Abbas Kiarostami, Up Close
Abbas Kiarostami considers the nature of love, sadness and his life’s work.
Editor’s note: We re-run this 2013 interview as Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten is featured this week on Fandor.
After forty years of making films and collecting a wide range of awards and golden statuettes, Abbas Kiarostami retains a unique innocence alongside his earned artistic sophistication. He reminds us of characteristics endangered in the contemporary Iranian cinematic landscape, where censorship prevents filmmakers from speaking their minds and government-approved, state-supported cinema produces the major box-office hits.
Here, Kiarostami—interviewed by Iranian film critic (and my teenage years’ film-watching companion) Nima Hassani-Nasab in Farsi in 2012 and translated by me as Kiarostami’s work got a close-up with a Film Society of Lincoln Center retrospective and the opening of Like Someone in Love in U.S. theaters—shows a face that cannot be easily seen in his English-language interviews. Heavily quoting Persian poets (though the resonances are, sadly, lost in the translation), and trusting the interviewer, the filmmaker takes off his dark glasses to reveal the eyes of a vulnerable, melancholic man who sees his life and the cinema itself not worthy of all the suffering he has been through.
The conversation covers many details of Kiarostami’s life and career, but mostly focuses on Shirin which is probably the only film in history of cinema in which all the female stars of one country have both appeared and have cried. The interview was conducted in Kiarostami’s north Tehran house, with tables loaded with printed papers of the Iranian maestro’s latest book: Night in the Classic & Modern Persian Poetry. The last two volumes of that controversial project were about the water and the fire in Persian poetry. Kiarostami’s own poetic art still lies in the sublime encounter of the mighty elements of this universe with the tiny, funny details of ordinary life. And it’s as cinematically as fresh as the invention the wheel.
(Interview by Nima Hassani-Nasab)
Keyframe: You once said that as Milan Kundera’s father grew older he used fewer and fewer words, to the point that all he said during the day was just one word: ‘Really?’ This story led you to the idea of ‘two-word cinema,’ or your ideal ‘one-word cinema,’ which you’ve worked toward using digital technology in Ten, Five, 10 on Ten and then Shirin. Are you really trying to achieve this ‘one-word cinema?’
Abbas Kiarostami: All these years, when I talked about a film in interviews, I’ve pointed to this particular aim or that particular experiment, at times quoting somebody to confirm or justify what I did. But the fact is that I start a film with no intention, so ‘experiment’ is what happens more often. I feel no commitment or obligation to cinema and I don’t say that I’m doing something innovative. I think all of these happen spontaneously. For instance Five came after Ten, followed by Shirin. But I can’t say that they were chronologically planned as a consistent chain. Although Shirin was made after Ten and Five, the idea goes back to years ago, even before ‘two-word films.’
Shirin came out of my fascination with watching spectators of a film or a performance, even an actor reacting to the performance of another actor in front of him. One of the characteristics of my new film, Like Someone in Love, is that the moments that the actors are listening to each other are more important than the moments that they talk. (And I was very lucky in that film to work with two exceptional actors.) Now that I’m editing the film I’m trying to use these reactions more, maybe more than usual. Generally when an actor is listening to another actor’s dialogue, they’re not really listening, instead thinking about their own dialogue. So listening is difficult for them. But I think the shots in which the actor is listening are more interesting and more important. One other reason [I use reaction shots] is that I write the lines of dialogues and they don’t have much appeal to me while shooting. I think creativity may happen while the actors are listening to the dialogues and not during the times that they are repeating what I have written. Since they’ve been rehearsed several times and don’t have anything new for me. But I haven’t predicted the moments that they are being heard.
Keyframe: These aspects of acting have always been of great interest to you, maybe because you don’t have much control of it. It seems that you prefer to be the spectator of your films rather than their author.
Kiarostami: As a critic, you may come to this conclusion, which is not wrong. Usually it is very difficult for me to start writing a script, but when it’s finished my creative work on the film is done. During the shooting I’m only like a worker.
Keyframe: So for you the creativity, and all the excitement behind it, happens while writing the script?
Kiarostami: Maybe even before that, when something comes to mind and its presence is so powerful that it makes me get out of bed and look for paper to write it down, before I forget it. The only thing that I can’t predict is the process of acting. When I’m writing the dialogues I can’t see the performances. I just imagine myself saying these sentences to someone.
