is left purposely absent – regardless if we choose to approach it as a deliberate intervention of Kiarostami or the eventual choice to keep it – the sound is still purposely absent. Every choice he makes is deliberate – it is what makes his cinema poetic instead of merely our American connotation of realism. And so the film ends with a freeze-frame of Sabzian’s face – a frame that captures the attention of another film scholar, Christina Vatulescu, in her article “The Face to Face Encounter of Art and Law: Abbas Kiarostami’s Cinema”:

This [freeze frame] never denies its links to the mug shot that precedes it, nor its possible future transformation into yet another mug shot. For cinema can only freeze the privileged image for a precious, short interval. And yet this interval is precious precisely because, rather than coercively fixing his subject in the right pose, Kiarostami’s reflexive freeze-frame allows Sabzian the time to slip away from the camera and to join the audience in taking pleasure in his own representation, or else simply to use the time to engage in new self­projections, whether self­corrective or criminal. Assuming the limitations of his privileged image, perishable to the point of requiring freezing, possibly expired or obsolete by the time the film reaches its audience, Kiarostami recognizes his subject’s ultimate freedom to outlive his frozen cinematic representation (192).

Although a long excerpt – there is not a word escapes our attention. Nor is there a word that cannot be applied to The Wind Will Carry Us. Both films recognize the subject’s – whether real or imagined – ability to “outlive [their] frozen cinematic representation” or what Bazin would call “change mummified” (15). This is the open narrative that Kiarostami wishes to create. What makes these two films intimate is that the spectator is very involved in this process of creation.

What becomes apparent in The Wind Will Carry Us is that the car functions outside of the definition I attempted to attribute to it [the vehicle] earlier in the paper. It is not the same place of intimacy that we see in the other two films. Instead it is a source of disruption – that is until Behzad [the protagonist] gives up his car to the community as a pseudo-ambulance and accompanies the doctor back to town on his motorbike. No longer is the intimacy contained to the car. The bike offers freedom in its intimacy as the two ride through the golden fields. It becomes more than just intimacy with each other, but also intimacy with the natural. The spectator is held at the distance for the entire ride, but the voices are not disembodied because we can see the characters. The journey is shared, free, and expansive. It is the first taste of vehicular intimacy that we see between the outsider and the community. It is still a vehicle that brings this intimacy, but it is not contained like the intimacy within the car that we see in A Taste of Cherry and Ten.

A Taste of Cherry

There are a total of three conversations that occur within the car in A Taste of Cherry. The rest of the film is a quiet meditation on the protagonist as he drives around Tehran looking for someone to aid him in his suicide. The protagonist finds conversation within the walls of his car, but is consistently unable to interact with the world outside it. His motivations – both personally and in asking for aid – are both illegal acts under law. The outside world is distant from the positioning of the character – alien and labyrinthine when he steps outside into it. The world peers into the car but is always at a distance, unless they are invited in. The car provides a space for this dialogue – not only between characters, but also between the spectator and the narrative.

Again we feel distant when denied dialogue and intimate when we observe conversation. Unlike The Wind Will Carry Us, we are offered a seat in the car. The camera – once inside the car – generally positions itself in the passenger seat. The spectator’s distance from the character is intimate and so is the dialogue. This intimacy is compounded by the fact that these conversations cannot occur outside of the car: even when Mr. Badii finds a friends in the Afghani security man, he is unable to get him to join him in his car. In this way we get close to the character – but not too close. Our intimate space is disrupted by a camera that does not always stay true to this intimacy – sometimes leaving the car and hovering over it even in conversations; other times adopting the perspective from the hood of the car watching the ground pass underneath it. Once both the camera and the narrator are outside the car, the world seems alien. We watch as Mr. Badii’s shadow gets buried under mounds of dirt and as dust obscures any clear image. And then the end comes, and Kiarostami appears – wandering the hills with his film crew. We do not know how the narrative ends: whether or not the protagonist lives or dies, or even if his friend leaves him or buries him. Instead we get a reminder about Kiarostami’s work: the “subject’s ultimate freedom to outlive his frozen cinematic representation.”

