If you want to see how a film about dying can become a fierce testament to the living, you have only to stop and savour Abbas Kiarostami’s 1997 masterpiece “Taste Of Cherry”. It won the top prize at that year’s Cannes film festival, the only film from Iran to have done so, and opened a window onto the cinema from Iran. The film is about a man driving around a city looking for someone to bury him after he commits suicide. Shot in long meditative takes, a Kiarostami trademark, it was more than just a film: Like so much of Iranian cinema which flowered in the ‘60s and seduced the world in the ‘70s, it was minimalist. When it whispered, you could hear the roar.
Kiarostami, who died in Paris on Monday, was one of the illustrious group of filmmakers who constituted the Iranian New Wave (Dariush Mehrjui, Masoud Kimiai, Nasser Taghvai, and a few others). Like many of his contemporaries, including Mohsen Makhmalbaf, he used children as his protagonists, to tell stories which spoke of political and artistic repression in Iran. In ‘Ten’, another ground-breaking work, a woman drives around the streets of Teheran conducting 10 separate conversations with different people. One of them is a hitchhiker. Another a prostitute. The very act of a woman driving in Iran is an act of rebellion. In all his cinema, which included his involvement with other art forms like poetry and poster-making, this subversion was apparent.
Jafar Panahi, currently the best known Iranian filmmaker outside Iran, is considered an able pupil. “Ten” influenced Panahi’s recent “Taxi”. But there was a major difference between mentor and pupil. Kiarostami may have made the last couple of his films outside Iran, but exile was not an option for him. His cinema was all the more powerful for it, and was considered a deep influence on several auteurs around the globe, and was showcased at all major film festivals after his Palme d’ Or win. More than anything else, Kiarostami’s realist-fabulist cinema was a voice of humanity. He spoke for his people, but he spoke to us all.