Keyframe: Do you mean the writer is acting all the parts while writing?
Kiarostami: Yes, and then an outsider comes and performs it in a way that I never imagined. This is actually what encourages me to work and make films. Otherwise the whole process becomes a mechanical transformation of words into image.
Keyframe: In other words, you consider the actor as one of the authors of the film, after the director or writer—or maybe even before?
Kiarostami: The actor is not only one of the creators of a film, but he is its most important author. Although, I can’t say the actor is more important than writer and director, because the film doesn’t exist without them. Honestly, reading a script is one of the most difficult things for me. It’s difficult because you can’t imagine the film while reading the script. It’s like an X-ray image. You can never guess the shape of the body by looking at an X-ray image. It’s a very difficult process to transform the script to a film and the most crucial element is the actor, not the director of photography or sound engineer or set designer or even the director’s mise-en-scène or shooting script. None of their parts are as important as his as a mediator between text and film.
Keyframe: I know by ‘actor’ you mean anyone who is playing the part and not only the professional definition of this word. What is the most notable characteristic of an amateur actor that makes him different from a professional? What encourages you to work with them so frequently in your films?
Kiarostami: I can’t say that I like working with them more than professionals, but I think one of their advantages is that there isn’t any limitation regarding their time. Even for Certified Copy one of my conditions was that Juliette Binoche wouldn’t sign any other contract until two months after the shooting.
Keyframe: Were you thinking of possible changes or additional sequences?
Kiarostami: Those two months made me feel relaxed. When an actor looks at his watch all the time to see when he can leave the set and go to the next job, he creates tension for me. With those two months I know that time won’t be a problem.
Keyframe: So your problem is more with issues around working with a professional actor rather than the final result?
Kiarostami: Naturally. But other than that, when an actor has worked previously with a director whose definition of acting is completely different from mine, they’re inevitably influenced by that director. Unfortunately, wrong methods are remembered better and have deeper effect, since they are imposed on the actors, against their will, and are more likely to stay with them. So it’s hard to believe that professional actors are free of misconceptions.
Another reason for my preference is the image of the actor in audiences’ minds. If the audience remembers them as a particular character my first task is destroying that image, getting rid of its influence and creating something new. I believe that professional actors are not pure in front of the camera. It’s more interesting for me to get close to simple, normal people who, like myself, don’t have any preconception about cinema. I am more capable of achieving what I want with them. For each film, I clear my mind and don’t feel any commitment towards or influence from the previous film.
Keyframe: It seems that each film for you is like reinventing the wheel!
Kiarostami: Exactly! A while ago I sent the trailer of my new film to my son and a friend. They couldn’t believe that I made this film. All the time I was making the film I felt that, as you said, I was inventing something new. I was thinking that now I’m here with this couple with new mental spaces and new moods and behavior in a new environment and I should deal with this new situation and environment. That’s why I believe that, for a director, the lack of experience could be more helpful than his knowledge and experiences.
Keyframe: And that’s why you believe that watching films won’t help you in making films?
Kiarostami: No, it’s rather a justification for me being so lazy in watching films. Actually, watching films can be very useful, but it’s not for me. It’s better to say that I can’t find something for my taste or that pleases me. I don’t show much tolerance for films that I don’t like. They’re difficult for me to watch. And usually I have to watch tens of films to find just one film that I like. The life that I lead now doesn’t let me do anything but work and inevitably I should place enjoyment around it. I’ve been trying to enjoy my work for a long time and now I’ve forgotten the pleasure of other activities, like spending time and having a delicious meal or a nice coffee with a friend. It’s been a long time since I’ve invited someone to have dinner together or chat.
Keyframe: Once, many years ago, you were describing with great joy how you spent many hours, maybe seven or eight hours, in front of a printing machine, watching the photo of a tree being printed little by little.
Kiarostami: I remember those days very well. It was like meditation.
Keyframe: At that time I was thinking how such a dull and tiring process can be so enjoyable and how one can train oneself to be able to transform an apparently dead and boring time into a pleasure.
Kiarostami: It’s true. You have to train yourself for something like this. Otherwise it may seem very strange. This is what I have done all of these years and it’s been my joy. These days I work more than any other time in my life and I’ve replaced all the things that don’t have any pleasure for me anymore with work.
