Abbas Kiarostami (1940-2016)
It is with utter heartsickness that I report the passing of Abbas Kiarostami, perhaps the most groundbreaking filmmaker in the history of Iranian cinema. Mr. Kiarostami died of a brain hemorrhage. Having undergone four operations in Iran, he was flown to Paris for further treatment, but expired in a hospital there a week later. He was 76. My deepest condolences go out to his family and friends, especially his sons Ahmad and Bahman, as well as to the entire Iranian and international cinematic community.
Mr. Kiarostami was justly celebrated, not just as a pioneer of Iranian cinema but of world cinema as a whole. Over the course of 18 features and 22 shorts, he developed a new cinematic language, one that blurred the line between fiction and non-fiction, sometimes questioning the very nature of fiction in a medium that ostensibly uses technology to capture what is “real.” Through a camera lens, the presence of which seemed to disappear as it connected the everyday characters on the screen to those everyday people watching them, he presented deceptively simple stories that were nonetheless rich in complexity, delving into life’s secrets with a poet’s willingness to wander wherever his art might take him. Though never overtly political, his work was utterly humanistic, using allegory to explore themes of life, love and death, using poetry to express hope for a people in a nation where hope has almost died.
Despite this, Mr. Kiarostami had been forced to pull away from his homeland at certain times in the recent past. The political unrest stirred up by the increasingly authoritarian tenor and censorious policies of the government made it harder for him to work in Iran as he would have liked to, as has happened for so many independent filmmakers in the country. Two of his most recent films, Certified Copy and Like Someone in Love, were filmed in France and Japan, respectively. Despite the unfortunate circumstances that led to this necessity, the films’ triumph lies in the way that they prove the universality of his themes, which translate flawlessly between the three disparate cultures. Both films were featured at Cannes, and lead actress Juliette Binoche won an award for her work in Certified Copy. Mr. Kiarostami’s work had earlier been honored at that festival when his 1997 film Taste of Cherry tied with Shohei Imamura’s The Eel for the Palme d’or.
Mr. Kiarostami was a multi-faceted artist. Along with the many roles he played in the making of his films (writer, director, cinematographer, editor), he was also a poet, a photographer and a painter. He released eight collections of his poetry and one collection of his photography.
It was my utter pleasure and honor to have worked closely with Mr. Kiarostami on a documentary about his work, Abbas Kiarostami: A Report, released in 2014. The film was an attempt to show how his themes developed early in his career, from his first short films (including the very first, Bread & Alley) to his features, particularly in his early masterwork, The Report. Mr. Kiarostami, being a friendly, but quiet, introspective man, more interested in creating than in talking about his creations, was often hesitant to submit to interviews, which is why I was so touched that he agreed to be so involved in the making of my film, allowing me, over a period of five years, to speak with him on camera at great length and shedding tremendous light on his artistic process and the philosophical underpinnings that drove it. I am very pleased to say that he was very happy with the outcome (in his usual understated way, he designated the effort as “laudable”) and I am proud to have my name on a project honoring such a great artist, one of the most important intellectuals to have come out of Iran and an undeniable member of the international cinematic pantheon. We can only now imagine what great works he would have further gifted us with.