Editor’s note: Storied Iranian film director Abbas Kiarostami died last weekend in Paris at age 76. In 2012, the Voice‘s Bilge Ebiri interviewed Kiarostami on the occasion of the premiere of his film Like Someone in Love at the New York Film Festival. The following interview ran in a slightly different form on Ebiri’s blog, They Live by Night, in 2013.
Abbas Kiarostami needs no introduction: He is, quite simply, among the small handful of directors who continue to be of seismic importance to world culture. From his early masterpieces — both documentaries and fictions, many of them made with Iranian schoolchildren — to his later experiments with narrative form and technology, he’s been at the cutting edge of everything we know as cinema. I sat down with him during the New York Film Festival. Here’s our chat.
In addition to directing, you write poetry and have had your photographs displayed in gallery shows. Do you see all your work as being part of the same continuum?
Either it’s a continuum, or at least there’s interaction between these different practices and these films. Many of my photographs, they tell stories in a way: They’re fictional, as far as a photo can be. In my films, though, I’m the opposite; I try to get farther away from narrative and try to bring an experimental, visual art element to it. And the poems are very often evocative of image or atmosphere. So there’s definitely interaction between the different forms. And at any rate, they’re all products of the same mind — even if sometimes it doesn’t show on the surface.
But your subjects seem to have changed quite a bit. In recent years, for example, it seems as if your films have been focusing more on male-female relationships.
For twenty years I worked with children, for children, about children, so my frame was at their level. And the parents were too tall to fit in my frame. I had young children myself, so it was a commitment that was both professional and personal. Then, my children grew, and I stopped working with films about children. So I was given the opportunity to look up over the camera, and to look in front of me and see what was there. And there were women. [Laughs.] So it was really just a shift in focus, to go from children to adults.
You’ve also worked with many different kinds of actors over the years, from nonprofessional children to actors of international stature, such as Juliette Binoche in Certified Copy. You mentioned in one of your Q&As that it was very difficult to find the old man in Like Someone in Love, and that he was actually an extra. Does your approach to directing actors change with the type of actor you’re working with?
I don’t think my approach is all that different: I still work in the same state of mind, which is that professional actors should be less aware of their craft. Maybe they need more care in order to be taken to somewhere more personal or natural, to realize that I’m actually asking them to be themselves rather than acting or embodying a character. So that’s what I try to do with them. Basically, I am trying to bring them back to real life. On the other side, with nonprofessionals, I try to make them a bit more professional — or at least to be more aware of time, which is very important in filmmaking. It’s very hard, maybe impossible, to find someone who can do all of these things. So it makes more sense to find people from the two extremes — either trained professionals or people who barely understand what cinema is — and then try to level them.
I was also struck by the use of sound in Like Someone in Love , both thematically and technologically. The early scenes feature so much talking on phones. And then the finale is remarkable, with so much of the action — the boyfriend getting violent outside — happening through the use of offscreen sound.
Since the beginning, for me, sound has been the best way to give an idea of what’s going on outside the frame — without artificially cutting and going out and then cutting and going back in. Sound, like in real life, can give you a very clear picture of what’s going on outside. Here in this film, I think what’s most important is to design the sound previously, and to know how you want to use it on a diegetic level. Here, I knew that what was important was for the spectator to know the difference between the inside and the outside — to know, for example, that there is a school next door, and to know where exactly the old man parks his car. So, in the last scene, what you see onscreen is just this normal life — there’s not much going on. The girl is sitting, the old man is going and coming. But then the sound begins to inform you that something different is starting to happen. You hear the breaking of the glass in the car, you can hear the neighbor who obviously cares so much for this man. Instead of showing it, I simply suggested it, because the sound referred to previous images that have been seen. And the spectator is aware of them.
At first, when I saw Like Someone in Love , I thought, “What is Abbas Kiarostami doing shooting a film in Japan, in Japanese?” But then it occurred to me that Japan, like Iran, is also a conservative society, especially with respect to gender roles, that has been dealing with change and social upheaval. In other words, I can see how an Iranian director might have something to say about this culture.
That hadn’t crossed my mind, but it makes sense. It’s true that both societies are, as you say, traditional, and in both countries there hasn’t been just gradual, logical change, but something very abrupt and much more revolutionary. But it’s really not for this reason that I chose Japan, or that Japan came to me as a country I could make films in. The form of art I’ve been working in the longest is poetry; I’ve been writing poems since my early twenties — short poems that are very much like haiku. And in my photography I’ve been creating pictures that I’ve been told are a lot like Japanese painting. So there is really some kind of resonance with Japanese culture for me. It’s totally unwanted and unconscious — something deep inside me. And it was only after I started going to Japan that I started to feel very close to that culture. I felt a kind of connection between my own person and artistic practice and the culture that I got to know there.
What has been the response in Japan to the film?
The response that I heard from my producer after it was released was that people either love it or they hate it — that nobody’s indifferent and that there’s no in between. They have strong opinions about it.
Why do you think that is?
I think maybe one reason is the trouble that the Japanese themselves have with their own identity. Apart from their economic situation, which they’re proud of, the younger generation in Japan I feel are not at ease with being Japanese: They’re ashamed of their faces, of their eyes. If you pay attention to advertising, there are no Japanese faces. They’re all Europeans. So there’s this very strong impact of Western cultural institutions. And maybe this film opens a window that’s unpleasant to see on their own culture and identity.
Here’s an example: When I was in Japan, I was struck by the number of people who are angry at Akira Kurosawa — really angry. They reject him violently. There are many more of them than there are people who recognize him as a unique film director.
That’s kind of shocking. Why?
Because they think that at the time their country was becoming modernized and Westernized, he was the one who went back to Japanese tradition, to the Samurai and these other things that people didn’t want to hear about anymore. He kind of pulled the country back to these things that they wanted to get rid of.
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