My Thesis: Abbas Kiarostami

There are some things I can’t easily convey to someone in a casual conversation. One of them is my thesis. If you want to hear my talk nonstop for five minutes I could explain it, but I’d have to do it so many times for each person who asked, I thought I could just point them all to this written post and save myself the trouble of having to spend hours of my life explaining my thesis countless times.

The subject of my thesis is the films of Abbas Kiarostami. For those unfamiliar, Kiarostami is an Iranian writer/director who started making movies in the ‘70s for The Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults.  For most of the ‘70s, Kiarostami made shorts about various situations children find themselves in with ambiguous moral messages attached.

He broke onto the international film scene in a big way in 1997 with Taste of Cherry at the Cannes film festival. Roger Ebert said, “The film is such a lifeless drone that we experience it only as a movie” while Jonathan Rosenbaum said, “Kiarostami’s greatness can’t be taken for granted.” As you would expect, since I’m writing a while these about him, I fall into the latter camp.

Many of Kiarostami’s fans tout his films as positive, self-reflexive pieces on cinema itself. Jean-Luc Nancy calls it the “affirmation of cinema” in his book Abbas Kiarostami: The Evidence of Film. The problem, as I see it, is that a lot of Kiarostami’s critics are willing to praise his positive and affirmative messages towards the medium of film, but fail to fully analyze his criticisms.

Therefore, the argument my thesis is making is that Kiarostami’s films challenge the traditional understanding of the ethics of filmmaking, the nature of filmed reality, and relationship between the director and the audience.

The first chapter will examine his 1990 film Close-Up, a pseudo-documentary about a man named Hossain Sabzian who passes himself off as famous Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf and gains the confidence of the rich Ahankhah family. Kiarostami learned of Sabzian’s story and asked permission to film the court case as well as recreate the meetings between Sabzian and the Ahankhah family.

However, instead of being a passive observer, Kiarostami becomes part of the story and both recreates the past and constructs a future for the character Sabzian. It becomes such a heavy influence that the boundaries between fact and fiction, reality and filmmaking become indistinguishable. Kiarostami creates a fiction from reality and that fiction ends up becoming its own reality.

The second chapter will look at Taste of Cherry, a fictional film about Badii, a man trying to find someone to help him commit suicide. Kiarostami does not give the audience a reason why Badii wants to commit suicide and he also ends the film before the audience discovers whether or not Badii goes through with the suicide.

Kiarostami in interviews says this is a deliberate choice that allows the audience to write their own ending to the story. Does Badii kill himself or does he find a reason to live? Kiarostami says the ending is part of his general philosophy that he has no more claim to the meaning of the film than a member of the audience, and that an audience member can come up with a much better ending than he could.

I’ll use this as a way to examine how Taste of Cherry, as well as Certified Copy, challenge the traditional notion of the auteur, the idea that the director is the author of the film. This is even more potent in the art-house scene where one often looks to the director’s intent in order to divine the meaning of the film. Here, Kiarostami denies authorship, instead placing himself as a member of the audience.

In the final chapter, I’ll be arguing that Kiarostami’s films argue for an ethics of the camera. There are two distinct attributes that emerge in his films. The first is that there are things which the camera should not film. In The Wind Will Carry Us an engineer attempts to film the burial ritual of a small town. Kiarostami uses this plot to explore the boundaries of what should not be filmed, and he does this by alluding to things and introducing characters he does not film.

The other half of Kiarostami’s ethics of the camera emerges in his documentary ABC Africa. An initially planned fact-finding venture into the lives of children orphaned by the AIDS epidemic in Uganda becomes a film almost more about the role of the camera than the subject it’s filming. Throughout the film Kiarostami and his cameraman Seyfolah Samadian film each other filmmaking and show how the camera becomes a part of what they are trying to capture because it changes how people act and perceive themselves.

That, in roughly 900 words, is my thesis. It has yet to be written, so it’s possible these ideas will evolve and change, but for now, this is the gist of what I’ll be devoting most of my time to in the next six to seven months. Hopefully this summation makes sense, I imagine it’s a lot more information than most people want when they ask me what my thesis is and it is the kind of argument where I’d have to do way more explaining than most people are interested in to fully convey the ideas, hence why I’m writing a thesis about it.

© 2012 James Blake Ewing