The room was abuzz for an Abbas Kiarostami entrance. I sat terrified, hoping, but knowing what others didn’t—that he was sick, and might not come. Festival head Peter Scarlet finally strode to the front and broke the bad news. But Kiarostami had left three short films for us, so “Have a good screening.” I stood up, feeling broken, and began to walk out, then turned and retook my seat. A new film by Kiarostami, even if it’s only a few minutes long, is always worth watching.
Not that Rain, the first short, is new, per se. It’s made up of a series of photographs that were previously presented at a Pompidou Centre exhibition. “I would drive in the rain with one hand on the wheel, and take pictures with the other,” he has explained. The film shows images of trees melting and waving, water covering the window. And that’s it.
Yet the film is also more than its images. After a series of complex, multi-character masterpieces like Close-Up and The Wind Will Carry Us, Kiarostami spent much of the past decade as a minimalist filmmaker, ignoring editing and camera movement to simply focus on the images in front of him. The many people who complained that he had lost his gifts as a filmmaker ignored how he had returned to his original gifts as a photographer and poet. Kiarostami’s poems, usually no more than three to four lines each, continue just long enough to capture the poet’s wonder at an image—the intricacy of a spider’s web, or the whiteness of falling snow. His willingness to simply look was in fact one of the things that then made him a great filmmaker. Most movies don’t linger on falling leaves or rolling spray cans, let alone on conversation. From the beginning Kiarostami’s movies refreshed the world by encouraging the viewer to look at it.
In one sense, his recent minimalist films—the features Ten, Five: Dedicated to Ozu, and Shirin, and a number of shorts—have felt like an attempt to get back to basics. But in another sense they’ve seemed like a radical new journey to the edge of narrative. A film like Five, which consists of five fixed-frame shots along the Caspian Sea (of people, ducks, dogs, and a floating log), asks how little you can present and still come away with a drama. And what you realize, watching, is that the choice to open one’s eyes and then keep them open is one of the most dramatic choices that a human being can make.
The filmmaker suggests as much in 2005’s Roads of Kiarostami, the program’s second short, which revisits several of the roads characters travel in key Kiarostami films like Taste of Cherry. Unlike those dialogue-driven movies, the lone words on the soundtrack are the director’s occasionally asking why roads fascinate him, and answering that they may remind him of his childhood. Yet the capacity to create is also simultaneously a capacity to destroy, as every image that enters the mind replaces another one. These new roads replace the roads he imagines from his childhood. Roads ends with a burning photograph of a dog, which points to how images burn into and out of the mind. “When the image burned while filming it surprised me,” Kiarostami has said . “I thought the dog was alive. It was not an image anymore.”
The issue of whether living things can also be images is very much at the heart of the director’s new feature-length masterpiece Certified Copy, playing in the festival lineup. By observing a long-married couple whose partners may also be meeting for just the first time (or vice-versa), the film seems to be asking whether we can simultaneously live life and remember it. If so, it answers yes—living in a moment and remembering other ones are separate but co-dependent experiences, just as observing one’s surroundings and analyzing them are. Memories are copies of original experiences, but they’re also original objects unto themselves.
A film, too, is an original object, even if it’s recording a preexisting world. You sense watching Kiarostami’s movies that he’s using the camera as a bridge between him and whatever he’s filming (for example, his frequent choice to film his actors himself, so that they’re speaking to him rather than to other actors). It does seem to bring him and the viewer closer to whatever’s on screen: Even if the bridge ultimately can’t be crossed, you get a better sense of the distance.
The program’s third short, Sea Eggs (a new film, delivered straight from Kiarostami’s hotel room), suggests the distance between viewer and filmed object—the distance between mind and world—through a fixed-frame shot of three eggs being lapped at by breaking waves. The drama lies in whether the eggs will stay put or be swept away, and the viewer watches for 17 minutes until all three eggs are finally carried off. A chilling flash of music sweeps over the movie at this instant, and the film cuts out. The life of the eggs has ended, and we resume our own lives when the lights go up.
I spoke to another critic after the screening who hadn’t enjoyed it. “It’s nice to look at,” she said, “But is it cinema?” I immediately asked her, “What’s cinema?” She didn’t have an answer, and together we tried to find one. We knew that cinema could be recordings of people talking, or animated still photographs…
And as we kept talking I remembered a conversation I had had the day prior, when another journalist asked me what my favorite Kiarostami movie was. I was surprised by the question, and then surprised at my surprise. I don’t have a favorite Kiarostami film, I realized, because I don’t consider quality when I think about him. Kiarostami is essential for me the same way that Godard is essential for others; I watch his films partly for their individual glories, but mainly to follow a developing, active mind whose intelligence the films reflect. Picking a favorite Kiarostami film seems to me as pointless as picking a favorite day with a treasured friend or lover that you’ve known in many settings for many years.
In this particular setting I concluded that, for Kiarostami, anything that can be filmed is cinema, and even anything that can be photographed. By this definition, cinema is so entrenched in our daily life that perhaps it should simply be approached as a part of life, rather than a sidebar to it. That’s certainly the way I’m sensing that audiences perceive cinema in Abu Dhabi. Over and over, I’ve seen people here walk into screenings late, answer their cellphones while the movie’s running, talk with companions openly and freely, get annoyed when the movie isn’t entertaining them, then rise and passionately thank the filmmakers afterward when they think the movie’s said something important about their lives. Many audience members here seem to regard movie-watching as a part of daily life, and I’ve realized watching them that for most people on most days the single greatest drama is whether they can reach a certain point on the road. Life’s pleasures lie in looking out the window. The more I stop to look at the world, the more the world looks like a Kiarostami film.
The Abu Dhabi Film Festival runs through October 23. For more information, click here.