The paradox at the heart of Abbas Kiarostami’s early films

The New Yorker | : The nearly complete retrospective of the films of the late Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, which runs through August 15th at IFC Center and will travel nationwide, is an extraordinary event. Kiarostami (who was born in 1940) rose to international prominence in the late nineteen-eighties; his fusion of fiction, nonfiction, and self-dramatizing reflexivity advanced the art of cinema, and it became emblematic of the Iranian cinema over all, which Kiarostami rendered central to the time. (He died in 2016.) Yet there’s something curious, even paradoxical, about Kiarostami’s career, and the retrospective’s program offers a rare opportunity to probe its mysteries.

Kiarostami, who studied art and worked as a graphic designer and director for commercials, began to make films in 1970, under the auspices of a government agency, the Center for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults (called Kanoon), which still exists. They were pedagogical films, centered on children’s lives and activities, or on skills that they were meant to master. (One, “Toothache,” teaches dental hygiene; another, “The Colors,” is a lesson in identifying and naming colors.) As a result, Kiarostami had an experience that was rare among filmmakers of his generation: a cinematic apprenticeship. Most modern filmmakers started fast and made their names with their first or second feature; Kiarostami, by contrast, worked like a studio filmmaker of the silent era, developing styles, themes, and ideas gradually, along with their craft, before synthesizing them into a grand body of work. He made more than a dozen short films, as well as a handful of features, before making “Where Is the Friend’s House?,” from 1987, which brought him international prominence. (For Kiarostami’s own overview of his early career, I’d recommend a new book, “Conversations with Kiarostami,” by the critic and filmmaker Godfrey Cheshire, published by Woodville Press.) The retrospective at IFC, with its program of Kiarostami’s early films, shows the gradual accretion, combination, and ripening of the elements and themes that would form his art, as well as the surprising influence of large-scale historical events on his style.

Many of Kiarostami’s early films were made before the 1979 Islamic Revolution; even if they were subject to the political censorship that prevailed under the Shah’s rule, they didn’t face the religious restrictions that were enforced by the new regime. They show a diverse Iran, in which some women wear headscarves and others don’t; they more freely discuss and depict relationships between men and women, as in the most intricate of his short features, “Experience,” from 1973. It’s a story about a fourteen-year-old boy who works as an assistant in a photography studio, a tale in which the making of images, and the making of a living from them, is at the core of the action, which ranges widely through the city to reveal secret passions that energize daily lives.

Kiarostami meticulously documents the boy’s daily routine, ranging from sleep and hygiene to the details of labor—including his actual work with film negatives and film prints, as well as the harsh discipline and rigid service that his boss imposes on him (it includes sweeping the floor around his boss’s feet and under his desk, and swabbing the staircase with a wet rag—a task that Kiarostami documents at length, in a striking overhead shot that graphically renders the arduousness of the work). The movie is filled with labor—and with stifled resentment. The poor boy also lives in the studio, washing his socks in the sink and sleeping at his boss’s desk. In his errands through town, he catches the eye of a girl from a prosperous neighborhood whom he wants to impress; he puts on a suit and gets his torn shoes shined (the shoe shiner’s hard labor is also graphically depicted). Kiarostami depicts class differences, the prevalence of child labor (seen in other shops in the city as well), the loss of educational opportunity, and the casual cruelty of the wealthy—hardships that are anchored, nonetheless, by the underlying, irrepressible force of romantic desire.

The documentary-based minimalism of filming in public, the implication of offscreen space in sequences of “Experience” that, for instance, hang back on the outside of a building and observe entrances and exits, or witness action in fragmentary detail through distant windows, was one of Kiarostami’s crucial visual motifs. It’s even more emphatic in a companion film, “A Wedding Suit,” in which a poor boy who works as a tailor’s assistant is forced to lend a bespoke suit to another teen-ager who wants to wear it to impress a girl on a date.

Kiarostami’s background as a graphic artist comes to the fore in his striking compositions of documentary images, reminiscent of the visual inflection of Michelangelo Antonioni’s early films (such as the short “N.U.” and the feature “I vinti”). Kiarostami goes further; his sensibility was also more conspicuously rooted in the effects of film editing, such as the ability to achieve variation through repetition. In the documentary “Fellow Citizen,” from 1983, about a single traffic cop’s enforcement of a new law blocking cars from certain Tehran streets, in the interest of reducing congestion, the obsessive visual repetition of a small number of motifs (shots of car windows, shots of the officer) turns what could have been merely anecdotal into an urban symphony, in which a grand panorama of city life is conjured by minimal and restricted means.

The making of images was at the heart of Kiarostami’s work from the start; in his 1974 feature “The Traveler,” the young protagonist raises money for a bus ticket to go see a soccer match by setting himself up as a local portraitist, and scams residents out of change by taking their pictures with no film in the camera. Yet, soon, Kiarostami would go further, rendering his own image-making central to his movies. The reflexivity of such celebrated features as “Close-Up,” from 1990, and “Through the Olive Trees,” from 1994, is foreshadowed in the short “Case #1 Case #2,” from 1979, a precious, revealing document of the liberating spirit of the Revolution. It begins with, and is centered on, a film-within-a-film, starting with a slate and a technician’s voice announcing a take: a scene set in a classroom of what looks like a high school for boys. A teacher is drawing on the blackboard an elaborate diagram of the human ear, when he hears a student distractedly drumming on a desk. He orders one group of seven students out of the classroom and warns them to denounce the miscreant or be suspended for a week. Kiarostami screens this footage for an assembled group of adult authority figures—educators, artists, even high-level politicians—and then depicts another, fictional sequence in which one student yields. Then the incident is depicted again, followed by another round of interviews, but in the second case no one turns anyone in. Shown in close-up, the adults speak to the teacher’s cruelty in trying to compel a denunciation as well as his incompetence in wasting class time and boring students by silently drawing on the blackboard. It’s especially moving to hear discussions with two imams, one a religious official and the other a political one, both of whom speak forcefully in favor of freedom of conscience and of action. Here, Kiarostami, seized by a fervent documentary impulse along with a moral and political one, enfolds the making and viewing of a movie into the substance of the film, turning reflexivity into a gesture of documentary truthfulness—and also a premise of exacting didactic analysis.

Yet the current of liberation in Iran was soon cut; the regime became increasingly repressive and imposed religious law stringently, including on the cinema. In 1981, Kiarostami made another educational film, the wildly ironic, sixteen-minute “Orderly or Disorderly” that, in yet another way, set a crucial tone for the remainder of Kiarostami’s career. It’s also a series of films-within-a-film, along with formal repetition and variation: contrasting takes from the same angle, complete with slate and the director calling “action” and “cut,” of ordinary activities in a boy’s school. Students file down steps in a straight line or run down steps in a tangle, throng noisily out to the playground to swarm around a small water tank or line up calmly to get a drink, patiently line up for a bus or crowd to get on. (Kiarostami even uses an on-screen clock to show that the former way is more efficient and discusses the contrasting results with a colleague.) Then the action leaves the school and goes into the city at large, featuring overhead shots of pedestrians and traffic, orderly and disorderly, with the city scene flowing in a sort of mechanical ballet reminiscent of the films of Jacques Tati. But, try as Kiarostami might, he’s audibly frustrated in his effort to get a take of city life that’s orderly: cars push into crosswalks, a biker runs a red light, pedestrians thread their way through traffic, and even a traffic cop fails to keep order and, eventually, doesn’t bother. Kiarostami’s point is clear: the didactic order of the closed system of the school is an imposed fiction, one that falls entropically apart in life at large.