There are various techniques as to how to make a film. Every choice of shot and camera angle affects one’s filmmaking style and changes the meaning of the visuals depicted on screen. All of these techniques, or formulas, if we can call them that, have been developed over the last 120 years of cinema. A mainstream film follows many of such principles in order to fit the story within a pre-existing set of principles that are proven to be working among the audiences. A lot of decisions are made so as to engage the audience at large, to keep them glued to their seats and entertained. However, there are certain filmmakers who love to break the rules. And this is where a window opens to a completely new world, working on its own principles, working to make the viewer question and, by doing so, remain etched in their minds for a long time. This is the world of Abbas Kiarostami.
Habituated with engaging visuals and a moving narrative, one can describe the films of Kiarostami as slow, even dull, to go a step further. His films are not based strictly on the three-act structure; there are no backstories for characters that come out in the narrative; there is no substantial change taking place in the story throughout. Starting out in the early 1970s in Iran, making films without following any of the conventions of cinema as he had never gone to film school, Kiarostami made films about his immediate environment. His first short film, “TheBread and Alley (1970)”, is about a conflict that ensues between a small boy, who is on his way home with a packet of bread, and an aggressive dog sitting in an alley. Although the scenes are staged, all of it appears to have happened exactly as it did, without any amalgamations. All of it takes place visually, staying true to the fundamentals of the medium. And here, in his early short films, one can see the beginnings of a certain style of filmmaking that blossoms in his later works.
The kind of films that interested Kiarostami as a filmmaker were not those that kept one on their toes, propelled them to think in a certain way, and explained everything to the viewer. Kiarostami believed that the audience should be respected and that new ways of seeing should be imparted among them, which can only happen if films are made in a new way. There is a certain level of expectation that the Hollywood style of filmmaking has imprinted on its viewers over the years, and by consuming the same kind of cinema, their minds are wired to react in a certain way. Kiarostami wanted to break that with his films. He wanted the viewer to play an active role in the film by watching, reacting, thinking, and questioning along with the movement of individual frames. Cinema, for him, was not a tool for escape, to entertain the mind but to uncover the deepest layers of human emotion, to pursue truth, and pose questions instead of easy answers. He wanted people to see and think for themselves, to change the way they looked at films and thereby push for certain improvements in the human condition.
His film, “Where Is the Friend’s House?” (1987), which is considered by critics as the first part of the Koker trilogy, features a school-going kid setting out on a journey to return his friend’s notebook, which he carried with him by mistake. The film became widely popular for its simplicity, and the innocence displayed on the screen. Later, in 1992, Kiarostami made another film called “And Life Goes On,” and this is where the brilliance of the man comes out. An earthquake rocked Iran in 1990, in which over 40,000 people died. Kiarostami went out in search of the actors who played the roles of the two boys in “Where Is the Friend’s House?” to see if they were safe. The film then becomes part documentary and part fiction, featuring the director and his son going into the deepest ruins of the village, meeting people and speaking to them about the earthquake. The lines between fiction and non-fiction get blurred completely, and the feelings that it evokes are a treat to experience. Similarly, the third part is particularly about a scene from the second film, where another director is staging a scene to be acted out by the people. The three parts, in combination, reflect the blazing simplicity and understanding of human emotions that Kiarostami has and how he uses the medium to put all of that on the canvas. He reinvents the medium and all of its elements, and he infuses new meaning into everything.
All of his films start from a certain middle point and take us to another middle point to end things. They don’t end in the traditional manner, giving us closure and telling us everything about the characters. There are long, undisturbed shots spread throughout his scenes, through which he wants us to reflect and think about what is being seen. Through all of this, Abbas Kiarostami aims to create an attentive viewer who responds, imparting within them the quest to stay on even after the last shot is screened. He compares the film with poetry and how poetry, through each reading, gives out new meanings, and different people reading it understand it differently. All the obscure texts take you to a certain place, leaving you to find answers to the questions posed. And just like that, in his films, frames replace text. A poem becomes a film. Or, his films become poems. He keeps out information so that the viewers can think about it in their heads. There are instances when, in shooting a conversation, we will only see the person who is listening and not get to see the other person. But in our heads, we have already started imagining what the speaker would be like. In “Taste of Cherry” (1990), there are long sequences of the spooky landscape and desert just to spill over a sense of discomfort, which adds on to the cloudy feeling prevalent throughout. The film is about a man who is planning his suicide and wants a person to bury his body after his death. Again, we don’t know in the end whether he dies or not, and although the questions are fairly relevant, according to Kiarostami, the answer to those questions will be different for every person watching it. The ending, then, becomes the beginning for the viewer coming out of that experience. A beginning to understand and get lost in inquiry. It is like a ship that sails on the everlasting sea, and sets out to explore what lies ahead.
A lot has been said and written about Kiarostami over the years. He truly was a master who saw things differently and was concerned with the affairs of the entire civilization, not just his own. He approached the craft differently and defined what a film should be from his own unique perspective. He wanted people to engage with the cinema and take some part of it home with them to contemplate later. The way we engage with cinema now, he wanted it to change to a deeper exploration so that, collectively, we can strive to be better humans. Humans who think, who feel, and who empathize, even just learning to see things in another way, can wire our minds to certain levels of reality and to a new state of mind. Ultimately, Kiarostami wanted films to pave the way for how people looked at themselves and the world. He dreamed of that utopian revolution and became one by signing off his films.