Yesterday, Abbas Kiarostami passed away at the age of 76. The filmmaker, best known for the Koker trilogy (1987–94), Close-Up (1990), Taste of Cherry (1997) – which won the Palme d’Or – was interviewed by Shiva Rahbaran for her book, Iranian Cinema Uncensored: Contemporary Film-Makers Since the Islamic Revolution (2015). Here is an extract of that interview:
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Note: Initially Kiarostami was not very keen on giving an interview and said in the last ten years or so he had not given an interview for publication in Iran. The interview was not recorded and therefore the interview is not presented in direct quotes. Also note that this interview has been abridged and edited for the purposes of this blog.
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Shiva Rahbaran: I ask [Kiarostami whether] Iranian cinema also benefited from post-revolutionary censorship, in the sense that regulations and restrictions encouraged creativity – in other words, that necessity was the mother of invention.
Abbas Kiarostami repeats that the Iranian New Wave started more than two decades before the revolution and was not created by it. He also notes that cinema had to grapple with censorship under the shah too – although back then censorship benefited creativity but only to a very limited extent. For example, architects might say that they built their best houses on a very difficult piece of land or with very limited financial means. However, the censorship that post-revolutionary Iranian cinema had to grapple with went beyond ‘restrictions’. It had and still has a very strong ideological streak that is fundamentally against art in general and cinema in particular. As far as he’s concerned, he never benefited from the policies of the post-revolutionary art and film institutions. They neither encouraged him nor gave him financial help nor promoted his films. […]
SR: Changing the subject, I tell him that one of the most obvious facets of censorship in Iran concerns the image of women. Some critics believe that post-revolutionary censorship had a positive effect on the image of Iranian women in cinema; that the new parameters freed Iranian actresses – and thus women – from their role as sex objects. In other words, I suggest, these scholars believe that ‘cutting out’ the decadent, sexual dimension in films enabled female actors to portray themselves as complete human beings.
AK does not agree. He believes that ‘cutting out’ the sexual aspect of female characters has had an adverse influence on viewers. This policy – whether it is applied on the big screen or on the streets of Iran – has led society to pay even more attention to the sexuality of women. He believes that women today are looked at and look at themselves much more voyeuristically than under the shah, where they themselves could decide how to convey their sexuality. In his view, post-revolutionary censorship has made it much harder for film-makers to approach the imagery of womanhood in a realistic, authentic manner.
SR: This brings me to the issue that is central to this project, namely, the role of the Iranian film-maker as an ‘identity maker’ for Iranians outside Iran. After the revolution, I explain, the Western media started to create and satisfy the permanent thirst of audiences for sensationalist news from hostile Iran by simplifying the complex political, social cultural and historical issues facing the country. They did this by showing images of angry black-clad Iranian men and women punching the air and Western flags being burnt in front of embassies in Tehran. At the same time, Western festivals provided a platform for Iranian films that showed the image of ‘the other’ Iran to the world, thus projecting a different Iranian identity. Does he consider himself part of this group?
AK replies that he can agree with this observation only to a degree and goes on to answer my question with another: what is Iranian identity? He points out the enormous gap between urban and rural Iran, between affluent, modern northern Tehran and the brutally poor slums on the peripheries of the cities and the deserts. Furthermore he cannot measure his own influence on shaping the identity of Iran, since the very idea of shaping an identity presupposes social engagements, being an engagé artist, and he confesses that he does not see himself as engagé in the traditional sense of the word.
SR: I put to him that when one thinks of films such as Where is the Friend’s Home? or Taste of Cherry one is not really convinced by this answer. In those films, I argue, pain and hope are shown in a very poetic but realistic manner. Watching these films one is convinced that the film-maker definitely does not subscribe to the principle of art for art’s sake.
AK explains that, from his point of view, a socially engaged artist makes films according to a political or social ideology. For such a film-maker the film is only the medium for sending a message. He admits that, having chosen not to leave his country, despite numerous opportunities, he cannot be ignorant of what happens around him. However, when he depicts the reality in which he lives, he only does so because the aesthetics, dynamics and logic of his work force him to do so. No meta-structure or ideology is involved. […] He has been approached by so many ‘ordinary’ people because of his films that he cannot accept the allegation of being elitist. The public love his films because of their portrayal of human suffering and human happiness, and it is these things that determine his artistic path.
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Extract from Iranian Cinema Uncensored: Contemporary Film-Makers Since the Islamic Revolution by Shiva Rahbaran (December 2015)
Containing twelve first-hand interviews with the most renowned film-makers living and working in contemporary Iran, this book provides insights into film-making within a society often at odds with its rulers. Reflecting upon the 1979 revolution and its influence on their work, as well as the effect of their films on Iranian audiences, film-makers highlight the key issues surrounding the reception of Iranian cinema in the West and also its role in the development of Iran’s global image – despite censorship, sanctions and political isolation.
Shiva Rahbaran holds a DPhil in English Literature from the University of Oxford. She has published several books on the relationship between art and freedom including The Paradox of Freedom and Iranian Writers Uncensored: Democracy, Freedom, and the Word in Contemporary Iran. She was born in Tehran and now lives in London.