Abbas Kiarostami takes a scholarly and personal look at the director’s work through a multifaceted window that its subject would surely have approved.
Many dedicated movie fans have a shelf full of books dedicated to their favorite directors—single-volume studies the best of which dive deep into biography and technique, with an approach of pop culture color commentary or scholarly analysis. Abbas Kiarostami takes a more challenging and perhaps more rewarding approach than your usual academic movie book. Each of its two authors provides invaluable insight into the work of the late Iranian director, examining its subject from two different personal and cultural perspectives.
Filmmaker-professor Saeed-Vafa and film critic Rosenbaum first published their study of Kiarostami in 2003, covering the director’s career through 2001; this expanded edition includes additional essays and conversations that bring the book up to date through Kiarostami’s subsequent pivot from feature films to gallery installations, then to dramatic features made in exile such as Certified Copy and Like Someone in Love and ending with his final film, the posthumously-released experimental work 24 Frames.
The authors alternate chapters, Rosenbaum starting with a detailed overview of Kiarostami’s career beginning with early shorts made under the auspices of the Institute for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults (known as Kanun) in Tehran and moving through such major features as Close Up and The Wind Will Carry Us. The longtime Chicago Reader critic puts Kiarostami in the context of other Iranian filmmakers, most notably poet Forough Farrokhzad. She died in a car crash at the age of 32 and only made one film, the documentary short “The House is Black,” filmed at a leper colony. But its singular imagery and compassion (and, to some degree, its nature as a partially staged documentary), is an indispensable key to Iranian cinema, and is a must-see for any cinephile – stop what you’re doing and look it up on YouTube right now if you haven’t seen it.
Saeed-Vafa follows with an essay that looks at Kiarostami from an Iranian point of view, and also gets to key universal themes in his work, namely, as demonstrated in the documentary First Case, Second Case, the provocative question: “Do you think cinema should show reality—tell the truth—or not?” The differences in her list of Iranian cinematic milestones and Rosenbaum’s are instructive – seek out Parviz Kimiavi’s short “P Is for Pelican” on Vimeo for its surprisingly nightmarish symbolism.
The book includes interviews with Kiarostami conducted by either or both authors, and it is this dialogue-between, as Rosenbaum puts it, “A Jewish American man and an Islamic Iranian woman”–that most distinguishes Abbas Kiarostami from other director studies. The format well suits a director who once argued that the solution to a disagreement is dialogue; many of his films follow this tenet, refusing to spell out answers for viewers. Saeed-Vafa and Rosenbaum, who first championed the director’s work in the early ‘90s before he had yet become an arthouse favorite, talk about Kiarostami’s technique and exchange ideas about the meaning of his work. While they rarely come to outright conflict with each other, the different lenses, as it were, that they have on Kiarostami makes for fascinating reading. Perhaps surprisingly, it is Saeed-Vafa who points out that the title of the 1981 short “Orderly or Disorderly” seems like a reversal of the 1964 Jerry Lewis film The Disorderly Orderly.
In one of the book’s interviews, Kiarostami tells the book’s authors, “When you see a film, you should come away with your own personal interpretation, based on who you are.” Abbas Kiarostami takes a scholarly and personal look at the director’s work through a multifaceted window that its subject would surely have approved.