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Related Reading: Contemporary Film Directors: Abbas Kiarostami by Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa and Jonathan Rosenbaum and Close Up - Iranian Cinema: Past, Present and Future by Hamid Dabashi.
Related Article: Through the Olive Trees: Life as Life, featured in Issue No. 9 of Senses of Cinema.

Nema-ye Nazdik, 1990

Sabzian/KiarostamiClose-up opens to a shot of a newspaper reporter (Hossein Farazmand) fetching two police officers on a taxi to go to a house on Golzar Street. A mild mannered, unassuming man (Hossein Sabzian) is led away by the officers as the reporter goes door-to-door in search of a tape recorder for the exclusive interview. The film credits appear, and immediately, a pattern emerges: all of the characters are portrayed by themselves, and the story is based of events that actually transpired. The newspapers provide a glimpse into the chaos of the scene - an announcement on the arrest of a "bogus Makhmalbaf" - and Kiarostami (off-camera) begins to conduct interviews with the parties involved. At the courthouse, Kiarostami asks for permission to film the trial, much to the confusion of the magistrate, Haj Agha. After all, why would a director of Kiarostami's stature take interest in a trivial fraud case, when far more serious and pressing cases exist on the court docket? The film then proceeds with the trial, as the participants recount Sabzian's deception and the events that lead up to his arrest. One day, while riding on a public bus, Sabzian reads a book entitled The Cyclist by film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. The book catches the eye of Mrs. Mahrokh Ahankhah, and Sabzian, a film lover, impulsively claims that he is Makhmalbaf. He is invited into the Ahankhah household where he begins to survey the house as a potential setting for his new film. The Ahankhah family contend that Sabzian was taking an inventory of the house in preparation for a robbery. Sabzian explains that he was merely humoring the family's seeming interest in appearing in his film: a film that he, had he the financial means, would surely make. Soon, the sad, sympathetic portrait of Sabzian's life is revealed: a poor, underemployed printer's assistant, divorced by his wife, who found confidence and self-respect in impersonating the famous film director. But is his remorse genuine, or another act designed to win sympathy from the court? Is he playing a role for the benefit of Kiarostami's camera? Sabzian's true intentions remain ambiguous until the remarkable, deeply moving scene when he meets his impersonated idol, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, in person. It is a searingly honest and intensely personal moment for the reverent Sabzian and gracious Makhmalbaf, that the question arises: are we still watching a film or real-life unfold before us? To Abbas Kiarostami, it is all one and the same phenomenon - a captured moment in the evolving document of life.

© Acquarello 2000. All rights reserved.

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Zendegi edame darad, 1991
[Life and Nothing More.../And Life Goes On...]

KheradmandOn a chaotic and congested highway toll interchange, an off-camera toll clerk listens impassively to a humanitarian public service radio broadcast from a Red Crescent spokesperson urging listeners to consider adoption of the many children who have been left orphaned as a result of the recent devastating earthquake in northern Iran. An unnamed, middle-aged film director (Farhad Kheradmand) stops at the tollbooth and inquires about the condition of the main road to Rudbar, having been turned back a day earlier at the intermediate town of Manjil due to the impassability of the route. Accompanied by his son Puya (Puya Pievar), the director is hoping to reach the village of Koker in search of the Ahmadpour brothers: two boys who had appeared in his film, Where is the Friend's House? (a self-reference to Abbas Kiarostami's earlier film). However, the director's plans are soon derailed when a police officer explains that the road is only available for access by emergency and supply vehicles. Attempting to traverse the main road as far as he is able to (and allowed by the emergency authorities to travel on the road), he inevitably finds himself snarled in an interminable traffic juggernaut on the outskirts of Rostamabad. Spotting a convenient rural side road through the hills, he takes an impulsive detour through earthquake-ravaged communities and makeshift tent relief aid centers in search of an alternate route to the remote village and, in the process, encounters a series of aggrieved, but resilient earthquake survivors as they slowly rebuild their scarred lives after the incalculable tragedy.

