FACE TO FACE
Kiarostami:The Man with the Digital CameraBy: Mahmood Khoshchereh
Since its premiere at 2002 Cannes Film Festival, 10, the new film by Abbass Kiarostami, has been hailed as an unquestionable masterpiece that can change our perception of cinema forever. While James Quandt in an article in Cinemascope conjectured that 10 might be the best film at the last year’s Cannes (Quandt 46-48), Geoff Andrew praised it in Sight and Sound as “one of the richest of the director’s films” (Andrew 27). The critics of Cahiers du Cinema went even further by extolling 10 as a “Coperniten revolution,” obviously playing on the words “Copernican” and “ten.” (Joyar & Bluin 28-29). But contrary to these loud and roaring declarations, 10 actually reverts to the formal strategies that Kiarostami has already exhausted in his own earlier films such as Homework, First Graders, And Life Goes On and A Taste of Cherry. It also revisits the pressing issue of the social status of women in Iran that other Iranian filmmakers, including Jafar Panahi, have already explored extensively in films like The Circle. There is no question that 10 throws off every sense of conventional narrative by eradicating linearity to a great extent, but this is nothing new in Kiarostami’s cinema. He has always maintained a documentary edge in his films that constantly interacts and overlaps with its fictional framework. Naturally, this narrative strategy tends to fracture the film as the realms of fiction and reality clash and contaminate one another. The Brechtian epilogue of A Taste of Cherry or the last sequence of Close-up evince this disruptive effect adequately as they dislocate our sense of reality by confounding its boundaries with illusion.
Before being catapulted to international fame, Kiarostami made a number of documentaries that usually provide profound insight into the flawed workings of a repressive social system. After fourteen years, Homework (1989) still remains the most devastating indictment of the Iranian educational system. It is not hard to detect in Homework’s explicit denouncement of harsh educational practices a sociological bent that ties in easily with the unmitigated onslaught that 10 tries to launch on prevailing social institutions.
Homework consists of a series of interviews that Kiarostami conducts with school children. Faced with the terrifying specter of their disproportionately heavy homework, the kids shrivel and cringe before the camera. The general feeling that emerges implies that an incompetent educational system, which thrives on terror, has converted homework into a traumatizing affair in Iranian schools. This reality cuts so deep that kids, fraught with fear as they take Kiarostami as another authority figure, fabricate a too transparent lie as to whether they like to do homework or watch cartoon. They unanimously declare their preference for homework. And Kiarostami, of course, has been prowling in the vicinity to register this obvious lie to expose the perils of this needlessly harsh system of education through irony. The kids’ collective lie bares the truth of a blind punishing system that institutes deception as a cultural necessity. As such, Homework operates as a general criticism. The method used here is simple enough. Pressed to answer the questions of the director, who uses exploitation tactics, the kids begin innocently to divulge the harrowing impact of the homework on their lives. 10 employs the same strategy by placing its characters in confessional, rather than dramatic, situations. Like Homework, it flaunts a single persistent theme that is addressed in succession by an array of disparate characters that in turn face the camera. Like Homework that, except for a few short outdoor scenes, consists wholly of the frontal shots of schoolchildren in a room with their backs against a wall as they express their fears and anxieties over their homework, 10 fixes its gaze at the characters which turn over the dissonant sides of the same subject repeatedly. In Homework it was Kiarostami who interviewed the kids; in 10 Mania Akbari (the film's female protagonist who is driving a car throughout the film), in a manner that closely resembles an interview, substitutes Kiarostami by prompting the other characters to utter their thoughts and emotions. This is particularly relevant in the case of the prostitute that Ms. Akbari claims to have picked up to satisfy her curiosity by probing into her reasons for selling her body. What, however, distinguishes 10 from Homework is the combination of interview technique with the framing movement of a car in which all interactions between the characters take place. Kiarostami had already employed this scheme in And Life Goes On, and by A Taste of Cherry, the story of a man who looks for an accomplice to assist him in his suicide, he took this ploy to its extreme.
