Abbas Kiarostami: A Retrospective

Friday, Aug. 30–Thursday, Sep. 5

The Carolina Theatre, Durham                                      

This week, The Carolina Theatre offers a rare, expansive retrospective of the Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. We reached the New York-based, North Carolina-bred film critic Godfrey Cheshire by phone to talk about his new book about the filmmaker, Conversations with Kiarostami. Released this year by Woodville Press, the book collects three decades’ worth of Cheshire’s interviews with the filmmaker. 

Born in Tehran in 1940, Kiarostami started making films in the 1970s and, by the 1990s, became world-renowned for his highly poetic cinematic style, which often used documentary techniques to narrate the fictional dramas of children and socially outcast figures; these small dramas open out onto existential meditations. Shot in northern rural Iran, the Koker trilogy—Where Is the Friend’s Home? (1987), And Life Goes On (1992), and Through the Olive Trees (1994)—is widely considered by critics to be the pinnacle of the director’s artistic achievement. 

Though many filmmakers fled Iran after the 1979 revolution, Kiarostami felt his life’s work was deeply rooted in the country; he made films there until his death in 2016. With unprecedented access to both Kiarostami and Iran, Cheshire provides a look into the director’s filmography that is both sweeping and intimate. In talking, the INDY learned more about Kiarostami’s films, his significance to world cinema, and some surprising local film history. 

INDY: Your new book reflects not only an exhaustive knowledge of Kiarostami’s films, but also a deep friendship. How did you become friends with the director?

GODFREY CHESHIRE: I started writing about Iranian cinema when Film Comment asked me to write about the first festival of post-revolutionary films that was held in New York in 1992. I was very enthusiastic that I had the chance to meet Kiarostami in New York with Through the Olive Trees in 1994. The film authorities in Iran liked what I was writing about Iranian cinema, so they started inviting me to come to their annual film festival, the Fajr Festival. 

The first time I went there, I met Kiarostami and went to his home. He was very friendly to the “foreign guests,” as they’re called at the festival. I went back to Iran [in 1997] and spent the summer there to study Iranian cinema. I think our friendship really increased during that time, due in part to his generosity. 

I wanted to interview him about all of his films, one by one, and I think I may be the only one who’s ever done this. He gave me a lot of time, and then, when he had to go off to the Locarno Film Festival, I realized we didn’t have time to finish at the pace we were going, so he invited me to ride up to the village of Koker with him, and we would talk all the way there and back. It was about a five-hour drive through Iran. Our friendship was really sealed then. I would see him regularly after that, in places around the world and in Iran as well, and he was always generous with me, very warm. The book, in addition to being a document of the progression of his career, is also a record of our friendship.

What do you see as the importance of the upcoming Kiarostami retrospective at The Carolina Theatre?

I see his work as dividing roughly into three periods of fifteen years each. The first period I call the Kanoon period, because this is when he was working there, and almost all of his films were done for Kanoon [Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults], and most of them focused on children. The second period is what I call the “masterworks period,” which begins with Where Is the Friend’s Home?, the first film in the Koker trilogy, which was the first film to really gain him international attention. From then on, there was steady and mounting international attention.

The third period starts with ABC Africa in 2001, which premiered at The Carolina Theatre in Durham. It was the only time Kiarostami ever premiered a film in the United States. [It was] at my invitation at the DoubleTake Documentary Film Festival, which later became Full Frame. It’s great that these films are coming to the Carolina for the retrospective after that event, the only time he ever visited the American South, and the only time his films ever had their international premiere in the United States. 

This selection that’s going to be at The Carolina is a very good representation of the masterworks period, the peak of his work. It’s a good introduction to those who have not seen them, and for those who have, it’s a welcome chance to return to them. One of the great things about this series is that it’s the first occasion people have had to see the Koker trilogy together. Up until now, different companies have owned the rights, and they’ve very rarely been shown together. I think the trilogy is one of his most impressive and enjoyable achievements.

For Western audiences who may have never seen a Kiarostami film, what would you say we could learn about cinema and about Iran from seeing these films for the first time?

It’s a way into one of the most remarkable film cultures that people have very little access to [in the U.S.], but certainly one of the world’s great film cultures, one of the world’s great national cinemas. But also, it’s a way into one of the great creative artists of cinema and its whole history. When I was in New Orleans, I was talking to this art curator, and he said to me, “The importance of Kiarostami is that he is one of the last giants to come along. In the art world, Warhol was the last giant. In the film world, Kiarostami is the last giant.” I thought that was a very interesting way of putting it. He really is someone who represents the peak of a certain kind of art filmmaking.

People in the West have a lot to learn about Iran and the Middle East through looking at Iranian cinema. I think it’s a great way of understanding a culture that most people here grow up knowing so little about in school, and about the incredible richness of Persian culture. At the same time, we have this geopolitical situation that is very volatile and depends on a lot of ignorance on the part of Americans as to what that part of the world is all about. Iran has had very serious conflicts with the United States, but has also been demonized by our government in certain administrations and the media for way too long. The picture that we get from the films is of a culture that is humanistic, philosophical, ancient, and very artistic in ways that illuminate our lives in the United States, as well as in Iran.

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