The second film in the Pirandellically interwoven
Earthquake Trilogy (along with Where is the Friend's House? and Through the Olive Trees) that examines - and redefines - the relational perspective between reality and fiction, Life and Nothing More... is an understated, meditative, and celebratory portrait of perseverance, human dignity, and survival. Set amidst the recovery efforts of earthquake-torn northern Iran (note the indelible long shot of the director's stopped car that reveals the deep crevices on the side of a hill), the film is a metaphoric journey through the process (and procession) of life and renewal: the baby in the forest; the villagers' continued excavation of their homes (an allusive image of rising from the dust that also appears in a subsequent Kiarostami film, The Wind Will Carry Us); Puya's innocent, yet pensive and profound rationalization on the life (and spiritually) affirming consequence of tragedy; the newly married couple (Tahereh and Hossein of Through the Olive Trees). The abstractly sublime, lyrical, and uplifting final sequence shows the once-rebuffed hitchhiker ironically aiding the director in extricating his automobile from the side of a hill after stalling during a steep ascent - a haunting and profoundly expressive image of humanity, compassion, and community that continues to exist and persevere against the natural desolation of an austerely beautiful, yet unforgiving and fractured landscape.

© Acquarello 2003. All rights reserved.

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Zire darakhatan zeyton, 1994
[Through the Olive Trees]

Ladanian/RezaiA director, played by an actor (Mohamad Ali Keshavarz), speaks in aside about a real-life devastating earthquake in rural Iran. The director has returned to the village of Koker to work on a new film (an actual Kiarostami film) entitled Life and Nothing More... (And Life Goes On...). The young women have been assembled for an open field casting call. A young woman named Tahereh Ladanian is the first person to catch the director's eye. The director instructs his assistant, Mrs. Shiva (Zarifeh Shiva), to take down her name. Later, we see that the young woman has been cast for the role of a new bride named Tahereh.

Mrs. Shiva drives around the village on the following morning in preparation for the day's shoot. She goes to Tahereh's house, where the stubborn young woman insists on wearing an inappropriate party dress for the shoot. Another stop near the makeshift tent school, and two boys provide houseplants for the exterior shots of the house. The initial film takes prove to be a disaster. The leading man, who stutters in the presence of women, is unable to deliver his lines. Mrs. Shiva is asked to bring his replacement, an unemployed mason named Hossein (Hossein Rezai), to the set. But Hossein's arrival proves to be an equally frustrating challenge for the crew. Tahereh refuses to speak to Hossein, and the director sends the actors home in order to assess the situation. Hossein reveals to the director that he has repeatedly proposed to Tahereh, but her family refuses to give their consent. If she would only provide a sign to show how she truly felt about him.

By defining the role of cinema as a chronicle of real life, Kiarostami takes on the role of documenter rather than director.
In Through the Olive Trees, it is the director (albeit played by an actor) who serves as the interviewer, from the school children watching behind the barricades, to the dialogue with Hossein attempting to understand Tahereh's silence, to the encounter with three generations of provincial women returning from their bath. In depicting the everyday lives of ordinary people through mundane conversations and unremarkable actions, he attempts to capture the essence of the human soul in a way that is honest and contemplative. But in the process of conveying life in real-time, his films can also test one's patience. In Through the Olive Trees, the director shuts off the camera, only to find that the lives of his actors are far more fascinating off-camera than the characters that they portray on camera. In the remarkable, long, static shot that has come to define Abbas Kiarostami's signature ending, Hossein, unwilling to accept Tahereh's continued silence, follows her down the hill, through the olive trees, and into the open field, pleading his case for marriage. The camera lingers as the "couple" are reduced to floating white dots that seem to focus and disperse into the beautiful, earthy landscape. It is a hypnotic reflection of the passage of real-time, and we are reminded that we have witnessed one mere episode, one fleeting glimpse, of a wondrous phenomenon called life.

© Acquarello 2000. All rights reserved.

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Ta'm e guilass, 1997
[A Taste of Cherry]

