A Guide to
Retrospective: Abbas Kiarostami

June 28, 2021, 1:00am

The poet of cinema, Iranian film director Abbas Kiarostami boasts a long list of films that enchants as much as it confounds. For a filmmaker who was open about not being a cinephile, Kiarostami’s filmography ended up distinctive, peculiar, and always unapologetically breaking the boundaries of cinema. So while his work is celebrated by festivals and critics, he still remains a relatively obscure figure to the wider public.

From July 2021, the Asian Film Archive (AFA) will present one of the most comprehensive programmes on Kiarostami as part of its Retrospective series. 34 of his films will be available to Singapore audiences. For the first time in Asia, 27 mostly newly-restored titles, acclaimed masterpieces alongside rarely-seen gems will be screened. Consider this guide as a gateway to help you navigate the timeless stories of this prolific filmmaker.

For Rookies

For those who are new to Kiarostami—just where do you begin? While the internationally-produced films and minimalist experiments came later in his life, starting with his earlier films is absolutely essential. Much like how a good appetiser eases your way into a memorable meal, these 5 films will prime your taste for Kiarostami’s cinematic palette:

  1. The Koker Trilogy (1987-1994)
Top to Bottom: Where is the Friend’s House? (1987), And Life Goes On (1992),
Through the Olive Trees (1994)

Named after the rural northern-Iranian town that was the setting for these three films, Kiarostami’s trilogy is a good introduction to his way of blending fiction and documentary. The films – Where Is the Friend’s House? (1987), And Life Goes On (1992) and Through the Olive Trees (1994)—coexist as a chronological series gradually panning out to reveal the daily lives of the actors and villagers who exist beyond the fiction of the first film. Kiarostami himself believed he produced his best work in Iran, and the Koker Trilogy can be seen as proof of that.

  1. Taste of Cherry (1997)

The first ever Iranian film to win the Palme d’Or at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival, Taste of Cherry follows a taxi driver who tries to enlist several customers’ help to bury him post-suicide. Kiarostami moves towards minimalist cinema in the film’s focused plot and its glacial long takes, stripped of music for the most part. This is a popular masterpiece that contemplates the meaning of a life worth living.

  1. Close-up (1990)

Arguably the Iranian New Wave director’s magnum opus, Kiarostami uses Close-up to masterfully deconstruct cinema through the power of perception. This classic piece seems at first to be a drama about a con-man—Hossein Sabzian—who roleplays as a director, but then astounds with documentary-like footage of him in court, alongside scenes of Kiarostami and his film crew interviewing and planning shot sequences with the man in question. Turning the audience into Sabzian’s jury, Kiarostami asks: who and what defines cinema? He questions filmmaking as an artful passion and a technical career, allowing the film to represent the crux of his cinematic interests.

For Cinephiles

For those already acquainted with the classic films from this giant of world cinema, you have the unique chance to deepen your knowledge of Kiarostami by catching his earlier and rarer films. They will be presented in groups of short features and films on July 11, 18, 25 and August 1.

Unlike other filmmakers who dove straight into feature-length films, Kiarostami’s film history unfolds with the many short films he produced with government backing at Kanoon – the Center for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults. They were commissioned didactics for Iran’s youth, with The Colours (1976) beautifully cataloguing the many basic shades and hues that children should appreciate and Toothache (1980) that is a brisk but funny lecture about dental hygiene. His debut short, Bread and Alley (1970), follows a tiny and endearing schoolboy’s efforts to outrun a stray dog in the winding alleys of his town. Some films take place in school, such as Tribute to the Teachers (1977), Two Solutions for One Problem (1975) and Case No. 1, Case No. 2 (1979). The films reveal a thread of contrasting views that express Kiarostami’s fascination with education alongside his doubts about how it is practiced in Iran.

Top: Bread and Alley (1970)
Bottom: The Colours (1976)

Do not miss the special screenings of his first two films. The Traveler (1974)—his first feature with perhaps one of the best child performances in his earlier works, follows a young football fan willing to do anything to journey to Tehran to catch the match of his dreams. Kiarostami’s second film The Report (1977) is a rare feature made outside of Kanoon. This takes on a more despondent tone about a gradual breakdown of a marriage that Kiarostami has confessed is partly autobiographical.

His Avant-garde Films

Shirin (2008)

The retrospective also showcases work that sees Kiarostami move towards a more eclectic and experimental style. The docu-fiction Ten (2002) sees him capturing intimate interviews with 10 passengers in the front seat of a woman’s car in a highly patriarchal Tehran, using just a two-camera setup on the dashboard of the car. Shirin (2008) is a project on women’s spectatorship and is made up entirely of close-up reactions of female audience members in a theatre. Then there is the silent Five Dedicated to Ozu (2003), comprised of five intricate long-takes presented as a tribute to Japanese filmmaking legend Yasujiro Ozu.

His International Films

If you have not caught Kiarostami’s more contemporary, international, and high-budgeted offerings, his last three films should not be missed.

  1. Certified Copy (2010)

This Italian-French-Belgian co-production was Kiarostami’s first overseas cinematic venture and stars Juliette Binoche, who clinched a Best Actress Award at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. A study on the relationship between originals and imitations in art, the film depicts a cleverly inconclusive romance between a British author and an Italian gallery owner, set in sun-drenched southern Tuscany.

  1. Like Someone in Love (2012)

Kiarostami’s singular foray into Japan reads like a neon love letter to a country where making women-led films faces less restrictions than in Tehran. Baby-faced Akiko has a boyfriend who is oblivious that she moonlights as a call girl. She befriends her latest client: the avuncular Takashi, at least 60 years her senior. Watch this for Kiarostami’s trademark ambiguity and open-ended experimenting as he studies a woman’s performances of love in modern-day Tokyo.

  1. 24 Frames (2017)

Before becoming a filmmaker, Kiarostami was a graphic designer and a photographer. 24 Frames was his last film before he passed on and it has become an elegiac farewell that marries his passions for film and photography. Kiarostami reconstructs 24 still images into four-and-a-half-minute vignettes by digitally animating the moments before and after taking the photographs. The result is a beautiful meditation on time and motion, centred on equally affecting images of vast landscapes and wildlife.

To have lost Kiarostami is to truly have lost one of the modern world’s cinematic giants. As his films live on, so does the memory of this poet, illustrator, photographer, and expert filmmaker who unearthed the extraordinary in the everyday. No matter the film you choose, expect your perspective of cinema to be remoulded and perhaps expanded after watching some of his films cleverly alter expectations and evoke wonder.

“A work of art doesn’t exist outside the perception of the audience.”

Abbas Kiarostami