Keyframe: Probably your various non-film activities are replacements for the pleasures that you are talking about. Maybe whenever you get tired of one you start working on the other—from cinema to poetry, from poetry to photography to installation and again to cinema.
Kiarostami: Yes, that’s true. Tonight I am spending my time with this conversation and then with my new book, tomorrow morning I go to finish the printing of those trees.
Keyframe: You said your fascination with watching people while they are watching something was your basic motivation for making Shirin. But you put aside all your resistance to using professional actors and compiled a long cast of famous actresses from different generations and styles. Why wasn’t it made with unknown people, some real spectators?
Kiarostami: It could be like that. First, I should say that I don’t mean an amateur actor has all the privileges and a professional actor is nothing but trouble. Here I needed the expertise of professional actors. Because it is difficult to find people who have a correct understanding of time, the way professional actors have. When I tell an actor that they have to sit in front of the camera for five minutes, they know very well what that means. They knows very well how they should sit in front of the camera. They have control over the angle their head should be positioned. They know how they should move in order to stay within the frame or stay in focus when there is not much light. Since they have depicted different emotions in films they knows how to imagine things. In Shirin, all the actresses are imagining the film they are supposedly watching. You should know that they were sitting in front of a blank sheet of paper; they were not shown any image. Even I didn’t have any idea what film they were imagining.
Keyframe: Did you specify for them a particular film or story or at least a particular mood?
Kiarostami: You should see the behind-the-scenes footage. I think it will be interesting for you. I told them that you have five minutes to watch a personal film on the screen. At the beginning I even asked some of them to think about one of their favorite films.
Keyframe: Wasn’t it a little bit risky? There were a large number of actresses involved and you didn’t know which film they would think about.
Kiarostami: No, I didn’t mean a movie. I meant a situation, or a memory, in real life. Then I told them that if I were you I would go back to my own life, because the best and fastest way of remembering is when you think about your personal life—not a film or story—but the story of your own life. I knew any relationship starts with happiness and, if it is healthy, it ends with sorrow.
Keyframe: Why did you choose the sad parts and tears of all these 100 performances?
Kiarostami: I didn’t ask any of them to cry or be unhappy. You can see it in the behind-the-scenes film.
Keyframe: It’s disappointing to accept that thinking about your life and your relationships always ends up in sorrow.
Kiarostami: They were told to finish with sorrow. This is the real and natural process in life. This is what life means and we shouldn’t think that it’s our failure. You see it also in literature. Look at this book on the table, about ‘Night in Poetry.’ The chapter about ‘night and joy’ is much shorter that ‘night and suffering.’ Life, for all of us, which you see it in its shortest form in five minutes in Shirin, begins and ends like that.
Keyframe: Still, why is the image that stays with us about Shirin sad? Couldn’t you use more of the happy memories or make a sequel, this time with a happier audience?
Kiarostami: If you can celebrate death and mourn birth, then you can also do what you are saying.
Keyframe: But it seems that during the editing, it was you who were more eager in choosing the sad parts.
Kiarostami: This is what we see in our religious and cultural upbringing. There isn’t any balance between happiness and grief in our personal and social life. Even when there is happiness it is more like an inner experience for us. We are taught in our culture not to show off our happiness.
Keyframe: Don’t you think it is your personal and deliberate choice as the author and comes from your own character?
Kiarostami: I really don’t believe that it was me who persisted on a kind of preference. As I said, the behind-the-scenes document is my witness.
Keyframe: Let us see it from another angle. What were your criteria in choosing one minute out of five regarding each actress?
Kiarostami: Our criterion was the film on the screen. I needed a story for editing of the footage. I had to create and imagine a narrative. Farideh Golboo and Mohhamad Rahmanian helped me in revising and making it, but it is only in sound.
Keyframe: One may think that something different could come out of editing the rushes. Do think that Shirin is only one of different possible versions or you believe that they would be more or less the same?
Kiarostami: Of course, I can’t say that. You may change it 100 times, raised to the power of 100, and with each one you’d have a new film. But I had to stop somewhere. It took us five months to edit the film, which is a very long time. For each shot, different images were replaced several times until we achieved what we see now, which is one of the different possible versions. We suppose that the sound we choose for the images, ‘Khosrow and Shirin’ was a right choice, it was our guide in choosing the shots during the editing. Sometimes each of these five or six minute shots had as much influence on me as the whole completed film.
