Jean- Luc Godard once said, “Cinema starts with DW Griffith and ends with Abbas Kiarostami.” Why did he say that? Perhaps because narrative and spectacle are not enough, and the art of cinema and the resonance of on-screen events often have the capacity to speak much louder. And, possibly even more than this, the truth of lived lives matters most in a film.
Through his trademark ever-unfolding roads and pathways, Abbas Kiarostami’s films have traced the eternal everyman’s journey. Along the way, we realise that not only does one need to negotiate and get past life’s uncertainties, but equally one must earn the gift of an inner awareness as human beings. Thus, his films traversed both the interior and exterior worlds known to us.
In his first major work, Where’s the Friend’s Home? (1987) he had already mapped a balance between the seen and the unseen, the believable and the unbelievable, time and space.
After this film, space began to open to Kiarostami like a magic carpet. Each of his shots was conceived, as it were, in 360 degrees fullness, both in their sound and visual construction. The rich and complex story of an imposter posturing as the filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf in Close Up (1990) confirmed this great discovery. And at the ending of Taste of Cherry (1997) when lightning strikes and the rain falls over Teheran, the image becomes more than a mere pathetic fallacy echoing the inner state of the suicidal hero. This is because all the metaphors employed by Kiarostami amazingly work: nature is man and man is in nature.
In the lyrical Through the Olive Trees (1994), an ordinary young man successfully woos a beautiful and reluctant girl, while the fiction/documentary cross-genre film Life, and Nothing More… (1991) reveals that the victims of the devastating earthquake that occurred in the previous year are not entirely defeated. Later, in The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), the absence of a mobile network connection is compensated for the television journalist protagonist by the attention he can give instead to the immanence of the present moment. He witnesses not only the ancient death rituals that he had come to record, but as if in a vision or a dream, the village rivulet carrying the bones of all those who have lived before.
And how does one describe Kiarostami’s magnificent feminist 2002 road movie Ten? As a woman drives through the city, her life opens in exactly ten long takes. Simultaneously, we are also shown the present day reality of Iran and the lives that women lead there – and almost everywhere else. Each transition between the shots is signalled by a film leader from a passing movie. But we also uncover much of history and personal anguish during her daylong journey into the night.
In his so-called Japanese film Like Someone in Love (2012), Kiarostami created characters and scenes that ring so true that one is reminded of some of the best Yasujiro Ozu and Mikio Naruse films. What an incredible feat of getting beneath the skin of a different culture!
His Certified Copy (2010) left us doubting everything. All except for the realisation that ambiguity matters in life – as if it were a permanent wound in our existence. Five (2003), on the other hand, gives us shots of nature and ordinary life unreeling in only five long takes. Yet we are vouchsafed the experience of the entire world of both Eastern and Western nature poetry.
Shirin (2008) only shows us the faces of an all-female audience in large close-ups as they look at different film versions of the romantic legend of Shirin and Farhad. Has womankind ever been shown more vulnerable and more itself? One more reason the cinema had to exist!
To return to Godard’s sweeping claim quoted in the beginning, the cinema does not begin at some point and end with Abbas Kiarostami. This is perhaps because beginnings and endings are just convenient chronological or sequential markers. In spite of them, and other signposts along the road, cinema and the life force it embodies will always go on.