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Published on June 14, 2001

Strategic lies

In 1995, as cineastes all over the world were celebrating the centenary of cinema, the New York Critics’ Circle wanted to honour Jean-Luc Godard. Instead he sent them a telegram with a list of what he regarded as his failures — prominent among which was not being able to convince “the Oscar people” to honour Kiarostami instead of Kieslowski.

Abbas Kiarostami, who spearheaded the revival of Iranian cinema, is one of the world’s most distinguished directors. His film, Taste of Cherry (1997), was co-winner of Cannes Film Festival’s Palm D’Or. Many filmmakers have been inspired by Kiarostami, Canada’s Terence Odette is one: his film Heater (1999) owes its minimalist plot treatment to Kiarostami’s influence. That other Cannes celebrity, David Lynch, also drew heavily on Kiarostami for his Walt Disney produced The Straight Story (1999).

CENSORSHIP AND VIOLENCE: Kiarostami believes that throughout the ages and all over the world censorship has existed in one form or another and artists have managed to live with this. In Iran films should not include sex and violence, and American films have been banned from Iran since the revolution.

“Today, the most important thing is that, although there is censorship, Iranian filmmakers are doing their job and they surpass the difficulties of censorship showing and discussing many things. So why ask me about what’s not in the films. It has happened many times that a filmmaker hides a weakness under the excuse of censorship but difficulties have always existed in our lifestyle and our role is to surpass them.”

Although Kiarostami dislikes the treatment of sex and violence in Western cinema he is a fan of Quentin Tarantino, whose ironic treatment of both is most apparent in Pulp Fiction (1994). Tarantino, for his part, is one of Kiarostami’s biggest fans.

WAR: Kiarostami does not believe the war in Afghanistan will have any immediate influence on cultural life in Iran and hopes “it will not have any immediate effect on Iranian filmmakers.”

Because of common borders, Afghan immigrants have often featured in Iranian films, including Taste of Cherry. But, insists the director, it is dangerous for political issues to affect films directly.

“What happened recently has affected everyone and we are all sorry, especially since Afghanistan is our neighbour. But I think that before making a film we must not rush into it and must be patient with the issues.”

REALITY AND TRUTH: Like most artists, Kiarostami finds it hard to analyse his own work. On the comparisons made between his films and those of neo-realist directors like Vittorio De Sica and Satrajit-Ray, he concedes that the transformations effected in post- revolution Iran bear some similarities to those of post-World War II Italy, and post-revolution India. Yet rather than drawing on his knowledge of Italian neo- realism films, Kiarostami argues that the autobiographical element is more fundamental to his work.

“It is a very nice compliment to be compared to them. My role model, though, is neither Iranian, Italian nor Indian, but my own life.”

The closest we can get to the truth, Kiarostami famously said, is through lying. “I believe human beings cannot explain their feelings. It is a habit to hide what is inside of us and we have to think and live differently than the way we have been taught at school. I made a film called Homework in which there are interviews with children about their schoolwork. Then I remembered that lying is part of any human being’s strategy to allow them to live. Sometimes, even, we are directly asked to hide reality and say nothing about it. And this is where we can find the reality about the truth of the people, through their lies.”

AUDIENCE: The rhythm of Kiarostami’s films is sometimes felt to be too slow by critics and audiences. Iranian editors have told him that were it up to them they would speed up his films, but he thinks that something within the films does not allow for faster tempo. He notes that nowadays films are very very fast.

“If our films have one problem, which is that they are slow, others’ films have many, including being severed from reality.” He regrets the hegemony of American cinema and the tastes it has created.

“If we really want to know what cinema is we have to go a little bit back — 30 years may be — and see what relationship we have with those films. I do not think that we will feel about today’s American films 30 years from now as we feel about past films.

“My own neighbour may not like my films while someone in Australia loves them. The person who wants to receive the message must adjust, it has nothing to do with culture or language.”

Yet in terms of box-office revenue his films are at the bottom of the pile in Iran. His last two films, indeed, have not even been distributed because no one is interested in them.

INTERNATIONAL: Festivals, Kiarostami argues, are necessary for many directors who otherwise would have no access to an audience.

“Recently, through film festivals, Iranian cinema has received international recognition. It has been about eight years since westerners started to invest in Iranian films. It is, in a sense, natural that once a film hits the international scene, it begins to attract foreign investment.”

Though Kiarostami has had the opportunity to direct co-produced films, he prefers to make films in his own country.

“I experience something akin to fear when making films abroad, like my last — ABC Africa on child victims of AIDS. Football players play better on their own field.”

Does he believe there is something inherent in the composition of Middle Eastern or Oriental artists that gets in the way of them receiving the kind of recognition that Western artists do, through awards like the Palme D’Or?

“Having the chance to get there requires luck, that is all. Ten years ago no one knew anything about Iran’s cinema. Every filmmaker around the world has this chance, and we have to believe that cinema is an international language. It has to have this power that allows it to express itself.”

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