Keyframe: The film that they are supposedly watching is one of the parameters on which the final film takes shape. If we consider it as a fixed factor, what are the other elements that could change the film?
Kiarostami: The author and creator of the film. Although I believe that any other style or criteria would more or less result in the same thing. For example maybe you could replace the character No. 6 with No. 4 or No. 8, but you definitely couldn’t change shots related to No. 4 with No. 61. Because there was a particular pattern implanted in the narrative. It starts with indifference. Then come some signs of delight and happiness, followed by curiosity or nervous reactions, and finally sorrow and grief. Now you can change character No.51 with 71 when they are crying, or vice versa. It is the narrative of the ‘Khosrow and Shirin’ that defines the reactions and the arrangement of the shots.
Keyframe: For the three-minute version that you showed at the Cannes film festival you used the film Romeo and Juliet (Franco Zeffirelli) instead of ‘Khosrow and Shirin’ (Nizami Ganjavi). What was the reason for this decision?
Kiarostami: First I wanted to use Romeo and Juliet for the whole film. But Paramount requested a lot of money for the copyright. I even wanted to use the main soundtrack. Everybody knows this story and it was not necessary to react to each sequence on the screen. But in both Romeo and Juliet and ‘Khosrow and Shirin,’ joy and happiness has a small share. It’s true not only about these two classic love stories but also about any other relationship. Another point is that if you are a person with a deep insight you know what comes after any happiness and you don’t necessarily need to have heard the tale of Romeo and Juliet or Khosrow and Shirin.
I followed Nizami’s poem, it guided me. I had five to six minute pieces of film from about a hundred actresses, and I’m sure that with that story and those 600 minutes the result wouldn’t be different after editing. If we had chosen another story like ‘Layla and Majnun’ or ‘Vis and Rāmin’ the result would be the same. A short enjoyment doesn’t make a wise person excited, since he knows by experience that he has to pay for it.
Keyframe: Also it’s been said in psychology that when you react to other people’s sorrows it is your own grief that makes you burst into tears. It seems to be the same case in this film. You told them to think about their own life and then you replaced it with a narrative.
Kiarostami: I had worked with this idea before, in Mourning [an installation]. That’s why I say my progress in these experiments have nothing to do with the order in which they are made. Shirin is another version of Mourning. In that installation people—again—didn’t know what they were supposed to watch. I have a film of a group of mourners sitting and drinking tea before the main ceremony for the death of Imam Hussein of Shias starts. As soon as the trumpet player starts to tune his instrument, without even playing anything, the audience starts to mourn and cry. That’s exactly what you say. They know the story of Imam Hussein by heart. They are just looking for some excuse to cry about their own troubles and grievances.
Keyframe: Do you think it is also true about the complicated relationship between the events in a film and the spectator’s real life?
Kiarostami: I think so. If there wasn’t such sympathy many films would lose their impact.
Keyframe: In other words the viewer should be reminded of his own love stories in order to be influenced by the one he is watching?
Kiarostami: The events on the screen can’t be separated from the viewer’s past and his memories. This is more complicated when it comes to films like E.T. in which we are not even dealing with a human being. The story of attachment to and separation from a strange creature must imply something from the viewer’s own life. This is a gift that helps us enjoy the film. It is the experiences of the viewers that facilitate what we, as directors, want to achieve. The audience experiences life with all of its ups and downs. We are just a reminder, but then foolishly and mistakenly we feel proud of how our films have impressed them!
Keyframe: Have you also watched the film with different people to study a reaction to a reaction?
Kiarostami: I have watched the film more than 50 times. I’m not exaggerating. I joined anyone who wanted to watch the film, and even sometimes sought out the friends who hadn’t seen the film and invited them and watched it once more. In this instance, Shirin has become a unique film in my career.
Keyframe: Watching Shirin over and over again is like your meditation with a printer printing the picture of trees.
Kiarostami: No, I think it is different. The reason is the freedom that I gave to actresses in imagining their stories. As a matter of fact, I left the creative part of the film to them and my only strategy was using a proper story for these reactions. The ideal form of presenting the film for me would have been making a video installation with all the five-to-six minute shots on 100 screens, but it was not easily doable.
Keyframe: After what you did in London with your Forest without Leaves exhibition, having a space with 100 monitors shouldn’t have been that difficult.
