Kiarostami, Abbas: Iran’s Best-Known Director

taste_of_cherry_posterTribute to Abbas Kiarostami, Iran’s greatest filmmaker, who died two days ago, at age 76.

In 1997-1999, I served as president of the L.A. Film Critics Association (LAFCA). In June of 1997, when I first mentioned to my friends my idea for a film surprise–showing Abbas Kiarostami’s masterpiece Close-Up, sponsored by the American Film Institute (AFI), they were surprised, if not shocked.




Their argument essentially was, “It’s a great idea, but don’t forget, you don’t live in N.Y., or Toronto for that matter–you live in L.A.”

Well, you have proven that L.A. audiences can be just as adventurous and audacious as those of NY and Toronto. Your attendance tonight also suggests that there will be a similar event next year.

I would like to thank Jon Fitzgerald and Jeff Mayer for giving me carte blanche in selecting the film and planning the event.  With a characteristic chutzpa, I requested and got prime night, prime time, and prime venue.  700 seats and the house is almost full to capacity.

Thanks to our treasurer, Dean Sander, for supporting the idea of LAFCA buying tickets for film students, members of the events committee, Steve Farber, Peter Henne, Jean Oppenheimer, and Harriet Robbins, who helped promote the event with practically zero budget.

Thanks to Laura Kim of the Pogachefsky company for publicizing the event and standing under fire, fielding questions about a mystery film, whose identity she herself did not know. Above all, thanks to the bright and resourceful vice-president Manohla Dargis, who was instrumental in making the final selection.

And now from the beautiful Manohla and contemporary L.A. we go back in time and change a number of continents until we reach politically turbulent Iran, circa 1990.

The film you are going to see tonight is Abbas Kiarostmai’s Close-Up, which received its world premiere in Teheran.  In the l990s, Iranian cinema, along with Asian cinema, is the most interesting, cutting edge cinema in the world.

There’s also no doubt that Kiarostami is the most distinguished and accomplished Iranian filmmaker.  But he is not the only Iranian director to leave his mark over the past decade or so.  There’s a whole wave of new directors: Jafar Panahi’s The White Baloon, Mohsen Makmalbaf, whose Gabbeh you saw earlier this year.  Their movies are traveling the major festival road–Cannes, Locarno, Venice, Berlin, Toronto, and others–and some of them get theatrical release by entrepreneurial distributors, such as Miramax and October Films.

It makes me very self-conscious to stand here and introduce the work of a great director, one of a handful of master filmmakers working in the international cinema today.  He’s 57 years old, he’s been making films since 1970.  And yet, and yet, foreign language film are so vulnerable so dependent on the work of film critics.  It’s a form almost on the verge of extinction in the U.S.

In preparation for the event I checked out some of our film dictionaries, Ephraim Katz’ The Film Encyclopedia and David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film.  In neither volume, there’s even an entry for Kiarostami; he is not even mentioned.   If you don’t go to major international film festivals, such as Cannes, Toronto, Venice, and Berlin, you can’t see these films.

To the best of my knowledge, only one of Kiarostami’s films, Through the Olive Trees, received theatrical distribution, and a limited one at that, by Miramax in 1994.  His latest film, Taste of Cherries, which won the Palme D’Or at this year Cannes Festival, will be released in 1998 by Zeitgeist.

His earlier work has been compared to Italian neo-realism, but more to Roberto Rossellini than Vittorio De Sica.  It was defined by a deceptively “simple” realistic style, intriguing narratives that often unfold as puzzles, multi-layered tales, preference to work with non-professional actors.

Kiarostami’s favorite subject in the first decades of his career is children–the movie tonight is actually an exception. He explores existential issues in a deeply humanistic and compassionate manner.  And a running motif in his work is the complex, dialectical relationship of life and art.

In his famous–actually, notorious–letter to the New York Film Critics Circle, when he received the career achievement award, seminal French director Jean-Luck Godard chided American critics for favoring Kieslowski (Red) over Kiarostami.

When the famous Japanese director Akira Kurosawa first saw Kiarostami’s films, he reportedly said, “There’s finally a successor to Satyajit Ray, the late great Indian director.”

I won’t say much about the film tonight, I leave it to our panelists, whom I’ll introduce after the film . I’ll just say that it was inspired by a real-life incident that K read in a newspaper, it blurs the conventions of fiction and non-fiction.

There’s cinema verite footage of court proceedings and dramatic reconstructions (featuring reprise performances by the real-life protagonists

The premiere in Rome of Close-Up inspired Italian director Nanni Morretti (Caro Diaro) to make a 9-minute short about it, which I tried but couldn’t locate.

Running time is 100 minutes, which should leave us about half a hour for discussion by the panelists and questions from you.