ErshadiAn impassive, middle-aged man drives through the busy urban traffic of the city, and is approached by several day laborers for hire. He has a specific task in mind, but drives away without saying a word. His name is Mr. Badii (Homayon Ershadi), and he is seeking an assistant for his planned suicide. He stops to ask strangers about their financial state, surreptitiously interviewing them for the reprehensible job, but leaves without declaring his intentions. He offers a ride to a young soldier (Safar Ali Moradi) on his way back to the barracks. An overhead crane shot follows their vehicle weaving through the narrow, unpaved roads as he drives the soldier to a remote basin where he has dug his burial plot at the foot of a tree. He sees a filial bond with the soft-spoken young man, having himself served in the military, and Mr. Badii reveals his plan: the next day, he asks that the soldier call to him twice. If he responds, the soldier will save him (and literally help him out of the hole that he has dug for himself). If he does not answer, then the soldier will throw twenty spadefuls of earth into the hole and bury him. The young man is horrified by his plan, and runs away. Mr. Badii then begins to follow an earth-moving vehicle and ends up at a closed cement factory occupied by a security guard (Ahmad Ansari) and a seminarist (Hossein Noori) on holiday. He attempts to recruit the religious man by appealing to his compassion, but to no avail. Instead, the gentle seminarist offers him a receptive ear and teachings from the Koran. Disappointed, he leaves the factory and comes upon a construction site, stopping to rest. Note the juxtaposition of Mr. Badii's shadow against the pouring soil. Eventually, he offers a ride to a talkative old man named Mr. Bagheri (Abdolhossein Bagheri) who works at the museum of natural history. Coincidentally, years earlier, Mr. Bagheri had attempted to commit suicide, but was inspirited by the presence of mulberries under his feet. He disapproves of Mr. Badii's plan, but his son's illness compels him to accept the regrettable assignment.

Abbas Kiarostami creates a visually austere and serenely contemplative examination of life in A Taste of Cherry: the unchanging, barren scenery outside the car window; the desolate, winding roads leading to the burial plot; the suffocating dust of the construction site. The barren, almost monochromatic landscape serves as a metaphor for the isolation of the soul. In essence,
A Taste of Cherry is not about a man's search for death, but his search for a reason for living. By rejecting the laborers (who are undoubtedly qualified to bury him) in favor of his passengers, he is seeking empathy and connection. In the end, a chromatic shift transforms the empty landscape into a lush countryside. Perhaps, Mr. Badii, like Mr. Bagheri before him, has changed his own perspective.

© Acquarello 2000. All rights reserved.

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Bad ma ra khahad bord, 1999
[The Wind Will Carry Us]
SohrabiA group of men from the city of Tehran traverse the rural Iranian countryside on a jeep, guided by a set of descriptive, yet unavoidably imprecise directions, seemingly lost. The driver (Behzad Dourani), respectfully called "Engineer" by the villagers, eventually encounters his appointed contact along the side of the road: a gentle, courteous boy named Farzad (Farzed Sohrabi), whom the Engineer proceeds to instruct with disseminating false information about their search for treasure in order to conceal the true and undisclosed nature of their visit to the Kurdish province. On an introductory tour through town, the Engineer shows interest in the declining health of Farzad's grandmother, Malek, an invalid centenarian whose family has been keeping a vigil at the house as she approaches death. One day, unable to receive a clear signal from his cell phone in the remote village, the Engineer begins to drive to higher ground, and reaches a hilltop cemetery to receive his telephone call. Fragments of his conversation with his producer reveal that his assignment is associated with providing a chronicle of events associated with Malek's eventual death. With little to do in the isolated province, the Engineer spends idle time by frequenting a quaint tea bar where the proprietress eagerly voices her complaints to any receptive ear, conversing with a lone ditchdigger named Youssef who literally throws him a bone, and listening attentively as a schoolteacher describes the sacred ceremony of scarring that is performed after a death by the women of the village as a sign of respect and community. But as the Engineer waits for a specific process of life to unfold for his documentary task, he also becomes a reverent observer for all of life's undocumented passages in the small rural village.

Abbas Kiarostami presents an understated, honest, and introspective glimpse into the quiet dignity and celebration of everyday life in
The Wind Will Carry Us. Kiarostami's repeated use of unseen characters and off-camera action reinforces the film's essential theme - the inherent beauty of the mundane: the frail Malek dictates the crew's indefinite plans and extended stay in the village; the demure farmgirl, Zeynab, attracts the Engineer's attention, who, in turn, flirts with the young woman by reciting a sensual modern Persian poem by Forough Farrokhzad; the collapse of Youssef's ditch rallies the villagers to his rescue. Inevitably, as the Engineer becomes involved in the daily ritual of rural life, he transforms from an intrusive bystander to a concerned observer. The final scene shows the Engineer throwing his found artifact - the human bone - into a narrow, flowing river. It is a serene and poignant reminder of the transient beauty and eternal wonder of the human experience.

© Acquarello 2001. All rights reserved.

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