Kiarostami: No, because the space I have in mind is very specific; a long dark corridor, almost two meters wide, with 100 screens on both sides. The audience could enter from one end and exit from the other and stop as long as they wants to watch. They won’t even know what each of these faces is thinking about, since there won’t be any tale of Romeo and Juliet or Khosrow and Shirin. What interests me is how the viewers would feel when they come out of this space.
Keyframe: An ideal place for peeping into others’ privacy?
Kiarostami: That’s exactly why I watched the film for fifty times! It’s like I’m peeping into a keyhole, watching someone’s private life—vivid images of people’s private moments that I wouldn’t have a chance to watch, not in my or in other films.
Keyframe: Didn’t you try to find out what they were thinking about to reach that emotional point?
Kiarostami: Only once I asked one of the actors, and when she started telling me the story I immediately stopped her. She said she had started thinking about one of her previous relationships, and very soon she had forgotten where she was and what she was doing. In many cases they couldn’t stop crying after we finished shooting and it took a while for them to come back to normal. Juliette Binoche, for instance. We were shooting in this building [Kiarsotami’s house], in the basement. We were having breakfast here and I told Juliette, ‘I have to leave to shoot my new film. If you like you can join, too.’ She didn’t know what was going on here. When we went downstairs she was surprised and asked me if she could also sit in front of the camera and try. I said yes. She sat on the chair and the work started. First she laughed a lot. Even when I was explaining the work she was laughing and laughing; she was the only woman whose happy moments were as much as her sadness. That is the cultural difference that I was talking about. Among all these 100 women she was the only one who laughed a lot and also cried a lot. She couldn’t stop crying after we finished, like others though. Sometimes I think will I never be able again to stare in the face of these many people, so close and in detail, to record this many untold stories. I don’t want to talk about a conclusion or a moral lesson. But I haven’t seen a movie that gives such an insight to men about women. It reminds you that they are different. I see behind every one of these women’s faces a man. This is incredible and that’s why I don’t see Shirin as a film and I have such an attachment to it. It is a chain of images, each with its own story and sorrow.
Keyframe: In Shirin the people who are in the background sometimes attract your attention from the main figures, though it make the whole frame seems more realistic. Were you thinking about it while shooting?
Kiarostami: It was supposed to be a movie theater and you can’t eliminate the viewers of a cinema.
Keyframe: But the viewer who starts to watch the film has accepted to view people isolated.
Kiarostami: I have to create a background and then make it lose its importance for the viewer. On the other hand people like you are not a typical viewer. You dig the film in each shot. But for instance, my mother and sisters were the first ones to whom I showed the film. My mother didn’t notice the unusual form of the film. She was advising my eighty-year-old sister that having affection for two men makes a woman end up losing both.
Keyframe: Did you direct the actresses?
Kiarostami: Sometimes. Maybe you don’t call it directing. I reminded them things such as how much time left, where the frame is, and so on. I’m not sure if it was John Ford who said that the human face is the best and most important thing to show on screen. In this sense, yes, I directed these faces.
In animation everything in every moment should be under the control of the director. But in a film, where we are dealing with informed human beings with emotions, there is no need to interfere and impose your presence. You have already explained to the actor your intentions and whatever you know or want from the character. The rest is out of your hands. You are just like a coach in a football match. You should only sit and watch.
Keyframe: They probably competed with each other. Didn’t they?
Kiarostami: It is natural. They had to be very spontaneous. The whole process of receiving the information, the decision, to argue in some cases with us: it all took less than 10 minutes.
Keyframe: Did anyone ask you to repeat the take?
Kiarostami: Only in two cases; and we accepted. Everyone was so good and professional that I really asked myself why I spent so much energy in villages.
Keyframe: You said the idea behind Shirin was not something new. But I thought you just expanded the idea that was presented in the short film you made for Cannes.
Kiarostami: From the beginning I wanted to make it in 90 minutes, but when Cannes asked me to do a short film about cinema I remembered this idea and that was the beginning. But we should go back to many years ago for the origins of the concept. My painter friend Nikzad Nojoumi reminded me that when we were twenty one or two, and we worked in a design studio, I designed a poster with the image of a stage actor who was looking at the audience from a small hole on the curtain. I think maybe it was only a hint of something that goes back even further in time. Right now all of my schemes and stories are from the past and in all these twenty or thirty years nothing new has come to my mind. I’m only a consumer of the stories of half a century ago.
