They Should Be Grateful: An Interview with Abbas Kiarostami
There is a reassuring softness to the touch of Abbas Kiarostami’s films. At a moment in which so many of cinema’s reigning masters exhibit a violently firm command of their work (Von Trier, Haneke), Kiarostami seems happily inclined to set his viewers free through the gauzy mazes of nuance that make up his cinema, encouraging them to come to their own conclusions. That’s not to say that Kiarostami’s hand isn’t as exacting as that of his perpetual Cannes competitors, but rather, that Kiarostami’s careful grip manifests itself in a carefully light touch.
That light touch can be frustrating to those who’d rather have their art-cinema spoonfed as if it were Transformers: Kiarostami’s latest, the beguiling and beautiful Like Someone In Love, was greeted with equal parts boos and cheers at Cannes 2012. The film’s abrupt opening and closing points make it clear that Kiarostami isn’t kidding when he explains, as he often does, that he’s not a storyteller; but it’s what’s between those opening and closing points that makes this film so satisfyingly challenging. Like Someone In Love centers on a young prostitute named Akiko (Rin Takanashi) who is sent to the home of an older professor, Takashi (Tadashi Okuno). As Akiko and Takashi spend more time together, the contours of their relationship start becoming more and more muddled. If it calls to mind Kiarostami’s previous outing, Certified Copy, then there’s no mistake there, as both films are preoccupied with the importance of role-playing and the irrelevance of context. I had the chance to sit down with Kiarostami while he was in town for the New York Film Festival this past fall.
Filmmaker: What is the difference between being someone in love and being like someone in love?
Abbas Kiarostami: I think being someone in love is so hard to define, so temporary, because retrospectively we often deny the state in which we were in love. The experience of life teaches us that being like someone in love is more real, because everything is uncertain. There are certainties in existence, but love is something much harder to define than light and dark, life and death. I think saying you are “like” someone in love sounds right.
Filmmaker: It reminds me of Deleuze’s idea of becoming, the idea of a state of flux or flow in which we are never at rest, perpetually moving through different states. What is it about that kind of becoming that you find interesting?
Kiarostami: I feel very close to Deleuze’s view, because I think that in life, being is nothing but an illusion. If we acknowledge that and accept the fact that we are in between states, that we are moving, and this movement is the nature of our lives, and we stop having aspirations for being in a definite state, we know life better and are able to enjoy it better.
Filmmaker: When you’re working through so many different languages — Arabic, Japanese, the last film had English and French and Italian — you know, I wonder if you learn anything about the cultures you’re working in with regard to any common denominator between them.
Kiarostami: That’s a perfect question, because — not that it was my purpose, I wasn’t searching for a common denominator — I started wondering about the challenge of working in other cultures. What I reached was the sudden acknowledgment of the universal aspect of filmmaking. Not that I ever felt the necessity of proving that all human beings suffer the same way, feel joy the same way, but it happened on my way — when I get close to these people, just by the simple intervention of translation I can actually reach them and ask them something, and their reaction is as I expected. I see that the relationship goes so smoothly, and I realize that cultural languages and specificities are nothing but simple obstacles that you can easily overcome. It’s obvious that human beings are the same wherever they are.
Filmmaker: Going back to the idea of becoming as opposed to being — I wonder what your feelings are with regard to mindfulness, the Buddhist concept. One thing that came across for me in this film, as well as in Certified Copy, was the idea that to exist in the moment is the only authentic mode of existence, regardless of the context of that moment. It doesn’t matter whether something is a duplicate or an original; it doesn’t matter whether a relation is real or artificial; all that matters is how we relate to what exists in the moment.
Kiarostami: I guess that you see this in my films because it comes from my conviction, or at least from my background. This concept that you refer to in Buddhism is something I’ve been nurtured with through the history of my country for 700, 800 years — Persian poets and philosophers haven’t said anything different with regard to experiencing life in the moment, as opposed to the belief of permanence. We are nothing but a link between our culture and what we can actually produce — just as you refer to your readings and your culture, I can only display what I’ve been nurtured with, which is this worldview which has become my view. If I displayed anything different from it in my work, I wouldn’t deserve this heritage.
Filmmaker: Role-playing features prominently in this film and your previous film. Do you think role-playing enables people to access parts of themselves that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to get in touch with?