There is also a narrative absence that persists in this film. Mr. Badii consistently refuses to give a reason for why he is in the state that he is, at one point saying: “It won’t help you to know and I can’t talk about it.” He holds the characters and the spectator at an arms length – refusing any sort of lectures that might convince him otherwise. But when he comes across Mr. Bagheri – who tells him that he at one point tried to commit suicide – he falls into silence. Even when Mr. Bagheri asks him to speak, Mr. Badii remains silent. The camera also moves outside of the car – as both the character and the camera try to prevent any intimacy from occurring. This aversion from intimacy is finally over when Mr. Badii gets out of his car and walks into the museum to find Mr. Bagheri and ask him to throw stones at him just in case he is asleep. This is the emotional climax of the film – as it offers a sliver of hope for Mr. Badii – but it is interrupted by Mr. Bagheri’s work: outside of the car the intimacy vanishes and Mr. Badii, despite this sliver of hope, is left alone to watch the sunset and contemplate if that is the last one he wishes to see.

Ten

Ten is where it all comes together. The entire film – ten conversations of varying lengths – takes place inside the same car. Not only do the conversations vary in length, but they also vary in balance. Sometimes the camera chooses not to show the passenger – or even occasionally the driver – at all. The content of these conversations – as we discussed earlier – is not exactly the type of conversations that would be spoken without the promise of privacy. We are once again in a place of intimate conversation – within the four walls of a vehicle.

The entire film situates itself in sort of an odd spot – appearing to be on the dashboard of the car. We no longer find ourselves in the passenger seat. Instead we get the feeling we are watching something we shouldn’t – as if everything was recorded without the knowledge of the characters. It is no longer an invite for intimacy; instead it is forced intimacy and forced proximity. We are close to the characters but not in the same way that we are in A Taste of Cherry. But this does not take away anything from the affect – it simply highlights it by making the spectator self-aware. The dashboard is not a human place to be, so we recognize this as an observation of intimacy more than a participation in it. Kiarostami exchanges the “human” positioning in order to show the four walls of the vehicle as the only space where intimacy can occur.

The spectator witnesses this conditional intimacy several times in the film when the mother and father attempt to communicate between vehicles. Neither leaves the respective vehicle to communicate as their son passes hands. We are left with shouts, misunderstandings, and words lost in the exchange. The outside world – loud and fast – becomes a barrier for communication. Neither parent is able to communicate with each other as well as the mother does with complete strangers. In the end, the car is the only space for conversation and the only place for intimacy, even when it’s difficult.

Despite the allowed intimacy within the walls of the car, there are still things that are absent and sit on the periphery of these conversations. Perhaps the most intriguing absence is in the visual space of the bride when she takes off her hijab. The image is not as sharp on the bride as she takes off her hijab to reveal her shaved head. The image is so soft that it even becomes difficult to see her tears until she wipes them from her face. This is the frame that the film holds for the rest of the “chapter” – but this is also where the film is at its most intimate, as we see the driver’s hand come in to wipe away the tears. Although this surrogacy is not from a camera position that would immediately suggest that the driver is a stand-in for the spectator, the drivers prolonged absence from the visual space is enough to make the sight of her hand helping the bride a relief to the spectator.

Here is where we come back to the interdisciplinary nature of silence that Tabarraee mentioned only briefly. The “presence of absence” in Kiarostami’s cinema is largely concerned with the balanced occupancy of visual space. This visual silence is seen in the balancing of shots in every interaction in Ten. The film opens with Amin getting into the car and the camera refuses to leave him until he exits. We aren’t even introduced to our protagonist until the very end of the first chapter. In engagements with her sister, the bride, and later with her son, the shots find a balance between the driver and her passenger; but in conversations with the prostitute and the old lady, the camera stays with the driver. With the prostitute we do not get to see her until the very end, once she is outside the vehicle looking for a man to pick her up. She is also the only character that is in the back seat of the car. We only see the old woman in a similar manner – when the driver is talking to her outside of the car before she picks her up, and her back as she leaves the car and the chapter ends.

The visual space that cannot be occupied by certain characters becomes very present in a film that only operates between two to three different shots. It is in this absence that Kiarostami speaks volumes about the country he lives in – as it exists in most of what is left absent in these three films. The dynamic between this absence and intimacy is tense throughout these films. Disruptions come from every angle- whether it is part of the story or a presence from outside the film that prevents this intimacy. Despite this tension, Kiarostami operates on moments of intimacy in his films: when the photographer finally allows himself to be intimate with the community; when the passenger finally helps Mr. Baddi; and when the camera is balanced between characters in the taxi.

