With liberty for all: the films of Kiarostami

Arts Editor

I’m tempted to take Bad Comedy at their word and look at their last show (which ran on campus two weeks ago) as a revisionist take on Chekhov’s The Seagull. Ignoring some excerpts of the play tacked on to the beginning and end of the revue as something of a literary joke. The show contained no allusions to Chekhov’s classic. Nonetheless, the major themes of this and every other Bad Comedy show I’ve seen––sexual and romantic dysfunction, the sense of disillusionment that comes with education and maturity, professional and social failure––bear striking similarities to Chekhov’s.

The Russian playwright’s key formal innovation, many have noted, is his manipulation of off-stage space, his subtle perversity of staging major events where audiences could never see them. With Bad Comedy, Macalester has come to expect perversity to remain defiantly on-stage. In addition to graphic illustrations of the themes listed above, the last revue featured simulations of two suicides, child pornography and what appeared to be masturbation involving a basketball.

To list the memorable gags of a Bad Comedy show merely hints at the surprise of first seeing them performed. To suggest what makes them in fact memorable is trickier, much like unpacking the merits of a Chekhov play. In the end, both pieces find humor in embarrassing, even hurtful situations (as the troupe pointed out in their program, Chekhov intended for his plays to be performed as comedies), and in doing so they point out what is inescapably human about these situations. Whether one appreciates the humor of either depends on whether one believes there is a genuine curiosity about human behavior behind the jokes. Another challenge lies in whether confronting human foibles—namely perversion—in such verbal or visual explicitness still allows them to be funny.

I guess what I’m trying to get at through this comparison is that sometimes one needs to examine the opposite of a great artist’s innovations, if not overturn them altogether, to find out if they’re still relevant. This is the relationship the great Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami has with most cinematic innovations, and it is essential to what makes him one of the most important living filmmakers.

Those unfamiliar with Kiarostami have two opportunities to get acquainted with him this week: Mac Cinema will screen his 2001 documentary ABC Africa tonight and tomorrow, and the U Film Society will run his first fiction film, The Traveller (1974), tonight through Thursday as part of the Iranian Family Film Festival. These make for ideal introductions since many have called them Kiarostami’s most accessible works.

If Kiarostami has a reputation for being inaccessible, this is certainly not a result of his doing. As with the otherwise unrelated directors Harmony Korine and Alexander Sokurov, part of Kiarostami’s mission to redefine cinema involves making movies open-ended enough for virtually anyone to engage with them. This approach affects everything from narrative (there are always unresolved conflicts in a Kiarostami film) to shooting methods. In order to minimize intrusion with actors, he used small film crews for most of his movies until ABC Africa, in which he started using lightweight video cameras that allowed him to shoot single-handedly.

How do such methods challenge those of traditional cinema? For one thing, they question the notion of films as stories created by individual storytellers. In an already famous stunt, Kiarostami was not even present for the shoot of his last film, Ten, but rather suggested what the actors would do and then placed a camera on the dashboard of a car to film them as they drove. In an earlier film, Close-up (which Mac Cinema screened last semester), Kiarostami staged re-enactments of events with all the real-life participants playing themselves. Since the movie was about the manipulation of a middle-class family by a con man pretending to be the director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, one could easily say that the movie was “directed” by the con man as much as it was Kiarostami.

How do these cinematic experiments reaffirm the social importance of movies? As Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote in his review of Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry (still the greatest essay on the director that I’ve encountered), “We’re kept so far away from pivotal bits of action…that we have to imagine part of what's taking place… We're forced to fill in the blanks as best we can––an activity that isn't merely part of Kiarostami's technique but part of his subject. In the most literal and even trivial sense, we are what Kiarostami's movies are about.”

In Cherry, Kiarostami followed a middle-class man as he searched for someone to help him commit suicide, but never showed if the man was successful or not. The movie ended instead with documentary footage of Kiarostami filming an earlier scene and taking a cigarette break with his cast and crew. It’s simultaneously one of the most puzzling and beautiful endings of all movies. While it may not make for a conventional resolution, it suggests that the very acts of watching and making movies––moments of “collective euphoria,” to use another of Rosenbaum’s expressions––allow life to go on.

Everyday life receives substantial attention, if not outright love letters, from Kiarostami’s films. All of his actors are non-professionals, none of his sets are constructed. Such techniques place him in the company of earlier realists such as the Indian director Satyajit Ray (whose work is being showcased at the Oak Street Cinema this month), and Kiarostami, too, achieves some of his most best moments from the awkward beauty of ordinary children performing for the camera. Yet, more importantly, Kiarostami’s films locate mystery in the natural world, present holes in realism that only the cinema can open.

ABC Africa, a movie about the children of Uganda who have lost parents to AIDS, seems like another one of the director’s discoveries. To quote J. Hoberman’s review in the Village Voice, “What may be disturbing about it is that it doesn't seem disturbing enough. The emphasis in this surprisingly cheerful film is on the resilience of the living.” I’d like to say that Kiarostami intends this to be the message of all his films, though that would undermine his faith in the resilience of his audience.

The Traveler screens nightly at 9:15 at the U Film Society, which is located at University Ave. and Church St (best bus route: 16, get off at Church).

Taste of Cherry can be viewed for free at Macalester Media Services. Jonathan Rosenbaum’s review of that film can be accessed at /archives/1998/0598/05298.html.

E-mail Ben Sachs at

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