Those of you who, like me, are admirers of the cinema of Abbas Kiarostami are probably aware that – given the high esteem in which he was held – surprisingly few books have been written about the late, very great Iranian artist’s work, be it in film or in any of the other mediums he engaged with. Indeed, until now – besides, naturally, my own brief BFI monograph on 10 (2002), soon to be reissued in a new edition – there have been only two books available in English which I would recommend: a very solid and illuminating (if faintly academic) survey of Kiarostami’s work up until Five (2003) by Spanish film historian Alberto Elena, and the expanded second edition of the collaboration between Jonathan Rosenbaum and Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa, a pleasingly fruitful attempt to examine Kiarostami’s work from both a Western and an Iranian perspective.
I was, then, happy to hear, recently, of a welcome 2019 addition to the English bibliography dealing with Kiarostami’s cinematic oeuvre, though it isn’t really an analytical study of the films. For ‘Conversations with Kiarostami’, by the American critic Godfrey Cheshire, is precisely what it claims to be; a collection of the extended interviews the author conducted with the filmmaker in the 1990s. Cheshire was one of the first Western critics to draw attention to Kiarostami’s work; covering a 1992 Lincoln Center season of post-revolutionary Iranian cinema for Film Comment, he found himself bowled over by Close-up (1990), which struck him as ‘one of the most extraordinary films I’d ever seen’. (I readily plead guilty to exactly the same response when I caught that movie a few years later at the Rotterdam Film Festival.) Cheshire, understandably, was also impressed by Where Is the Friend’s House? (1986) and And Life Goes On (1992) – also in the Lincoln Center programme – and thereafter made it his business to get to know more about Kiarostami’s work in particular and Iranian culture in general. He first interviewed Kiarostami in New York in 1994 when Through the Olive Trees played at the New York Film Festival, and in 1997 made his first visit to Iran, where further conversations followed. The results of those encounters are now gathered together in Cheshire’s book.
Though the interviews cover Kiarostami’s work only up to and including The Wind Will Carry Us (1999) – thus missing out on everything made from ABC Africa (2001) onwards, when Kiarostami was producing remarkably audacious work through a pioneering use of the new digital technology – the book is likely to be valuable for anyone with more than a passing interest in the Iranian’s work. Notwithstanding their (mostly) simple narratives, Kiarostami’s movies are notable for their teasing ambiguity and subtle philosophical and poetic resonance; it was always best, however, when interviewing him, to stick as much as possible to questions about practical matters. When faced with interviewers who he felt weren’t familiar with his work or were simply asking him about abstract ideas, he could sometimes lapse into – or, perhaps, would deliberately respond in turn with – laconic twaddle or lazy cliché. If he liked your questions, however, he could be very forthcoming, and Cheshire clearly asked the right kind, receiving for the most part lengthy, considered, revealing answers. During the decade and a half before his death Kiarostami and I became friends, so I know how strange, oblique and unexpected his take on life could be; at the same time, that take was usually the result of careful, contemplative reflection. For him, what counted wasn’t so much what one looked at, but how one looked at it; it was all about patience, concentration, curiosity and point of view.
That comes across in Cheshire’s book, which is particularly strong and useful for the responses he elicits about Kiarostami’s early films. (Sadly, one feature – the important 1988 documentary Homework – is not discussed, because, by Cheshire’s own admission, he simply forgot to return to it after asking about the films that make up what some – though not its creator – have characterised as ‘the Koker trilogy’.) The innovative early shorts made with (but not necessarily for) children, the exploratory early features and documentaries, and the remarkable string of films made in the late 1980s and 1990s that brought him worldwide acclaim: it’s fascinating to learn how and why all these came about, and what they meant to their creator (as opposed to the viewer). That said, ‘meaning’ is a tricky term when applied to Kiarostami’s work; one suspects that even he, having made a film, was left with just as many questions about it as we are. Final, fixed answers weren’t really part of his world. Kiarostami was constantly asking himself questions, which is surely why his movies remain so enduringly mysterious and so endlessly watchable.
Godfrey Cheshire’s ‘Conversations with Kiarostami’ is published by Woodville Press, New York. The photograph of Abbas Kiarostami at top is from the author’s personal collection and was taken by Ane Roteta during the filmmaker’s visit to London for a multi-media celebration of his work in 2005.