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Iran's Film Laureate

Abbas Kiarostami's humanist films are winning praise and finding audiences worldwide. But he's not too popular with his own government.

August 11, 1996|Sarah Jane Wachter | Sarah Jane Wachter is a freelance writer based in New York

When Satyajit Ray died in 1992, renowned Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa mourned the loss of the greatest social realist filmmaker who ever lived. But when he saw "Through the Olive Trees" by Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, Kurosawa said he had found Ray's incarnation: "God has found the right person to take Satyajit Ray's place."

When eminent filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard wrote his acceptance letter for a New York Film Critics Award in 1994, he chided Americans for favoring the late Krzysztof Kieslowski over Kiarostami.

And when "Close Up," Kiarostami's 1990 film about a poor young man who impersonates a famous Iranian filmmaker, premiered in Italy, the audience response was electrifying--and inspired Italian director Nanni Morretti to make a nine-minute film about it.

While the ardent response to Kiarostami's work by Kurosawa, Godard and Morretti is typical of the international acclaim the Iranian filmmaker has received, he remains virtually unknown in the United States. Americans, if they know Kiarostami at all, know him as the screenwriter of "The White Balloon," which won the Camera d'Or at Cannes in 1995. Less well known are his "Through the Olive Trees," which was nominated for a Camera d'Or at Cannes in 1994, and "And Life Goes On," which won the Rossellini prize at Cannes in 1992.

Los Angeles audiences have a fleeting chance to see two Kiarostami films next weekend at the UCLA Film and Television Archive series "Recent Iranian Cinema," which opened Saturday and runs through Aug. 27. Showing Saturday evening at the Melnitz Theatre at 7:30 p.m. will be a double feature, "And Life Goes On" (1992) and "Where Is the Friend's Home?" (1987).

The curly haired and boyishly charming Kiarostami, 56, is a major figure in Iran--where he is called the grandfather of a cinematic new wave. The avant-garde film movement in Iran began in the '70s, about the same time Kiarostami founded the filmmaking department of the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults. Several internationally known Iranian directors got their start at the Institute, which also finances children's films, a long and hallowed tradition in Iran.

As Kiarostami has become more popular in the West, he is becoming less popular with the Iranian government. "The government wants to know why my films are so popular abroad, since they're not big box-office draws in Iran," the director says wryly. (While most films in Iran are government-subsidized, the government refuses to aid Kiarostami's low-budget works.)

He uses a metaphor to describe U.S.-Iran tensions, a device Iranian filmmakers often use to circumvent censors: "It's like the owners of an apartment building arguing over the electric bills. Because adults fight, the lights go out and children who want to play suffer and sit idly in the dark. You just have to put up with it."

Still, Kiarostami, who is also a landscape painter, has managed to dazzle audiences employing long shots that display a rich visual tableau with complex emotions conveying hope and despair simultaneously.

"Kiarostami combines fiction and nonfiction in a way that makes us rethink what fiction and nonfiction is," says Jonathan Rosenbaum, a film scholar, critic and author of "Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Critics."

In "And Life Goes On," a movie based on Kiarostami's own experience, a film director and his young son drive into northern Iran, an area devastated by the 1990 earthquake, to find out whether the two boys who acted in his earlier movies have survived. The film is a harrowing documentary of destruction: a painting hanging on a wall, split in half; a crying infant wearing a leg cast, lying in a hammock slung between two olive trees, helicopters pattering apocalyptically overhead. In real life, tragically, the boys had died. But the movie departs from real life and moves seamlessly into fiction with a surprise coda that leaves the audience with a glimmer of hope.

Kiarostami's films are about the lives of ordinary people, poor and prosperous alike, who struggle to transcend devastation, both natural and man-made. In each case, his use of the camera captures them with uncommon compassion. Like any good social realist filmmaker, his work examines larger social issues through small, domestic scenes of everyday life.

In "And Life Goes On," on a beautiful spring day two dozen freshly dug graves dot a hilltop as mourners of the earthquake sob and embrace. In the same frame, in a forest clearing nearby, women bathe their young children on a sunlit rock, a gentle affirmation of the continuity of life.

"Kiarostami is a master of seeing people in relation to the physical environment, of seeing the larger picture of a composition through using a long shot," says Rosenbaum, who has viewed all of Kiarostami's work.

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