Keyframe: Which performances did you like more among all these 100 actresses?
Kiarostami: Many of them were good. But whenever I watch the part with Fatemeh Goodarzi, it brings tears to my eyes. It’s like a thousand teardrops come from each of her eyelashes. I know actresses have learned techniques for crying. Many actors only use their eyes when they want to cry but there are some of them who cry with each single muscle of their face.
Keyframe: Did it happen that you didn’t use the footage of an actress during the editing because it was not good enough?
Kiarostami: Yes, in one case, that I prefer not to mention the name, wherever I put that one minute it didn’t work. However I included the shot. For editing, we put each performance on 15 seconds of different parts of the story to see whether she was reacting to the sound or not, as if we were translating the sound into image. The number of different possibilities was 100 raised to the power of 100. It was only this single performance that didn’t react to any part of the Nizami’s tale; she was not listening to any part of the story. Later I discovered somehow that during the whole five minutes she was thinking about the hollow of her cheek! She was very well aware of her face and tried all the time to keep that hollow on her cheek. Actually she was thinking about nothing.
Keyframe: In regard to how the film was made, we can be convinced that making Shirin was not possible without professional actors.
Kiarostami: Yes. I should say that I also used two or three people who had never played before; some friends who wanted to participate and I invited them. One of them was even successful in bringing tears to her eyes and I started to congratulate her on doing a good job, like a professional actor. She was honest enough to say that it was the strong light that hurt her eyes. Anyway it was not possible to have more non-actors. Also I should mention that I was really impressed by the discipline of these actresses.
Keyframe: Part of this discipline that you mentioned may have been because of your name and reputation.
Kiarostami: I don’t know. I didn’t know almost 80 percent of them. I heard from a producer that each of these seemingly patient and calm ladies can burn down a studio! But here they were so quiet and professional. They came here, lived in front of the camera, and left. Although there were things that they may not like. I agree that it is difficult to ask an actress to wash off her makeup.
Keyframe: So this film was, in a way, revising your view about professional actors?
Kiarostami: Yes, I was asked many times if I didn’t have any regret about avoiding them all these years.
Keyframe: What was your answer?
Kiarostami: To be honest, yes. I have had huge problems with the people who played in my previous films, for example the children in Where Is the Friend’s Home or Sabzian in Close-Up, which continues to this day. But I don’t want to talk about it now. It is as if I should be in debt to them [the non-actors] forever. That’s why I think by working with professionals I could have had the best of two worlds. Now I wonder why I really did all that. Life could have been easier.
Keyframe: For an actor, laughing or crying in front of the camera is not a difficult task. But do you think all of those unique moments in Where Is the Friend’s Home or Close-Up or Through the Olive Trees would have been possible with real actors?
Kiarostami: I didn’t say I regret. I suffered a lot for these films. Let’s not restrict it to cinema—we don’t have any commitment towards it. I mean I didn’t have to go through this much trouble in life. It wasn’t worth this much suffering and trouble.
Keyframe: So you think you put too much energy in working with non-actors and you could have had more or less the same result without it.
Kiarostami: Yes. If I made the films with these professional actors the result might not be like what we see now but it wouldn’t be ‘filmfarsi’ [Iranian commercial cinema] either. It was also much easier. I was watching footages of an interview with Ahmad Shamloo [Iranian poet] in his final years when his foot was amputated and he was severely depressed. He was asked whether he was happy with what he had achieved in life. His answer was no. ‘Because I didn’t gain anything.’ The interviewer told that he gave pleasure to the people’s lives instead. He said ‘I was young and handsome I could make others happy in other ways.’ There is no sense in suffering.
Keyframe: I can see other great men of your generation had this dissatisfaction with their journey and the way they lived. Also it is present in our literature. Where does this mutual pain come from? A sense of defeat.
Kiarostami: I don’t have any sense of being defeated. As there were many other different possible versions of Shirin, there are various dimensions to life. We are not supposed to fight with the universe to make the film we like. Now I see that there were other easier solutions. It’s difficult to have ideals, to say I can do this and something is possible. Ms. Nogami, Kurosawa’s assistant, visited me when I was in Tokyo for shooting Like Someone in Love. She asked me how the work was going on. I said very hard. She said it’s impossible to do something impossible without suffering. According to her Kurosawa cried every night during making of Dersu Uzala. I told her not every night, but I wept most of the nights for my last film. I would like to talk about it another time because it was a unique experience.
