Film, not cinema from Kiarostami
As a filmmaker, poet, painter, screenwriter and photographer, Abbas Kiarostami defies categorisation. Certainly, the world knows him as the unconventional filmmaker who stayed in Iran after the Islamic revolution forced several of his contemporaries to flee, producing some path-breaking films as a result, but he studied painting at Tehran University and began his career as a graphic designer.
His video installations have been shown at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and his photographs are held in international collections at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. And in Dubai, this is the last week to explore just how Kiarostami crosses artistic boundaries. A selection of pictures he has taken over the last 30 years are on show at the Meem Gallery in Al Quoz until Wednesday.
"Why are we always trying to define cinema separately from photography and music? They are connected, they mingle and are interwoven," he says, commenting on the problematic categorisation of art forms. "Why do we like to have something very specific and defined? If that was the case, the person who likes cinema shouldn't go to the gallery or vice versa. We have to have them all together."
Kiarostami's photography, perhaps more directly than his film, was shaped by the 1979 revolution in Iran. "Everything was closed down, there was no cinema industry to speak of. Everybody was upset and stressed out, so I took refuge in nature. Every day I'd go out into nature and walk around, just to unwind," he says from behind his trademark dark glasses and through a translator at the gallery. "Bit by bit, I started taking a camera with me and started taking pictures."
He had only bought a camera that year, he explains. Out shopping for a present to give a friend, he decided on a camera. "But there was such a good deal on cameras, I decided to buy two – one for myself and one for my friend. That was in 1979, the year of the revolution."
Many of these pictures were shot while scouting locations for his movies, he says. "My film-making became stronger through the photography, through frame by frame, through what I was seeing through the frame in photography."
In the early years after the revolution, Kiarostami would sell his photographs to fund his film career. "But now, photography and film have become separated, film is my career, photography is my hobby," he says. "Funding is no longer a problem.
"Thirty years ago, when I started photography, the economic situation wasn't good. With the money I had in my pocket, I would go and print small prints, 8x10s, and sell them. Now the only thing that has changed is that I print them in larger sizes and if I sell one, it pays for everything else I do."
While he deals with everyday subjects in unconventional ways that some might consider uncinematic in his movies, his photographs are purer, preferably devoid of human focal points and relieved of the burden of narrative or entertainment. "What I want to show is nature itself, as the truth of life," he has said. "The moment of the picture is one of personal truth, not of a story. I feel something in a landscape and want to capture it; only that moment is shown."
Certainly, several of the images at the Meem show are stark, haunting portraits of desolate landscapes that grab the viewer's attention before cleverly redirecting it inwards. His poetry often features alongside too, deepening the impact of the sensory assault that his work can be.
Meanwhile, producers of Kiarostami's latest film hope it will premiere at Cannes this May. "It's about the relationship between a man and a woman," he says simply when asked about Copie Conforme or Certified Copy, his first movie shot outside Iran. "It's the biggest cliché in human history, man and woman – there's nothing new to it, but the story-telling is new, it's a new way of telling the same story."
The film is reportedly partly autobiographical and stars William Shimmel in the role of a middle-aged English writer who meets a younger French woman (Juliette Binoche), with whom he jets off to the Italian town of San Gimignano. Kiarostami describes it as "one of the easiest movies I've ever made".
"Although I was in a different land with different people, with people I had never met before both in front of and behind the camera, it was the easiest movie I ever made because it was a very formulated film and it used all the formulas that a standard movie uses; so it was driven by the experience of the team as a whole. It wasn't just an experimental film of the kind I have been making all these years.
"Copie Conforme is a film, everything else I've done before is cinema." It's a far cry from his last effort, Shirin, a critically acclaimed combination feature film and installation piece that he says "was my attempt to end the usual laboratory way of making movies" – by looking at the audience.
"It's true if the audience close their eyes, then my work means nothing. If the audience close their eyes, the sculptures and pictures downstairs mean nothing, they don't even exist, I as an artist would not exist. But while working consciously, I don't think of the audience reaction," he continues. "This is what's unique about Shirin, it puts focus on the audience as opposed to art. So the audience becomes the art and becomes the reactions, embodies the art."
Shirin tells the story of a 12th-century Armenian princess who falls in love with a Persian nobleman. The only images shown however, are the faces of those in the audience, largely female and Iranian. Through their emotional reactions to the film, the audience is able to follow the narrative reflected through the faces on the screen. "Shirin took two years to make, Copie Conforme took two months because of its formulaic approach. But Copie Conforme will be 100 times more profitable than Shirin," he says.
In the final analysis then, does he think about legacy? Would his oeuvre have been different if he'd lived in the West? He refuses to believe he might have had more success in the West, if he had followed his compatriots and left Iran in the upheaval that followed the revolution.
"Would I be more commercially successful? I would say no, this is the beauty of our world. Even with everything going on in Iran, the political and social issues, that hasn't held me back in any way. Maybe I would have tackled different subjects. Obviously, where you live is where your roots are, that's where you feel the most. There would have been some differences in my work. But I don't have the time to think of a legacy or of what I would do differently."
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