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Counting Coups

Among the many firsts at this year's DoubleTake festival is the appearance of Abbas Kiarostami



In 23 years of covering movies in the Triangle, this may be the most important "live" cinematic event I've seen: Next week in Durham, Abbas Kiarostami, the Iranian director considered by many to be this era's most important filmmaker, will appear at the 2001 DoubleTake Documentary Film Festival. As part of its tribute, on May 4 and 5, DoubleTake will show three Kiarostami features: Close-Up, the docudrama that international critics have voted the best Iranian film ever made; Homework, an astonishing documentary about primary education in Iran; and, most importantly, his new documentary, ABC Africa, which will have its world premiere in Durham before showing at the Cannes Film Festival later in May.

Having a filmmaker of Kiarostami's stature come to visit would be a major event for any festival, but considering the difficulties that face many Iranians trying to enter the United States (our government subjects even famous artists and humanitarians to humiliating fingerprinting ordeals and abruptly denied visas), this appearance must be counted a once-in-a-millennium coup for the folks at DoubleTake.

Granted, Kiarostami is still not a household name in the United States. His films are mostly known, discussed and admired among critics, and even in their ranks he has some famous detractors. As I noted in an article last year in Cineaste magazine, however, the negative opinions often seem to come from reviewers who've first--or only--encountered his more arcane and elliptical recent films, including Taste of Cherry (1997) and The Wind Will Carry Us (2000). The films showing at DoubleTake, on the other hand, represent his most accessible and enthralling work, which is why I strongly commend them to any local cinephile yet to be converted to Kiarostami.

Kiarostami's champions compare him to masters such as Antonioni, Bergman and Godard, yet his career hardly follows a European pattern. Born in Tehran in 1940, he studied art in college and spent his 20s involved in activities as diverse as making TV commercials, designing credit sequences for movies, and illustrating children's books. In 1970 he was asked to start a film division of the government-sponsored Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults. This admirable organization, which Iranians call "Kanoon," remained his base for the next 20 years, giving him a place to produce and experiment, largely sheltered from the commercial and ideological pressures that afflict filmmakers everywhere. (Kanoon survived the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and is still a major producer of films in Iran.)

Spurred by the educational mission of Kanoon, in the '70s Kiarostami initiated the tradition of the child-centered film, which would become Iranian cinema's most characteristic (and most exportable) genre in the '80s and after. These movies, which he said are "about, but not necessarily for, children," mark only one of his major innovations in Iranian cinema. He also pioneered films that blur the line between fiction and nonfiction, films that self-reflexively explore the processes and purposes of filmmaking itself, and films that contain intriguingly symbolic autobiographical elements.

Reflecting Persia's strong, intertwined traditions in poetry and philosophy, Kiarostami's work is meditative, lyrical, humanistic, playful, allusive, personal, sometimes funny, often touching and, in unexpected ways, profound--this combination of qualities is not easily described, but once seen, it's unforgettable. What's most striking about his career overall, though, is how consistent and entirely distinctive his sensibility has remained, even as he's worked in a smorgasbord of forms. He's made shorts, featurettes, and features; films for kids, for adults, and for all audiences. His oeuvre includes one partly animated film, So Can I, and even a deadpan-but-wildly-whimsical dental hygiene film, Tooth Ache.

To say that his work in documentaries has been as distinguished as his work in fictional filmmaking is misleading only in that it suggests a strict boundary between the two forms. In fact, all of Kiarostami's films seem grounded in documentary. With an almost religious reverence for nature and its quicksilver moods, he registers the look of a wind-swept landscape or the textures of light playing across a child's face with equal precision. Such closely observed moments, with their thorough dedication to the real (he avoids Hollywood-style fantasy at all costs), can easily transmute into fiction, or documentary--or a hybrid that spans both.

Close-Up (1990), the Kiarostami film that most provocatively bridges genres, is a stunner. Bowled over by it on my first encounter in 1992, I voted it the best film of the 1990s at the decade's end. One of those movies that wins passionate adherents wherever it's shown, it was mounted quickly, documentary style, after Kiarostami saw a news story about a poor man from the Tehran slums who had been arrested for posing as Mohsen Makhmalbaf, one of Iran's most celebrated film directors. The man, Hossein Sabzian, claimed he meant no harm, that he began the ruse as a whim and only continued it because it made him feel empowered. The family he deceived, though, insisted that he surely meant to rob and defraud them.