Kiarostami: I really appreciate your questions, because part of the answer is in them, and this makes me find the answer myself. It’s true that the best way of knowing yourself is to put yourself into different situations, so that you reveal and develop some secret aspects of yourself. This is probably what happens to the character here, being confronted by a stranger who puts him in the obligation of choosing one specific aspect of his role, and in doing so that makes him acknowledge the responsibilities he has. He becomes the grandfather and realizes that’s part of his role. He finds his own way. In the conversation that he has with the young man, the reflection he goes through is because the boy reminds the older man of what his role is. When he says, “I’m as much of a grandfather to her as I am to you,” he’s committing to something and he’s clarifying things to himself, as well as to us. He’s taking us as witnesses. He’s telling the spectators that he’s a grandfather for both of those characters.
Filmmaker: And perhaps Akiko learns the role of the granddaughter? Which is very much called to mind with that powerful sequence in the beginning of the film where Akiko drives past her grandmother repeatedly. That was a very moving sequence.
Kiarostami: You’re having an incredible intuition! You cannot imagine how important this sequence has been in the process of making this film. In most of my films, there’s usually one scene, one shot or one sequence that haunts me and I just go and make the film because I want to see this sequence happen. This is what happened with this sequence. Seventeen years ago, when the idea of the film was triggered, the only reason why I wanted to make this film was to make this sequence. I wanted to have one single shot of this girl driving three times around the roundabout, and us seeing the grandmother from a closer and closer distance, and us finally having a clue as to who she is. I wanted to have the shot of the grandmother with lots of obstacles in the middle that hide her. I wanted it all to be one shot. I often don’t like cuts, I don’t like reverse-angle shots — I find them very fake and very untruthful to the viewer. So I really wanted this, and I conceived of the whole sequence. This was the crucial sequence of the film. But 17 years ago I had to give up the idea for the film, because there are no roundabouts in Japan! They are all square. So I decided to abandon the film, because I thought that without it being shot in a roundabout, the film wouldn’t be worth making. Finally, I decided to make it with the sequence edited.
Filmmaker: I read an interview with you where you said that you’re unable to be a real storyteller, and that in your films the story often begins before the beginning and ends after the ending. So how do you know when a film is finished?
Kiarostami: The starting point and the ending point are nothing but two arbitrary choices. You make them as in soccer games, where they chose that it’s 90 minutes, not less and not more. They’re arbitrary, but I guess it’s based on the attention span of viewers, of soccer games and of movies. But the choices are the responsibility of the filmmaker. You have to choose to join the story at an arbitrary point, and you leave it at an arbitrary point.
Filmmaker: But you’re a master filmmaker. I accept your point about the choices being arbitrary, but isn’t there some sort of intuitive component with regard to those decisions on your behalf?
Kiarostami: Of course, as long as I take the responsibility of the choice, I have to make the choice that is as right as possible. Of the hundreds of points to enter and exit that are offered to me, I have to choose the one that I feel is the least wrong, the least fake. It is fake, it is a moment that I choose to erupt the story, but I make it as smooth as I can. What enables me to do it is the skill of filmmaking. Whether you consider me a master filmmaker or not, I do it with my intuition and my vision, my experience as a storyteller. The first line of the film is something that is chosen carefully, and I put a special meaning behind it. Maybe 99 percent of the audience doesn’t catch it, but the first sentence is, “I’m not lying,” and we will all find out that she is lying. This is how the film opens. The first line is “I’m not lying,” which is spoken by the youngest character in the film, and the closing line is the young man telling the old man that the old man is a liar.
Filmmaker: You mention the audience, and whether or not they’ll pick up on certain things. I’ve seen you remark that films often convey too much information, like pornography, and you’d like films to contain less information. You want the audience to work more to understand what’s going on. Can you speak about the film withholding so as to give the audience space to engage?
Kiarostami: I don’t know what I can say except that this is my conviction, this is how I see audiences all over the world. People have curiosity, they have intelligence, they have interest in understanding their peers. But producers and directors of cinema have decided that the seats in the theaters have been made to transform people’s minds to lazy minds. As soon as they enter a theater they must become moron consumers who must be fed information. Those same people, when they leave the theater, when they look behind the curtains they are curious about their neighbors, they can guess if their neighbors are siblings or a couple, how old they are, what their occupation is. They are curious about each other and they can understand each other without being fed information. Why should it be different in cinema? In real life, when someone’s partner calls them, they can tell from the first word their partner says what their mood is. In my films, I try to give people as little information as possible, which is still much more than what they get in real life. I feel that they should be grateful for the little bit of information I give them. If they were as inquisitive when they come to watch my films as they are in real life, they’d make my life easier.