After Homework, Kiarostami increasingly shifted his attention from ironic observation of social issues to experimentation with buoyant formal strategies. With Through the Olive Trees, Kiarostami in the tradition of Francois Truffaut’s Night for Day peers into the friction of reality with fiction as a film crew tries to shoot a few scenes of And Life Goes On, the film Kiarostami made just before Through the Olive Trees. The events of the film within film unfold just in the aftermath of a real earthquake that claimed a few thousand lives, a catastrophe that Kiarostami captures its impact vividly in And Life Goes On by juxtaposing the disaster’s attending sense of brevity with a joyfully brave struggle for survival by a people who never relinquish hope in the face of tragic conditions. The film within film, mere repeated static scenes between a newly-wed couple, doesn’t seem to stimulate real interest in anybody. It is, however, the drama behind the scenes that brims with vigor and intensity as Tahereh (Tahereh Ladan-nia), the fictional wife, continually rebuffs amorous advances of Hossein (Hossein Rezai), the husband in the film within film. In one humorous scene, Hossein, reprising his role as the husband in front of the camera, harshly upbraids Tahereh for some little mistake she has committed. As soon as the shoot is over, Hossein abjectly justifies his draconian conduct to Tahereh as a “performance,” mere acting, a lie, insisting that in real life he will never be nasty and acrimonious toward her. Brushing him off with indifference, Tahereh once again flatly refuses to listen to the pestering young man. In this sense, confusion arises as to what is real and what is not because the events unwinding behind the scenes of And Life Goes On are themselves the scenes of Through the Olive Trees. Thus Through the Olive Trees splinters the spectrum of reality into multiple levels. What surfaces as reality here (Hossein as the spurned lover and Tahereh as the cruel beloved) frames the domestic contentment of the fictional couple in the film within film. But the framing story itself is another “performance,” another lie. With Through the Olive Trees, Kiarostami entices us into a hall of mirror where every reflection only mirrors another reflection. Godard has somewhere echoed this Brechtian dictum that “Cinema is not the reflection of reality but the reality of reflection,” a theoretical position that eloquently sums up the aesthetic penchant of Through the Olive Trees for self-reflexivity.
Iranian cinema has always displayed a knack for ingenious juxtaposition of fiction and reality, a love affair that stretches back to before the revolution of 1979. Parviz Kimiavi’s The Moguls, one of the earliest examples of self-reflexive cinema in Iran, is a complex satire about the ideological assault of western media on primitive cultures. The Moguls portrays a director who is trying to make a film about the invasion of Iran by the Moguls, a historical event that parallels that of the sweeping invasion of Iranian culture by the media. Although one can easily find the impact of Godard’s aesthetics and critical vision on Kimiavi’s film, the fact that The Moguls was made in 1974 makes it a prototypical film that prophetically foresees globalization and the destruction of native cultures overrun by ruthless commercialism of the media. Despite its daring formal and thematic significance, The Moguls, however, remained an isolated experiment unable to reach a wide audience. In fact, when it was screened in a movie theatre in Tehran, the audience exhibited their outrage at the unconventional approach of the film by tearing the seats and breaking the windows. As such, it was left to Through the Olive Trees to lift up self-reflexivity to a major preoccupation of Iranian art cinema, a trend that Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s A Moment of Innocence embodied its most subliminal spell.
Like Kiarostami’s Close-up, A Moment of Innocence marks the transition of Iranian cinema from a neorealistic mode of expression to a style riddled with the interaction of illusion and reality. With Close-up, Through the Olive Trees, Salaam Cinema and A Moment of Innocence, complete manipulation of reality as a fundamental narrative strategy began to ignite the imagination of Iranian filmmakers. What they achieved with these experiments may best be called, to borrow a term from Fredrick Wiseman, the “reality fiction” that allows the filmmaker to create a “form which has a life of its own, and that form is a fiction because it does not exist apart from the film” (Halberestad 303). The fact that reality is transmogrified into fiction as soon as it is transposed onto celluloid, a point that Todd Solondz, too, has recently tried to espouse in Storytelling, lies in the heart of A Moment of Innocence. Because Kiarostami’s predilection for self-reflexivity reaches its most brilliant expression in Iranian cinema with A Moment of Innocence, a digression about Makhmalbaf’s film can illuminate Kiarostami’s central concerns.