Filming the case of the Makhmalbaf impersonator, Kiarostami persuaded everyone involved, including Sabzian, the family and even Makhmalbaf, to appear as themselves, including in re-enactments of events that transpired before and during the arrest. The center of the film, meanwhile, shows Sabzian's actual trial, in which the defendant, his accusers and Kiarostami himself (who inserts himself into the proceedings in a most unusual way) engage in a series of complex and dramatic arguments about cinema, identity and intent--all before a turbaned judge of the Islamic Republic, who, like everyone else in the film, seems smitten by the camera's presence.

What emerges is a picture of a society where "love of cinema" has reached such a fervor that a film director like Makhmalbaf is viewed as something between a messiah and a revolutionary hero. Can such a figure answer all the hopes that are pinned on him, and are they bound to end in crashing disillusionment? Close-Up, which has one of the most exalting endings in all of cinema, manages to be both uplifting and ambiguous at the same time, holding up a mirror not only to the medium but to the audience as well.

Whatever we make of it, the film measures itself only by the standards of art. It uses and violates the conventions of documentary so freely that, in a context like DoubleTake, it might well stir debate over its methods.

As for documentaries per se, Kiarostami got his start before the Iranian Revolution. The first he completed, Tribute to the Teachers (1977), has been lost. Another, Jahan Nama Palace (1978), was considered lost until it was rediscovered in Paris a couple of years ago; it's a strange, gorgeous account of the restoration of one of the Shah's palaces. After the Revolution, the educational hassles faced by his sons, Ahmad and Bahman (who'll be visiting Durham with their dad), prompted Kiarostami to make two documentary features about Iranian schools. First Graders (1986) was a groundbreaker that led to Homework (1989), which until now has been Kiarostami's most celebrated documentary.

"It's so amazingly simple, yet so incredibly complex at the same time," marveled a friend who watched Homework recently, providing a description that fits a lot of Iran's masterpieces. Simple, yes: Most of the film consists of Kiarostami, wearing his characteristic sunglasses, sitting across a desk from a succession of first- and second-graders, and asking them questions. "Do you know the meaning of 'encouragement'?" "How about 'punishment'?" "Who helps you with your homework?" "Which do you like better--watching cartoons or doing homework?" (Significantly, almost all the kids claim to prefer homework to cartoons.)

One boy says he wants to grow up to be a pilot. Why? So he can bomb Saddam Hussein, he replies. Many kids reveal that their parents are illiterate, which in turn points to the subtext of Homework: The parents expect the schools to teach their kids, while the schools look to the parents to explain lessons that they themselves often can't understand. In some ways, the film, like Close-Up, zeroes in on certain fundamental contradictions in post-Revolutionary Iranian society. From another angle, its evocation of universal schoolroom dilemmas makes it a film everyone concerned with education should see. Finally, there's the simple beauty that Kiarostami finds in so many of these young faces, which are as haunting as any in Iran's fictional kid films.

The centerpiece of DoubleTake's Kiarostami tribute, of course, will be the premiere of ABC Africa. His latest documentary began when the United Nations asked the director to go to Uganda to make a short film about children who had been orphaned by the AIDS epidemic. He went with only one collaborator, the documentarian Seifollah Samadian, and the film, which the two jointly shot on mini digital video, turned into a feature that is easily the international cinema's most keenly anticipated documentary of 2001.

Anyone who assumes that the subject of AIDS in Africa automatically means a grim movie is sure be surprised by ABC Africa. I haven't yet seen the film, but in an email to me, Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, who saw an early cut, said he suspected "it may be precisely the sort of film you've been wanting from [Kiarostami]--more accessible than anything else he's done." As he has done before, and perhaps here does more straightforwardly and affectingly than ever, Kiarostami uses the shadow of death to celebrate life. Rosenbaum noted of the film, which is filled with African music: "A surprising amount of it is joyful singing and dancing by the orphans, and even though in the latter third it turns into something more recognizably Kiarostami-like (including a sequence in the darkness, in Persian--just about all the rest is in English), the whole thing manages to be both bold and successful."

Following the premiere of ABC Africa, I will discuss Kiarostami's work with him and the audience at the Carolina Theatre.

Kiarostami will also appear in a film that will be shown in DoubleTake's competition section. Friendly Persuasion, by Jamsheed Akrami, an Iranian-born critic who now teaches film in the United States, examines post-Revolutionary Iranian cinema via interviews with a wide array of its leading directors, including Kiarostami, Makhmalbaf, Dariush Mehrjui, Bahram Beyzai, Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, Jafar Panahi and Majid Majidi. For filmgoers who've had a taste of the Iranian cinema's current renaissance, or even for newcomers, Akrami's film provides some fascinating and opinionated perspectives on the challenges and benefits of making art in Iran. EndBlock

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