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The Abbas Kiarostami Collection on DVD – Fact? Fiction? Or even a film at all?

June 3, 2011 by Simon Kinnear in Retro with 0 Comments

Released by Artificial Eye on Monday 13th June, the Abbas Kiarostami Collection gathers today six of the Iranian master’s movies on DVD, starting with his 1997 Palme D’or winner The Taste of Cherry and ending, bang up to date with another Cannes success, last year’s Certified Copy.

Alongside these are The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), 10 on Ten (2004) and two films apparently never before released in the UK: ABC Africa (2001) and Ten (2002).  Coincidentally (or not), these are the two films I was sent for review purposes.

Abbas Kiarostami is an acquired taste.  Often, especially in the two films reviewed below, he doesn’t appear to be directing at all, but the rough, home-movie aesthetic hides piercing insight and a provocative rewiring of what exactly we mean by “a film”.

ABC Africa / Ten
(Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 2001/2002)

Why do films try so hard? Kiarostami needs only a camcorder, a car and a Visa to Uganda, to get us all wondering

If nothing else, watching these two films back-to-back is a reminder that dashboards make great places to plonk a camcorder. Long stretches of ABC Africa go by with Abbas Kiarostami being driven around Uganda and recording the view of the road in front. Ten presents the reverse angle, consisting entirely of ten in-car conversations, shot largely from two cameras fixed on, respectively, the driver and the passenger.

Kiarostami was already a master of minimalism and the blurry line between fact and fiction…and of films about car journeys, via his Palme D’Or-winning A Taste of Cherry. But in these two films, Kiarostami discovered and perfected the use of DV to create a new kind of ‘cinema’ that pushes the medium’s definitions to its limits. Part-home movie, part-art gallery installation, both films are seemingly casual, chaotic and unplanned, and yet edited with an eye towards challenging our preconceptions of film narrative. One’s a fiction film that feels like a documentary, the other is a documentary that draws attention to its own falsity.

“Described by Empire as ‘the Iranian Marion and Geoff,’ Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten appears incredibly unpromising, yet is remarkably accessible…”

Ten is by far the more famous of the two movies; indeed, it has become his most recognisable work, largely because of a radical format described by Empire magazine as “the Iranian Marion and Geoff.” The scenario appears incredibly unpromising, yet is remarkably accessible.  Its very simplicity allows Kiarostami to smuggle not only a telling portrait of one woman’s life but, by extension, a snapshot of Iranian society as a whole. Yes, it’s a contrived film, but what complicates things is trying to figure out what the contrivance actually is? Did Kiarostami begin by setting himself the technical challenge of making a film without sets, effects or dramatic structure? Or was the content his starting point, his mission to create a subversive critique of his country in broad daylight?

At first glance, it’s the technique that startles. Aside from imperceptible jump-cuts, Kiarostami holds his shots for extended periods of real-time, our attention held on the actors for so long that affectation becomes impossible. What’s more remarkable is how, even with only two choices of camera placement, Kiarostami gets to play some very flexible and complex games. Does he hold on the driver? The passenger? Conventional cut-and-thrust between the two? All three are deployed, and the decision to withhold visual information, perversely, makes you focus all the more on the reactions and gestures of the person who is either speaking or listening.

The barrier between fact and fiction breaks down further, because it’s hard to tell if these conversations are scripted or improvised. Either way, the film benefits from unrehearsed interaction with the outside world; the transitions from important dialogue to ad-libbed shouting at passers-by getting in the car’s way are natural, fluid and very funny. Over the course of an entire film, the accumulative effect of these stolen moments is a sly documentary about Tehran. We see far more of the city through the car windows than we would in a conventional film, and from Western eyes it’s an essential piece of demystification about a city that’s unknown to foreigners. Turns out Tehran, with its well-to-do suburbs linked to looming tower blocks by miles of concrete expressway, is much the same.

And yet, clearly, Iran isn’t a place where a woman can speak her mind freely, and the cleverness of the film’s conceit is that the car becomes a sanctuary where the unnamed driver (on the move, and away from prying eyes and eavesdroppers) can be herself. With the non-professional Mania Akbari effectively playing herself, we get astonishing naturalism: she is fiery, independent and yet trapped by her awareness of the limits of her life. Having divorced one apparently pig-headed man, can she trust the one she’s with? And what of her son, a schoolboy tyrant who is already forming the disrespectful, sexist condescension of his father, and whose attitudes are backed-up by school and state?