A Moment of Innocence, which attempts to capture a crucial ideological turning point in the career of Mohsen Makhmalbaf, resonates significantly on social, artistic and personal levels. As a religious militant in the pre-Revolutionary Iran, Makhmalbaf had once in a reckless adventure tried to assassinate a policeman. A Moment of Innocence begins when Makhmalbaf, auditioning the would-be actors in Salaam Cinema, accidentally meets his former victim who now aspires to be an actor in his attacker’s film. A brilliant idea strikes the director and he suggests that these old enemies should co-operate on a film that will reconstruct their violent encounter in the past. They decide that each should pick a suitable candidate from among the avid film lovers, who are being auditioned, to play their youth. The director picks his man, but the policeman is not quite satisfied with his choice. He claims that the youth who plays him lacks verve and motivation. At one point he even leaves the project, only to be coaxed back into it by the assurances he receives from the assistant director. Eventually they set out to reconstruct the past in some improvised fashion as they follow their alter egos with a movie camera, all the time the policeman complaining about the vapid performance of his doppelganger. According to the script of the film within film, in the final scene of the film the policeman should present a girl he desperately loves with a little flowerpot. On the other hand, Makhmalbaf’s young double is using the girl as a decoy to approach and stab the policeman with a knife he is wielding under the loafs of bread in his hand. When the moment of confrontation arrives, the actors have by then hilariously mutated into their assumed roles. Their situation resembles that of Wiley Wiggins in Richard Linklater’s Waking Life who is unable to break out of his dream. Just as Wiley repeatedly wakes up only to find himself in another dream through a chain of “false awakenings,” the young actors of A Moment of Innocence are unable to extricate themselves from their fictional identities, which paradoxically awaken in them new dimensions of reality. Liberated from the clutch of a constraining history, their reenactment of the past takes on a different hue as they twist its reality into a new vision for the future. Instead of going on with the planned stabbing, the young men, in a poetic gesture of reconciliation, exchange the bread and the flowerpot as the frame freezes on them. Makhmalbaf thus rewrites history by rejecting his militant past and embracing a humanist stance. In a sense, A Moment of Innocence is an inversion of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author or Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, where characters assume real identity by stepping out of their fictional world. In contrast, in A Moment of Innocence real people are totally consumed by their illusory roles in a way that life becomes meaningful to them only in the context of their fictional existence. Ultimately, just as in Renoir’s The Golden Coach, where commedia dell’arte spawns and frames a reality that we ultimately realize is as fictitious as its own stock characters, the distinction between reality and fiction in A Moment of Innocence remains in a continuous state of collapse.
While Makhmalbaf’s affaire d’amour with self-reflexive cinema was short-lived, Kiarostami for more than two decades has resolutely refused to go off on another tangent. The Traveller (1974) and Close-up (1990), with a gap of fifteen years between them, can amply attest to this claim. Despite their similarity in terms of theme and character type, these films, however, diverge over a significant point. While the earlier film remains staunchly moralistic in tone, to the extent that it punishes its protagonist for an act of deception he has committed, the later film betrays a more sympathetic and pliant attitude towards its character. Both films are about deception, but while The Traveller in a tit for tat fashion ends in a grieving sense of loss, Close-up blatantly rejoices in deception as the very essence of cinema.
In The Traveller, a little schoolboy deceives his classmates by obtaining money from them for taking their pictures with a toy camera. He lives in a provincial little town and needs the money for a trip to the capital city of Tehran to watch a big soccer match. The feverishly desired moment arrives and the boy finds himself in front of the stadium just a few hours before the match. As luck has it, the boy, exhausted by his long journey on the bus, falls fast asleep on the grass fields outside. When he wakes up, the game has ended and people are leaving the stadium in joyful procession. Here the boy's dream goes up in smoke as a prevailing sense of loss and regret encircles him. The lesson Kiarostami derives from his film implies that deception meets its end in defeat and disillusionment. An offshoot of a dominant trope in Kiarostami’s cinema, the boy's dream has been as unreal, elusive and evanescent as the photographs he has pretended to take from his classmates with his phony camera.
Close-up recounts the true story of Hossein Sabzian, an impostor who just like the little boy in The Traveller succeeded in deceiving a family by posing as Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Sabzian was consequently arrested and ended up in jail. We see him first in prison uniform as Kiarostami makes a visit to inform him that he is making a film about his misadventure. Kiarostami then ventures into the Islamic court with his camera to record Sabzian’s trial in close-up as the impostor tries to make a case for his transgression. He claims that poverty, his love of films and, above all, the respect that he received from his victims as a director, caused him to embark on such unlikely enterprise. The eloquence of the impoverished young man resonates so poignantly that we as the audience shiver at the prospect of our own complicity. Interestingly enough, Sabzian compares himself to the little boy in The Traveller "who was left behind and forgotten by those who watched the match." Kiarostami then reconstructs Sabzian's story by convincing the actual participants to reenact their real parts in the incident. Thus, the deceiver and the deceived, that might in reality detest each other, turn into strange bedfellows through cinematic experience. The power of Close-up stems from its fascination with cinematic experience as a conciliatory process that puts an end to hostilities among the people who may otherwise be at each other’s throats. Stirringly, the real Makhmalbaf shows up in the last sequence of the film to broach peace and forgiveness between the antagonistic parties, a gesture that he will echo later on in his own film, A Moment of Innocence.
After ABC Africa, 10 is the second film that Kiarostami shoots on digital video. Since video image is basically flat, it naturally brings changes into the work of a director who has always tried to grasp the sinewy pulse of natural landscapes in magnificently executed extreme long shots. One only has to think of the extended extreme long shots at the end of And Life Goes On and Through the Olive Trees to understand the transcendental sense of landscape that fills Kiarostami’s films with affirmation and energy. Discarding the shots of lush open landscapes of his earlier films, Kiarostami confines the entire duration of 10 to the interior of a car whose driver is an attractive divorcee in her mid-thirties played by Mania Akbari. She is about to remarry, a fact that provokes Amin (Amin Maher), her young son, to brazenly taunt her at every possible opportunity. As she drives around in the streets of Tehran, Kiarostami parades an array of colorful female characters that on separate occasions take a spin in her car. They represent the vast scope of Iranian women who range from a devout old woman to a reckless prostitute and another young woman who is deserted by the man she loves for another woman. Although these women seem completely different from one another, they all share an awareness of their sterile life that basically emanates from the deep emotional scars men have left on them. Nevertheless, their responses radically vary in tackling with their abandonment by men; while the old woman finds solace in prayer and a mother Theresa-like sense of compassion for others, the prostitute shields her vulnerability to romantic love by assuming a hard-boiled attitude. The jilted young woman is, however, undergoing a torturous self-examination as her naive yearning for a settled life, embodied in marriage, collides with the brute reality of a cold and rapacious masculinity.
Kiarostami breaks up 10 into ten sequences of unequal length, each popping up as a countdown image. Although all sequences are stitched together with the theme of oppression of women, each of them acts as a singular disclosure of the participating characters as well. The sequences also differ in terms of tone and intensity as one, especially between the driver and her son, verges on vehement antipathy while another, the last conversation between the driver and the young jilted woman, is replete with a blend of meditative anguish and redemptive sense of release.
In the thirteen-minute-long "sequence 10," the first sequence of the film, the mother and the son engage in an abrasive exchange that at times borders dangerously on explosive revulsion. Acting as the mouthpiece for a patriarchal society, Amin batters her mother by acerbically reproaching her for falsely accusing his father of addiction in the divorce hearing. Considering that divorce laws in Iran constrain women inordinately, she justifies her lie by arguing that it was the only way to escape the indignity of a sordid marriage. Her aversion to a life bound by an empty and fallow marriage reaches its highest pitch in her bitter incriminations of the oppressive social structure: “Your father imprisoned me, ruined me…I had to [lie] because of the rotten laws of this country.” But Amin lends no ear to that sort of talk. Slamming his mother with rancorous malevolence, he turns out to be, just like his father, the inheritor and zealous defender of uncontested male dominance. He charges his mother with “selfishness” and “irresponsibility” for having left his father and then launches a vindictive assault on her from all fronts. Is Kiarostami suggesting a vicious circle where the sons will perpetuate the ways of their fathers? Uncharacteristically for Kiarostami, the prophet of hope in the 90s cinema, that sounds irascibly dismal. Amin's refusal to listen to and understand her mother locks them both in a shackling predicament that is never resolved. As the four sequences of confrontation, sans reconciliation, between the mother and the son succeed one another, Kiarostami, resisting to stretch his scope, falls into the trap of repeating himself over and over again in phrases that sound like unequivocal battle cries. That’s pretty good for political agitation, but its downside entails the sacrifice of subtle allusions and shrewd visual metaphors that have always enriched Kirostami's films. Viewed as such, characters' takes on romantic longing and sensual emancipation from grim clutches of male oppression appear like simple-minded diatribes that overlook the complex nature of human relationship: “When I was married I was like a stagnant swamp,” declares Ms. Akbari’s character, “ but now I’m like a flowing river”. This strikes one more as a cliché from the Persian mystical poetry of the 13th century than a complex response by an incorrigible urban sophisticate. This is a rare misfire on the part of a filmmaker who is known for the delicacy of his layered portrayals of humanity, where individuals normally claw their way through harsh circumstances to attain catharsis and understanding. One only has to think of Babak Ahmadpoor, the little boy in Where is My Friend's House?, who attains to illumination after repeated rejections by a callous adult world which is insensitive to his plight.
In contrast, sequence 2 bristles with a sheer sense of emancipation. Acknowledging that her fiancé has finally left her, Roya (Roya Arabshahi) uncovers her shaved head in a symbolic act of release that significantly accentuates her liberation from male oppression (keeping in mind that women in an Islamic country like Iran are not allowed to uncover their hair because it is considered a source of temptation for men, this is a true moment of revelation that doubly assaults the masculine sense of what defines a woman’s beauty as it simultaneously frees her from the oppression of male gaze).
All female characters in 10 struggle for recognition and a sense of personhood in a male-dominated power structure that doggedly denies their basic rights to them. Betrayed and slighted, both Roya and the prostitute arrive at disenchantment with romantic love by rebelling against a society that primarily caters to men. Their disenchantment, however, assumes diametrically different forms. The woman driver, Roya and the prostitute are all characters which have stepped beyond love-drunk cycles and now, having survived corrosive relationships, are left with rude awakening and emotional exhaustion. And yet, each wages her private battle against the disabling sense of loss and injury she has suffered. No character in 10 embodies this embattled spirit more vibrantly than the prostitute.
Herself a rejected woman, the prostitute particularly derides those social codes that ensure men’s ascendancy by reducing women to mere passive sexual objects. Her solution is prostitution by which she can at least exchange her sexual favors for money. As she talks on, it becomes clear that prostitution really functions as a defense mechanism for her as it hardens her sentimentality and empowers her to dispassionately transform love and sex into a commercial transaction. Giggling, she cynically announces love, sex and money, are all parts and parcels of the same thing. She scornfully suggests that marriage is a kind of institutionalized prostitution where all exchange is commercially calculated. Rambling freely from the details of her profession to a galling condemnation of men, the prostitute sends up the whole institution of marriage. This is obviously an attack on consumerist culture, something akin to Godard’s relentless socio-political critique in Two or Three Things I Know about Her where a housewife works as a part-time prostitute to buy consumer products for her household. Unlike Godard’s heroine who embraces her social circumstances to respond to her consumerist needs, the prostitute in 10 views her job as a direct challenge to a patriarchal society. Her profession enables her to reverse the existing power relations by playing men for dupes and exploiting their sentiments. Disillusionment on a colossal scale.
More than any other director, Kiarostami’s style in 10 resembles that of John Cassavetes. Cassavetes’s films, Shadows, Faces, Husbands and A Woman Under the Influence, all are films that resort to improvised dialogues taking place between actors. The Restaurant scene in Husbands, for instance, vibrates with a spontaneous wrangle that at times seems to be slipping out of control. During a press conference in the 43rd International Thessaloniki Film Festival Kiarostami emphasized the point that he has eliminated the director in 10 by working with actors in a collaborative process: “I basically ask [the actors] to be themselves. I’m the one who has to change in order to get closer to them and find some common ground. This way, the director and the actors collaborate smoothly” (Haghigh 61). At Like Cassavetes’s films, 10 therefore becomes a “collaborative” work that, to a great extent, allows its actors to follow their own whims and impulses rather than to stick strictly to the script. In the case of Kiarostami, the truth, however, is that he never uses scripts. In fact, his usual practice involves the use of a short treatment, usually one page that only outlines general points of the story. Nevertheless, his genius allows him to utilize his actors’ peculiarities in an extraordinarily unique fashion. Whatever the actors in 10 say, for example, or whatever idiosyncratic layers of significance they bring to “the film-in-process,” are ultimately subordinated to an overarching vision that has elevated Kiarostami to the status of an auteur. It is in this spirit that every little word or gesture in 10 evokes an aesthetic proclivity that has come to define Kiarostami’s cinema.
