Abbas Kiarostami: interview
The latest work by the Iranian director, a stark procession of women's faces reacting to a piece of cinema, has divided critics. But here, Kiarostami reveals that his actors had something other than film in mind – and how Juliette Binoche got involved
Considered by many to be one of the world’s most important filmmakers, Abbas Kiarostami, over 40 years, has delivered films that are not only attuned to a host of moral and intellectual human dilemmas but which also ask hard questions about cinema’s capacity for telling the truth and the role of the director.
The Iranian director’s latest work, ‘Shirin’, which opens in cinemas next week, builds on the poetic minimalism of ‘Five’ (2003). It’s a conceptual work which asks us to experience the emotional highs and lows of a piece of narrative fiction – in this case, a theatrical version of a twelfth-century Persian poem called ‘Shirin’ – through the faces of 114 (or thereabout) Iranian actresses and Juliette Binoche, all of whom he films in long, still close-up. Since its premiere at Venice last year, ‘Shirin’ has divided critics: some see it as a valuable rumination on cinematic illusion; others dismiss it as an overlong intellectual doodle.
Kiarostami recently hit the headlines as a result of visa issues he experienced when attempting to get to London to direct an ENO production of Mozart’s ‘Così Fan Tutte’. Back in the 1970s, his concerns were more humble, mainly focusing on short films. It was his feature ‘Where Is the Friend’s House?’ (1987), about a small boy’s efforts to return a notebook to his friend in a nearby village, that gained him global recognition. Though he won the Palme d’Or in 1997 for ‘A Taste of Cherry’, his films continued to grow more rewarding, experimental and lyrical with ‘The Wind Will Carry Us’ (1999) and ‘10’ (2002).
He is now shooting a new film in Tuscany with Binoche called ‘Certified Copy’. It looks to be a return to more formal narrative cinema, although with Kiarostami, you can never really tell.
How did you get the idea for ‘Shirin’?
‘The idea came while I was watching a movie. It so happens that in a cinema, I often have one eye directed towards the screen and the other towards the person next to me. I do that too when I’m with friends watching football on television – with one difference: in that case, both eyes are directed towards the spectators (I confess my lack of interest in football!). I give myself over to curiosity, but that curiosity derives from the importance of the audience itself. Isn’t it the case that from the beginning to the end of the filmmaking process, one is already a viewer of one’s own movie? That’s why I finally answered my own calling and made a film about the “gaze” of spectators.’
Why did you focus your camera only on the women in the audience?
‘The story of “Shirin” is one of the first love triangles recorded in ancient Iranian literature, and the narrator is a woman who talks to other women. So I thought the circle would be incomplete if the people watching the story were not also women. Of course, you see men, but only in the background – exactly as they are in the story itself.’
Did you shoot the film in a cinema?
‘Actually, the actors were filmed sitting in a room in my house; they weren’t there all together at the same time! Moreover, they weren’t watching a film or even listening to the soundtrack. In fact, they were just looking at a piece of paper on which I’d drawn a woman and a man, and I asked them to think about their own private love story. After the shooting, we just made up the soundtrack from scratch; then we worked on the sound and the picture together, using the sound as the basis for assembling the footage we’d shot. The editing lasted four months; indeed, the compilation of the soundtrack took just as long as the soundtrack of a normal feature film would take.’
Why did you cast professionals this time around? You don’t usually.
‘It was an ethical debt which I felt I owed to Iran’s professional actresses, since I had never put them before my camera. It was a debt I owed to myself, too! I had denied myself two important and appealing aspects of cinema: not just beauty, but also the complexity that you find in women. Actually, I still don’t know whether those actresses were giving a performance or if we did elicit a genuine reaction from them.’
How did Juliette Binoche come to be cast as one of the cinemagoers?
‘At one point while we were filming, she happened to be my guest in Tehran, and so she visited the set – not difficult given that it was simply a room in my house! In an amazing gesture of generosity she proposed that she play one of the women in the film; even though she was tired from her flight the night before, she just sat there wearing no make-up, and that was that. I told her I couldn’t pay her but promised not to exploit her name for publicity purposes. But then, again with great generosity, she happily took part in a souvenir photo-session with the Iranian actresses.’
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