Keyframe: It is interesting to see that despite this awareness you and others like you from your generation continue this hardship.
Kiarostami: How is it possible not to be like this? How is it possible to change after all these years? For example, in Like Someone in Love I used an actor who has been acting since the 1920s, but hasn’t said even one line of dialogue yet. He is very strange; behaves like a Samurai and he is incredible in his work. I like the way he works and that it just came to my mind to make a film with one of my old stories and him. It has become like a habit. Some of these tasks are very hard, almost impossible, and it seems that it’s not possible to do them without hardship. Making Like Someone in Love was only possible with the help of medication. I needed a stick for walking. I don’t know why it is like this. I know that we are not supposed to break all the records. For Certified Copy, Binoche called me every day, asking me all kind of questions about the woman character of the film: ‘What kind of woman is she?’ ‘Is she insane?’ ‘Isn’t she like Anna Magnani in that film?’ I used to tell her that I didn’t know. I hadn’t seen these films. I just know that the character is Juliette Binoche. Still she couldn’t stop, since she couldn’t find a model for the character. At the end I wrote an email to her saying forget all these. We are going to enjoy our lives for two months and we’ll make a film on the side.
Keyframe: Shirin changed your attitude towards acting and maybe it is the most important feature of it. Tell me about the times that you were impressed by their performances.
Kiarostami: I was trying to remember the times that I had the same feeling and impression while watching a film. Bergman’s Autumn Sonata was one of them; I have watched it two or three times. When the mother and daughter are talking at night and Liv Ullmann suddenly turns her head for a moment and sees the disabled girl and tries not to cry. Shirin also impressed me in a special way and I don’t have any cinematic definition for it. If you tell me that it is not a film, I accept. I don’t care what it is called: film, installation, conceptual art or video art. Whatever it is, it is something unique that won’t repeat. Not for me, not anyone else.
Keyframe: Do you believe that your reputation have had any influence on the fulfillment or reception of such experiments?
Kiarostami: Not at all.
Keyframe: I heard that one of your students in Brazil had objected to 10 on Ten. He said if he made that film, no one would have ever wanted to watch it. You answered that it takes 50 years to become Kiarostami, while you are still at the beginning.
Kiarostami: At this age, I’m still making short films, and he can’t ever do that.
Keyframe: What do you mean by ‘can’t?’ Is it the difficulty of achieving this simplicity and style that you are pointing to?
Kiarostami: It means you haven’t reached that level yet. It’s not arrogance. But it takes time to arrive to a certain degree. A while ago I went to the seaside for three days and made a film called Sea Eggs. No one can do that, it’s not only a matter of intelligence or belief but also because no one has the courage to make a film that has no use. I had a hard time making this short film and if you ask me where I can show it or present it or sell it or what it can do for me and what my advantages are, my answer is nothing. Absolutely nothing. I made it only because I enjoy it. If someone can feel the joy without thinking about the outcome then he definitely can.
Keyframe: So at this stage of your life your motivation is only the joy it gives you and you are not thinking about any kind of benefit, be it physical or spiritual?
Kiarostami: You may think I’m bluffing. Of course making a film is not possible without calculations and estimations. But it is different from what you say. I don’t think about it. I don’t know I became like this over these years or it was with me from the beginning. I didn’t go to Locarno to receive one of my first international awards for Where Is the Friend’s Home. I asked someone else to do that. I didn’t think about festivals and awards the way the new generation do. You may not believe it, but sometimes I receive scripts from the youngsters who haven’t made their first film yet, but they want me to tell them whether it’s good for Cannes or not.
Keyframe: I remember a while ago you had put all of your awards here in the basement, even the medal from the emperor of Japan which is said to be very valuable in terms of the gold used in it. It was here!
Kiarostami: I gave that one to the daughter of Ahmad [Kiarostami’s son].
Keyframe: As a gift to your granddaughter?
Kiarostami: We are far away from each other and it’s not easy to have the feeling of a grandfather. I’d rather say the daughter of Ahmad, who is my son.
Ehsan Khoshbakht is a film and jazz historian, architect, and author of Celluloid Architecture.
Nima Hasani Nasab is an Iranian film critic and editor and founder of the most popular online film journal in Iran, Cinemaema.