Of Kiarostami, Critics & Film students
'Does anything escape the eyes looking intent-ly
at the world from behind
those dark glasses?''
is what I am thinking
in the lawns of Films Division Delhi, one day
during the International
Film Festival of India.
The year is 1999.
Kiarostami is in the jury.
We are film students at the Film & TV Institute of India.
He is wearing his dark glasses through the half hour with us we have literally stolen.
I & Anupama (Srinivasan), had been following him so long, ever since his plane landed in Delhi, fishing for a meeting that when the moment actually arrived, we were exhausted, not quite unlike Qaseem from K's film Mosafer/ Traveller falling asleep in the football match he has run away from home to watch! It was enough that he was there in the chair in front of us, wasn't it?
I remember asking K. which is the favourite of his films and having asked such, feeling foolish, till I heard him say- "Close up. It is a film you don't decide to make, or make again."
It is curious, as I see Close up again, how Sabzian in Nemaye nezdik/ Close up also evokes Mossafer/ Traveler as an analogy of his own condition- a child going off to sleep when the match begins. He is speaking to the camera with a close-up lens, put there by Kiarostami, for him to explain whatever he is not able to otherwise put across in a court of law, defending his own case of fraud. Ahankhah's son says he would forgive him, if he wasn't still acting; but Sabzian's now playing for sympathy. K asks if Sabzian thinks he's acting for the camera. He says he is not acting; only talking of his suffering. K asks if it will not be better to be an actor than director. Sabzian smiles, saying he enjoys playing the director, though it's tough to play Makhmalbaff. K. asks what role he would like to play. Sabzian says he would like to play himself. K says "but you are playing yourself already". Sabzian falls silent...
We had hardly done anything during the festival till then, except track Kiarostami all over the capital right up to this moment, here. And now that it was here, we of course had no clue what to do with the moment. Our friends Gurvinder and Uma who had come along, fumbled with some questions, giving us intermittent looks as if asking- 'Weren't you the ones dying to talk to him? Why did you want to meet? Don't you at least have some questions?'
As for us, we just looked at him, looking at us, through his dark glasses, talking about Cinema. He was every bit as we had imagined him to be- totally there with us, film students, at ease, rapt attentive, present to the passing moment. He asked us how we looked at the emergent video technology? We were still being trained primarily in film technology at the Film school and there was not much anyone thought about the video upcoming. It was as if everyone almost resisted it's coming by pretending to look the other way. Kiarostami said there was no point if we could not look at video for what it seemed to offer new-ly. If one would use it as one would a film camera, it would be better to go on using a film camera! Seemed a strange statement when one thought that film was already on its way out anyway and would soon become prohibitively expensive to use. All K. wanted was to bring our attention to the fact that we must carry over the same rigour, discipline and responsibility to the video that we were wont to bring to the film camera. The shooting to editing ratio soon going totally overboard in the digital video age, with films increasingly made on editing tables and editors going crazy with the sheer volume & randomness of footage made it apparent soon enough.
Then of course came his digital works Ten and Five and one saw how he meant- 'new-ly'.
This however was 1999 and Baad mara khahad bord/ Wind will carry us was the opening film; Kiarostami at 60 had already declared he had stopped entering films in competition.
Anupama & I had stayed up all night making plans to abduct him straight from the airport! On second thoughts we had gone instead to the hotel where the dignitaries were being put up. The hospitality staff there had no clue who K. was; some were sure the girls were after some hot star and asked if he was one. They were the wee hours of internet in India, and believe it or not, we didn't know what he looked like! There were many who walked into the hotel lobby that day who we imagined to be K. including Jean Claude Carriere, until Mrinal Sen called him from behind us- 'Jean Claude'! We waited there all day skipping lunch, film, festival, near forgetting the world. But the man in question never appeared. After all our detective antics, we figured the faux pas which remains an enigma to this day, difficult to imagine. Nevertheless. It happened.
