Pilgrimages – Tribute to Abbas Kiarostami festival
By Daniel Barnes
*Tribute to Abbas Kiarostami plays at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco on 8/3, 8/11 and 8/17. Visit the Roxie website for a complete list of showtimes.
Influential Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami passed away in 2016, leaving behind a legendary output and a posthumous swan song. The touring festival Tribute to Abbas Kiarostami mainly looks at his early works, starting with his 1990 breakthrough film, Close-Up. Upping the ante: Roxie will show Close-Up in 35mm. Sharing the bill on Aug. 3 is Through the Olive Trees, while subsequent days will focus on rarely seen short films and features from the 1970s and 1980s.
Kiarostami’s son, San Francisco resident Ahmad Kiarostami, will attend select screenings and participate in a Q&A on Aug. 17. If you’re in SF over the next few weekends, catch this tribute to the great director, producer, screenwriter and editor.
“It’s all very complicated.”
Much like Werner Herzog, Kiarostami seems obsessed with locating the indefinable space between documentary, fiction and life. Rather than Herzog’s oppressive fatalism, though, Kiarostami takes a delicate, ambiguous and even playfully coy approach to meta-cinema.
Therefore, it’s no surprise that Kiarostami dropped everything when he read about the true story at the heart of Close-Up. In short: for mysterious reasons, impoverished cineaste Hossain Sabzian conned a well-off Tehran family into believing he was director Mohsen Makhmalbaf.
Kiarostami and his crew filmed the trial, even petitioning the judge to move up the date to accommodate their shooting schedule. Meanwhile, Kiarostami gets key figures to play themselves in reenactments of the incident. Even the real Makhmalbaf eventually shows up.
The gauzy, overlapping layers of identity and performance that Kiarostami uncovered in Close-Up still tantalize. Did Sabzian intend to defraud the family? Is he just an unusually sensitive film nut, a man who “played director” as a child? Or is he playing the part of a sensitive soul to manipulate the system? One universal lesson we can take away: people will do anything that a famous person says.
Throughout Close-Up, Kiarostami sneaks in some sly commentary on Iranian society, especially regarding the class system. The final sequence is unforgettable, an almost accidental statement on the fragile and unreliable yet strangely transformative nature of cinema.
Through the Olive Trees (1994)
“I’m Mohamad Ali Keshavarz, the actor who plays the director.”
More meta layers from the opening seconds, as Keshavarz directly addresses the audience, breaking character before it gets built. Kiarostami speaks from behind the camera in Close-Up, but Keshavarz stands in for Kiarostami in Through the Olive Trees.
Watching these films together, it becomes easy to play spot-the-auteur-tendency. Of course, you have the classic Kiarostami ambiguity and naturalism in both films, along with the mix of documentary and performance. Beyond that, you get lots of driving scenes, people playing themselves, and copious self-references. For instance, Sabzian namechecks Kiarostami’s The Traveler in Close-Up, while Where is the Friend’s House gets a mention here. Incidentally, both of those early films play the Roxie during later weekends of Tribute to Abbas Kiarostami.
Through the Olive Trees takes another real event and uses it as a canvas to layer on ideas about performance and truth. Keshavarz and his crew, including Assistant Director Jafar Panahi as Assistant Director Jafar Panahi, take over a village still rebuilding from the 1990 earthquake in Northern Iran. Scouring the community for actors, they inadvertently cast starcrossed youths Hossein and Tahereh as the leads.
Their contentious relationship lends a new level of reality that only undermines the film-within-a-film’s carefully contrived verisimilitude. “Remember,” says one crewmember. “You have to do what we tell you.”
Unlike Close-Up, which still vibrates with immediacy, Through the Olive Trees felt a little too sedate for my taste. Kiarostami still offers no shortage of beautiful moments and subtly sharp commentary, such as Hossein completing a take and then serving tea to the crew. And that final shot, a God’s-eye-view long take of Hossein pursuing Tahereh through a grove of olive trees, is an ambiguous powerhouse
Tribute to Abbas Kiarostami plays at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco on 8/3, 8/11 and 8/17. Read more of Daniel’s reviews at Dare Daniel and Rotten Tomatoes, and listen to Daniel on the Dare Daniel podcast.