Conclusion:

So what is the affect of watching the cinema of Abbas Kiarostami? He puts us in the passenger seat. He holds us far away. He draws attention to our position as a spectator. He gives us voices when there is nobody there. He forces us to watch from exactly where he wants us to watch. He makes us feel like we’re right there – even when we are a thousand miles away. He uses vehicles the way that filmmakers use cameras – to look at others and to look at ourselves. By creating an intimate space, Kiarostami raises questions that can neither be asked nor answered – creating one of the most subjective cinematic experiences that I have even engaged with.

I seem to be at a loss of words for a way to consolidate such a complex experience. Which brings me back to a word that was neglected in this essay that may be appropriate now. Scott Krzych, in his article, “Auto-Motivations: Digital Cinema and Kiarostami’s Relational Aesthetics,” finds himself in closest proximity to the research I have done with his articulation of reflexivity:

In contrast to this correlation between reflexivity and detachment, however, I want to offer Kiarostami’s work as a mode of reflexivity that counters the illusory practices of narrative cinema while still seeking the audience’s engagement, investment, and emotional attachment. With Kiarostami we find a form of reflexivity constituted not by the camera’s distance from the recorded event but rather by its close relation to the environment in which it actively participates.

His work has been deliberately saved for this moment – at the end of the articulation of my research – in order to bring this notion in that I only briefly was able to touch upon on page 19. The reflexivity of Kiarostami’s cinema plays a large role – as Krzych points out – in the engagement with the spectator. The proximity of the camera is vital not only to the non-narrative distinction that Krzych points out, but also to the intimacy that this proximity allows; an intimacy that finds itself in constant tension with a context that consistently betrays are expectations of what an intimate cinema can allow.

I must finally return to the words that we started with from Kiarostami’s preface. After being embedded in his cinema for the past several months, I have discovered how conscious I am of the role I play as a spectator. I believe my engagement in the film is what separates Kiarostami’s cinema from those that may be considered under the umbrella term of realism; I believe that it is the intimacy that he creates that makes me perceive it to be “magical,” simply because this intimacy does not exist in a cinema trying to represent the real.

 

Bibliography

Azam, Zanganeh L. My Sister, Guard Your Veil; My Brother, Guard Your Eyes:     Uncensored Iranian Voices. Boston, Mass: Beacon Press, 2006. Print.

Bazin, André. “Ontology of the Photographic Image.” What Is Cinema? Volume 1. Ed. and Trans. Hugh Gray. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967. 9-16.

Chion, Michel. Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen. New York: Columbia University Press,    1994.

Dabashi, Hamid. Close Up: Iranian Cinema, Past, Present, and Future. London: Verso,    2001. Print.

Dönmez-Colin, Gönül. The Cinema of North Africa and the Middle East. London:  Wallflower Press, 2007. Print. 24 frames; 24 frames.

Haghighat, Roxanna. “‘Disciplined Silence’ And ‘Wandering Talk’: Poetry And        Punctuation In The Films Of Abbas Kiarostami.” Film Matters 6.2 (2015): 12       18. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text. Web. 23 Oct. 2016.

Krzych, Scott. “Auto-Motivations: Digital Cinema And Kiarostami’s Relational    Aesthetics.” Velvet Light Trap: A Critical Journal Of Film & Television 66   (2010): 2635. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text. Web. 23    Oct.     2016.

Lippard, Chris. “Disappearing Into The Distance And Getting Closer All The Time:         Vision, Position, And Thought In Kiarostami’s.” Journal Of Film & Video 61.4   (2009): 31-40. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 16 Oct. 2016.

 

Minh-ha, Trinh T. “The Image and the Void.” Journal of Visual Culture. (April 2016)       131-140.

Tabarraee, Babak. “Abbas Kiarostami: A Cinema of Silence” Soundtrack 5.1 (2012): 5      13. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text. Web. 28 Sept. 2016.

Vatulescu, Cristina. “”The Face to Face Encounter of Art and Law”: Abbas Kiarostami’s   Close-Up.” Law and Literature 23.2 (2011): 173-194. Print.