It seems the person who had gone to pick K. up at the airport had missed him. How we cursed ourselves for not being there! K. then went out on his own and checked himself in a random hotel in Paharganj. After a while there was panic among the organisers. It was the first day of the festival and the opening film was his new 'Baad mara khahad bord/ Wind will carry us'. It was almost evening. Abbas Kiarostami was missing.
We only had enough time to reach Siri Fort for the inauguration and park ourselves right behind the seat marked with his name, next to his wife's, who we figured had apparently come straight from Paris. We imagined he must come to see his wife. He did not show up. The function happened, with an IFFI official explaining K.'s absence in his own way. Film began.
After a while, a tall figure in the dark, came crouching and whispered something in the wife's ear. Our eyes followed the walking shadow we barely recognized, as he went and stood in the aisle with the crowd. Whenever we stole a glance behind, the tall figure was there and watched the entire film from there. After this introduction to K, it became all the more necessary for us to meet him; easily the most important thing that year at IFFI. Anu had learnt Persian in Boston after watching his films. I was so utterly impressed with mii friend! We kept awake yet another night writing letters to hand him, in case we couldn't secure a meeting. She writing in Persian, I in English, it was crazy. But there was a sense, these mad days wouldn't return.
Still have the paper I stole from the chair reserved for Abbas Kiarostami, on which he never sat.
So there we were, sitting in front of him...imagining people in Iran queuing up to his latest film release. While he said- "In mii country, as in yours, people like to watch Hollywood."
Later as Gurvinder was ducking down the eye-line to frame our group photo with him, he had asked- "why are you going down? Why not take eye level?"
None of us film students could answer the simple question. Yes, why?!
Ever since Close up, it had been clear that no one before had quite done what he had in Cinema; turning things on its head, annulling the borders in between, collapsing high walls, dissolving boundaries to reach a point where the dividers themselves stand questioned. The question of the true and the false, black & white, right and wrong fall by the side as matters become real. The binaries have meaning only as long as each continues to bear testimony to the other. Kiarostami the poet, painter, photographer filmmaker, opera-maker that he was, tried to show us what he sees, again and again through all his works, saying if only- Lie has a kind of Truth.
Does he take you to where you already belong- the place where the opposites look the same? Or where the two become one? Till you begin to see, there is not space enough for two here. The director slips out of the frame quietly to make space for a direct encounter between the actor playing self and the spectator. The two eventually fudge boundaries, collapse distances and become each other; almost invariably ending on a note where there is total confounding of who's who, of the real and the unreal, of the true and the false, of art and life, in an almost satori like insight on human condition.
So much so, at the end of the making, as is evidenced across the myriad interviews, neither Sabzian nor Kiarostami remembers who wrote which line in the film script. Well, does it matter? As Sabzian says right at the beginning of the film, in his first encounter with Kiarostami in jail- he had accepted the allegation because what he did looked like fraud'; it was not. He had passed himself off to Mrs Ahankhah, as filmmaker Makhmalbaff- the maker of the film Cyclist, because he believed he could have made the same film. When Kiarostami asks him what he could do for him, he requests him to give his message to Mr Makhmalbaff: "Please tell him his Cyclist is part of me". Later, in the court pleading gulity for playing with the feelings of the Ahankhah family, he asks for their pardon. To the court of justice, he appeals for his 'love of Art' to be taken into consideration.
Remember him saying in an interview that if viewers had some patience, he would like to include just some black in the film. I see how he misses a pause in film, like punctuation in writing, a break in paragraph, the turning of page or simply, putting the book down and looking outside the window, for a while .