A woman might be at the wheel, but her routes are governed by others, and the film ponders the symbolism of the car as a prison as much as a sanctuary. Certainly, her passengers provide as calculated a cross-section of society as you’d find in any cell-block movie: the rebels and losers, old-timers and troublemakers. Just as Mania criticises her brow-beaten sister for romantic delusions, she herself gets a lesson in gender relations from a pragmatic prostitute. And even as she helps a stoic elderly woman maintain her religious traditions, she gets an inspiring wake-up call from a friend who has broken with social etiquette as an act of defiance and self-empowerment. Implicitly, subversively, the film stages the quietest of riots in the passenger’s seat – but leaves us to decide if Mania will ever be able to break free of her own commute.

“ABC Africa should be a clear-cut documentary statement, but Abbas Kiarostami’s stretching of technique makes it as elusive as Ten…”

Made the year before, ABC Africa should be a far more clear-cut statement, but Kiarostami’s stretching of documentary technique makes it equally as elusive as Ten. The brief is simple: Kiarostami is hired by UWESCO to visit a project for AIDS orphans in Uganda and help promote their work. But the director sees the opportunity for something at once simpler and more complex: a working holiday, in which he will take things as he finds them and worry about the shape later.

On one level, it’s an apparently artless, home-movie, as Kiarostami wields his DV camera and walks into villages, markets, AIDS centres and schools, a tourist in a baseball cap. What minimal explanation we get is provided by local project workers, and the absence of the kind of anchoring, celebrity presence makes for a film refreshingly free from liberal hand-wringing. Indeed, this is a film where overt suffering takes a back-seat to extended sequences of kids beaming with excitement at the novelty of being filmed, challenging every preconception about a continent shrouded in despair.

Yet the artist in Kiarostami can’t help but remind us that everything we see is the conscious choice of his editing process. At one point, Kiarostami spots a dead child wrapped in a blanket, being transported on a makeshift stretcher made of a cardboard box, strapped to the back of a bike. It’s unbearably sad…but Kiarostami cuts to the viewpoint of his fellow cameraman, who quietly films the director, quietly filming. It’s a shocking, unguarded moment, the kind of juxtaposition we tend not to see in a documentary and one that lays bare the fragile demarcation between observation and exploitation. Is it morally right to simply stand there without helping? How deep does – or should – our involvement go? Kiarostami’s very presence changes the stakes in ways that, as observers and inadvertent participants, we cannot hope to understand.

Kiarostami’s willingness to let the cameras roll pays off in a lengthy sequence where he and a colleague walk back to their hotel room in pitch darkness, querying the differences in life between Africa and their home. The result is an honest portrait of an outsider’s viewpoint, probably too honest as Kiarostami unfavourably compares AIDS to malaria as a disease that, relying on human-to-human contact, is “man-made.” With whole minutes stretching by without an image (until it is broken by lightning, in the most extraordinary and dramatic way possible), this is eminently ‘cuttable’ and the very act of including it forces us to consider why Kiarostami would leave it in. But why not? Its candour is a valuable corrective to more polished, “professional” documentaries. Which approach is the more contrived?

And it is precisely because this ragged, carefree structure is so unusual that the film packs such a punch as social protest; with our guard down, the shocking details hit all the harder. Kiarostami visits a rundown, waterlogged house with unglazed windows, directly across the road from his relatively luxurious hotel. It is shared by six families of teachers – all of whom pay 30% of their salary to the Government for the privilege. And yet, two of them are getting married, and the director sets up camp in this crucible of happiness amidst conditions we would find intolerable.

The film achieves a hauntingly ambiguous power when we meet a baby girl whose alphabet top inspired the film’s title. Abandoned by parents unknown, set to be adopted by an affluent Austrian couple, the girl represents exactly the strengths and weaknesses of visiting troubled foreign countries in the hope of helping. The Europeans are eloquent and sensitive, but even as they proclaim to be aware that they can’t hope to get a full flavour of their daughter’s heritage, they still wander the streets, soaking in the atmosphere, because “We want to collect as much as possible.”

To Kiarostami’s credit, the film takes no sides, with arguments both for and against their decision to save a single child from the harrowing statistical chances should she stay in Uganda. On the one hand, with 1.5 million orphans and rising there’s a massive problem which people like the Austrians can help to alleviate, in their admittedly small way. On the other hand, the work done by UWESCO is creating new opportunity and optimism by empowering women to learn new skills, save money and foster a sense of community spirit. In some ways, they seem freer than the protagonist of Ten; but in so many other ways, they would envy Mania’s life. In Kiarostami’s world, there are eternal questions to be asked – but no easy answers.

The Abbas Kiarostami Collection is released on 13th June by Artificial Eye.  Thanks to Porter Frith for the screener.

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