10 shares another quality with Cassavetes’s films. Besides their loose plot, as Monaco has suggested, Cassavetes’s films “almost entirely take place in interiors” (Monaco 301). A Woman Under the Influence, which completely unfolds in Nick and Mabel’s house, is shot essentially from two camera set-ups in the entrance hall (Monaco 301). In the same way, 10 in its entirety is shot from two camera positions on the car’s hood that look straight at the passengers in the front seats. Cassavetes in A Woman Under the Influence uses a long lens to get close to the action without disturbing the actors by the presence of the camera (Monaco 302). Kiarostami pretty much achieves the same by using a digital camera to avoid intruding upon his actors’ performances. Involving less technical complications, digital camera is very light and easy to move around with. As a result, it easily blends with the set in a way that it almost becomes invisible. This quality allows Kiarostrami to extract an immediacy of response from the actors that generates the unmistakable rhythms of home-movie reality. Ironically, this immediacy results from a distance that he maintains from his actors as he tries "to eliminate the director" altogether. In this sense, like parts of Godard’s Vivre sa Vie, a film that incidentally ruminates on prostitution as well, 10 achieves the feel of a documentary, and yet, it somehow succeeds to sustain its dramatic impulse by bringing us back over and over again to the central conflict between the mother and her son.
Another comparison with Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage can shed further light on the temperament and formal constitution of 10. Although quite similar in their visual approach, 10 and Scenes from a Marriage differ crucially in terms of their conception of character. Both films obliterate depth of field by confining their characters in interiors and framing them in either medium or close shots. Bergman’s film, an examination of “the molecular structure of relationship” (Canby 746), is a more extreme case because it is almost exclusively shot in tight close-ups as we witness the gradual falling to pieces of the marriage between Marianne (Liv Ullman) and Johan (Erland Josephson). Bergman adheres so obsessively to this visual scheme that he rarely even uses two-shots of his characters. Kiarostami, too, fixes his camera either on the woman driver or her interlocutor. Sometimes, as in the extended thirteen-minute-long take of “sequence 10,” where Amin blasts his mother with a barrage of abuses, the camera lingers on the face of the speaker for the entire duration of the take. In contrast, in another sequence, as in the case of the prostitute whose words we hear without ever catching a glimpse of her, the camera remains fixed on the woman driver who only listens and rarely utters a word, a formal device that Godard successfully used in One Plus One in 1969 to emphasize the act of listening rather than speaking. Unlike Kiarostami, Bergman, however, is absolutely enthralled by the psychology of his characters. A smile, for instance, comes to reveal “a composite of pain, anger, affection, and creeping boredom” (Canby 746). Bergman thus turns inward and probes the subtle ebb and flow of emotional mutations in his characters as they interact in a self-enclosed world. 10, on the other hand, constantly turns outward by referring to the wider social context that feeds the resentment of its characters. Although 10 remains impervious to the physical traces of the outside world, it evokes the tremendous impact of their unyielding pressures on its characters. The milieu that galvanizes rebellion and propagates discontent may be visually absent, or only briefly glimpsed at in passing, but the feeling that it is smothering the characters by its crushing grasp is too potent and visible.
Has Kiarostami managed to break new grounds with 10? Is this film really a “Coperniten revolution” in cinema as the critics of Cahiers du Cinema have championed it? I, for one, have an uneasy and ambivalent feeling towards 10. Perhaps it's a bit too soon to pass judgment on 10 amidst all these frantic uproars and euphoric pronouncements. When the dust settles, with the benefit of hindsight we may be able to form a more objective opinion as to whether or not Kiarostami, the man with the digital camera, has stirred up a new revolution in cinema. For now, let's hope he continues to create authentic portrayals of humanity that go hand in hand with brave aesthetic experimentations.