Brings to mind a very circuitous discussion in a film seminar at JNU for half hour on the shot of the taxi driver kicking an empty can in the beginning of Nemaye nezdik/ Close up. We were students in Film school then and saw it duly as a curious motif that undergirds K's looking, recurring in his other works, including his first film Naan va Kooche/ Bread & Alley to Baad mara khahad bord/ Wind will carry us. To be sure they are there, the rolling empty cans and apples. However the can of critical interpretation that rolled on the floor of the seminar hall that day, went on as if there was nothing else to the film. I remember the feeling clearly. Of a deja vu which it was not. I had never been to a film seminar at JNU before. And as I sat there, I was reminded of Andrei Tarkovsky, his reflection on the critics in Sculpting in Time-
"I have to admit that even when professional critics praised my work I was often left unsatisfied by their ideas and comments--at least, I quite often had the feeling that these critics were either indifferent to my work or else not competent to criticise: so often they would use well-worn phrases taken from current cinema journalese instead of talking about the film 's direct, intimate effect on the audience. But then I would meet people on whom my film had made an impression, or I would receive letters from them which read like a kind of confession about their lives, and I would understand what I was working for. I would be conscious of my vocation: duty and responsibility towards people, if you like."
Much later I will read K. converse with philosopher Jean Luc nancy reflecting upon the text Nancy wrote on Kiarostami's film Life and Nothing else; in 1994, on the hundredth anniversary of cinema, for a book planned by Cahiers du cinema with one hundred authors writing about one hundred films from the history of this cinematic century:
AK: At times I am thinking: how can I make a film in which I wouldn't be saying anything? This became evident to me after I read your text. If images confer on the other such power to interpret them, to make sense of them in a way I couldn't suspect, then its better not to say anything and let the viewer imagine it all.
When we tell a story, we tell but one story, and each member of the audience, with a peculiar capacity to imagine things, hears but one story. But when we say nothing, it's as if we said a great number of things. The spectator is the one empowered. Andre Gide said that the gaze is what's important, not the subject matter. And Godard says that what's on the screen is already dead- the spectator's gaze breathes life into it. I read your text several times and thought that a filmmaker's responsibility is so great that I'd prefer not to make any films.
JLN: It's a bit late for that!
AK: It isn't too late yet!
Cinema certainly does not come from Cinema when it comes to the New wave in Iran. It comes from Life; unlike the French New wave inspired by Andre Bazin an astute critic and kick-started by some very bright film critics from Cahiers turning filmmakers. The cinema was very self conscious and cross referential. In Jean Luc Godard's own words: "Frequenting cine clubs and cinematheque was already a way of thinking cinema, thinking about cinema. writing was already a way of making films...as a critic I thought of myself as a film-maker."
Curious that the same Godard down the years would famously declare:
"Cinema begins with Griffith and ends with Kiarostami."
Kiarostami's last work 24 FRAMES robs mii of all the words I have learnt- clever or heartfelt. It makes mii fall silent in the way only poetry/ art does. It seems like our conversation as cinema students continues beyond the grave; perhaps he asked us- 'How do you look at the digital image now? Can you make a film without shooting?! What is the before and after of a single frame? How does the Earth look like without humans?'
In 24 FRAMES the before & after of the Homo Sapiens matches frame by frame for mii. It will be the same in the future as it has been in the past. The images look peaceful. As if I want to sleep and wake up to the timeless images playing on the screen before mii eyes. Maybe Kiarostami after all, did say the 'Nothing' he mentioned to Nancy, and say 'Everything'.
Whatever the end of the world may look like, it will be nowhere near the spectacularly anxious, unimaginative anthropocentric apocalypse of Hollywood.
There is a belief in the Asian schools of Philosophy & its practice manifested as Art that compassion is not possible without imag(e)ination. Only if I can image how the other feels, can I be compassionate towards them. Creating of images, it is believed, brings high merit; even more, says the Buddha- than saving the life of a sentient being. Imagination therefore is considered key to the practice of meditation. In our film research & documenting, travelling in the Indian Asia, we do find echoes of it. The sacred status accorded to Image making is gleaned throughout our readings & studies in the philosophy of Kashmir Shaivism, Tibetan Buddhism, Jaina Art. In Art it is yet possible to imagine another reality, dream up the universe anew.
As Kiarostami muses in his wonderful conversation with philosopher Nancy, it does seem that the responsibility on the image-maker is huge. Whether or not the filmmaker remembers it.
Thank you Agha Kiarostami for 24 Frames, your last meditation on being Human on planet Earth. Rest In Peace, Poet.
I offer you a haiku- your very own: