Abbas Kiarostami’s Through the Olive Trees (1994) opens with a man’s direct address to the camera: “I’m Mohamad Ali Keshavarz, the actor who plays the director. The other actors were hired on location. We’re in Koker, about 400 kilometres, no, 350 kilometres north of Tehran, where an earthquake destroyed everything last year.” Behind this man, in the background, women dressed in traditional black clothing are assembled in single file lines. A woman in a green dress and black veil walks from the crowd of assembled women up to the actor/director and says, “The girls are getting hungry, they’ve still got a long way to go. Can we speed it up a bit?” (see Figure 1). The actor/director acknowledges this woman (who is playing the role of his fictional producer) and then turns back to camera and says, “We have come to this rebuilt school to choose a young actress.” The film then cuts to a shot of the assembled women as they applaud the director upon his entrance. He apologises to them for being late and slowly walks through the crowd, asking his producer to jot down the names of women who might be right for the role he is casting.
Figure 1: Documentary/fiction slippage in Through the Olive Trees
This is a dizzying opening scene, but it serves as a perfect illustration of Kiarostami’s cinematic approach, an approach that can’t be strictly defined as fiction or as documentary but occupies a peculiar, liminal space “in the gap between the two”(1). Through the Olive Trees opens in a purely self-reflexive manner, with Keshavarz identifying himself as “the actor who plays the director” and explaining that the rest of the actors in the film we are about to watch were hired on location, presumably in the village of Koker. When the producer walks up and tells him that the girls are getting hungry, the film quickly slips from this self-reflexive, quasi-documentary mode into a decidedly fictional mode. Keshavarz instantaneously shifts from being “the actor who plays the director” into playing the role of director himself; one instant he is explaining how the actors in the film we are about to watch were hired on location, and the next instant he is engaged in the very process of casting and hiring actors. Slippage in this scene occurs on the level of genre as we move back and forth across the boundary between documentary and fiction, but the slippage also involves a temporal component as well, as we shuttle from the acknowledged past context of “were hired” to the obvious present context of actors “being hired” before our very eyes (2).
Gilberto Perez made an insightful comment about the French filmmaker Jean Renoir which I feel can be readily applied to the work of Abbas Kiarostami: “Between illusion and reality…where Lacanians and other theorists posit an irrevocable breach, Renoir sees a complex interplay” (3). Interplay is the appropriate word to describe Kiarostami’s unusual oscillation between reality and imagination. It’s appropriate because it doesn’t imply that the boundary separating the real from the imagined completely disintegrates or is made irrelevant. Rather, it suggests a dynamic process in which the documentary elements continually shape the narrative elements, and vice versa.
Many critics have commented upon Kiarostami’s innovative blend of reality and illusion (4), but few have been precise about which elements of his films should be regarded as real and which elements should be regarded as illusion (5). The oscillation between the real and the imagined in Kiarostami’s films is almost always discussed in terms of genre, as an interplay between documentary and fiction, but this is where the conversation should begin, not end. The hybrid documentary/fiction nature of Kiarostami’s cinema is certainly important and warrants discussion (6), but focusing exclusively on genre obscures the extent to which Kiarostami’s films are able to represent, understand and critique real and imagined aspects of Iranian life.
The discussion of the oscillation between reality and imagination in Kiarostami’s films must include a variety of investigative paths and should not be confined simply to matters of genre. One of the investigative paths that deserves more attention is how spaces and places in Kiarostami’s films function in both real and imagined ways. That is the primary focus of this paper.
I need to clarify what I mean when I say that spaces and places in Kiarostami’s films function in both real and imagined ways. I am not trying to suggest that Kiarostami injects equal elements of realism and outright fantasy into his work, that he balances authentic fragments of reality with extravagant visions of alternate realities, for Kiarostami’s diegetic images and sounds are always realistic, in the sense that they correspond to the standard perceptual world that all human beings share. I am also not trying to imply that there is an equal blend of objective and subjective elements in Kiarostami’s work, that he fuses a detached, omniscient perspective together with a variety of individual, subjective perspectives, for his films are almost always “objective” in the traditional sense. His films may include point of view shots from the perspective of “main” characters, but the audience is rarely, if ever, actively encouraged to identify subjectively with these characters. The result of this “objective” approach is not totally clear: it might mean that Kiarostami has done away with the entire system of cinematic identification, or, conversely, that he has opened up the possibility for identification with all of the characters in his films and left things up to the viewer to sort out. One thing is clear, though: Kiarostami’s work is not centred on individual psychology. His focus is not the “interior” life of characters but, instead, the “exterior” worlds which they inhabit.
When I say that spaces and places in Kiarostami’s films are both real and imagined, what I am suggesting is that there is a complex interplay in Kiarostami’s work between the representation of real spaces and places, imaginative ideas about these real spaces and places, and wholly imaginative constructions of space and place. His films continually shift between three spatial functions: 1) they serve to document culturally specific spaces and places and thereby help to put these spaces and places “on the map”; 2) they provide socio-political insights about these specific spaces and places through symbolic imagery and language; and 3) they critique regressive, exploitative spatial constructions, again through complex imagery and language. Put another way, Kiarostami’s films slip between being a catalogue of specific spaces and places, a poetic social commentary about those spaces and places, and an intervention into ongoing discourses about space and place.
In his groundbreaking work The Production of Space, Walter Lefebvre suggested that there are three different “types” of space:
the aim is to discover or construct a theoretical unity between “fields” which are apprehended separately, just as molecular, electromagnetic, and gravitational forces are in physics. The fields we are concerned with are, first, the physical – nature, the Cosmos; secondly, the mental, including logical and formal abstractions; and, thirdly, the social. In other words, we are concerned with logico-epistemological space, the space of social practice, the space occupied by sensory phenomenon, including products of the imagination such as projects and projections, symbols and utopias (7).
This paper will look at how the three different manifestations of space – the space of social practice, mental space, and physical space – intermingle in three of Kiarostami’s films: Life and Nothing More (1991), Through the Olive Trees, and The Wind Will Carry Us (1999).
These three films are set in and around rural villages in northern Iran. These villages, Koker in Life and Nothing More and Through the Olive Trees and Siah Dareh in The Wind Will Carry Us, have their own unique spatial identities, and it’s important to understand how Kiarostami communicates the uniqueness of these real-world spaces. However, because Kiarostami is an artist and not simply a land surveyor or sociologist, his own mental space – articulated through “formal abstractions…[and] products of the imagination such as projects, projections, symbols, and utopias” – continually bleeds into the material, quasi-scientific task of spatially documenting these villages.
The first part of this paper will demonstrate how the social and physical spaces of these rural villages are articulated. To do this, the terms space and place will need to be defined and differentiated, and examples will be provided of how space and place are defined and differentiated throughout these three films. In this section, I will be putting faith in the photographic “truth” of Kiarostami’s images and will be operating under the assumption that his images can provide viewers with reliable, albeit mediated, representations of rural Iranian geography and social life. Although Kiarostami has been known to use highly “deceptive” filmmaking practices (8), that doesn’t preclude his films from having documentary value. Kiarostami is a highly sophisticated film auteur and not a fly-on-the-wall documentarian, but that doesn’t mean that his films can’t provide us with real and valuable information about the geography and social conditions of Iran.
In the next section of the paper, I will continue to look at Kiarostami’s investigations into rural Iranian spaces and places, but will demonstrate how he articulates ideas about these specific spaces and places through symbolically charged words and images. I will discuss how he uses classic filmmaking techniques, like the suggestion of off-screen space and the “frame within a frame” compositional device to make comments about the relative position of these rural villages and villagers within larger regional, national and global contexts.
The last part of the paper will focus on the role of the outsider in defining rural space and place. I have chosen to focus on Life and Nothing More, Through the Olive Trees, and The Wind Will Carry Us because they are all set within rural locations in Iran, but I have also chosen to link these three films together because they all feature the presence of an urban outsider. In at least two of these films (Life and Nothing More and The Wind Will Carry Us), the urban outsider is the “main” character of the film. Because the outsiders in these three films are involved in some way with film or television production, the audience is encouraged to reflect upon the ways in which the outsiders’ views of the country are socially constructed. It’s clear that these outsiders bring all sorts of spatial baggage in their journeys from the city to the country, and I will attempt to show how Kiarostami represents and debunks their various projections and fantasies of rural space. Of course, Kiarostami acknowledges his own status as a privileged outsider (he lives in the capital of Iran, Tehran, and, through the success of his films over the past ten years, he has become middle-class or perhaps even upper-middle-class) in making films about remote rural areas, and he doesn’t pretend that he is totally exempt from the negative ramifications of being an outsider. He knows that privileged outsiders often view rural spaces through a distorted lens of nostalgia and a whole set of cultural biases, including gender and class biases. Sometimes that lens compels outsiders to view villages and villagers as older and more traditional than they really are, or, even worse, it encourages the construction of the villager as an exotic Other and perpetuates a relationship of exploitation and voyeurism.
Throughout this discussion of the outsider’s construction of rural space, the notions of visibility and invisibility will be important. It will be necessary to determine which characters are granted visibility and which characters are not, who is forced to be visible and who tries to avoid visibility altogether.
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In order to discuss how social and physical space and place get articulated in these three films, I need to make some preliminary remarks about what I mean by the terms space and place. Place is a more concrete term than space; it is, according to Yi-Fu Tuan, “a concretion of value, though not a valued thing that can be handled or carried about easily” (9). The term space, on the other hand, can be regarded more as a society’s network of places, “as the distances and expanses that separate or link places” (10). Tuan’s comments about the interdependence of space and place are helpful in this regard:
The ideas “space” and “place” require each other for definition. From the security and stability of place we are aware of the openness, freedom and threat of space, and vice versa. Furthermore, if we think of space as that which allows movement, then place is pause; each pause in movement makes it possible for location to be transformed into place (11).
In Kiarostami’s films, there is a double consciousness of space and place, an articulation of specific, concrete places and an awareness of how various places are linked together into a complex spatial network. Space and place in cinema have traditionally been represented either as background to the main narrative action or as an aesthetic spectacle, but, in Kiarostami’s films, the ordinary, day-to-day reality of space and place is given primacy.
The fundamental method for establishing place in Kiarostami’s films is repetition. Characters return to the same locations over and over, and the result is that locations develop into “centres of felt value” (12). A good example of the establishment of place through repetition is the cemetery location featured in The Wind Will Carry Us. The main character Behzad travels on four occasions to the village’s cemetery to get a decent mobile phone signal. After the second or third visit, the cemetery has become a familiar location to the viewer. It has, by virtue of repetition and the manner in which the narrative pauses upon it, become a place. Furthermore, by making us watch Behzad’s numerous trips from his living quarters (another repeated place) to this cemetery, as opposed to using the conventional cinematic method of using an edit to cut from one location to another, Kiarostami is encouraging viewers to grasp the village of Siah Dareh as a unique space, as a set of specific links between separate, specific locations (see Figure 2).
Figure 2: To the cemetery/In the cemetery, Movement/Pause, Space/Place (images from The Wind Will Carry Us)
The repetition of specific locations does not just occur within a single Kiarostami film but also between Kiarostami’s various films. To understand this, a few comments about Kiarostami’s unique intertextual approach to cinema are necessary.
Kiarostami’s films do not contain references to the work of other directors, but, instead, contain a myriad of references to his own work. This is not to be confused with the phenomenon of the sequel in the commercial film industry or the cheeky references that directors like Stanley Kubrick have woven into their films (moments like the one in A Clockwork Orange [Stanley Kubrick, 1971] where an LP of the 2001 [Stanley Kubrick, 1968] soundtrack is prominently displayed in a record store bin). Kiarostami’s intertextuality is not a clever formal strategy or an “in joke” for those who might catch the references to other films or works of art; it represents an entirely new way to create and understand a body of film work. Kiarostami’s films are fashioned into an ongoing dialectic: a film he makes reflects on and partially demystifies an earlier film he has made, a subsequent film reflects and demystifies that film and the earlier film, and so on. The best example of this self-referential cycle is the “Koker trilogy”, the three films Kiarostami made between 1987 and 1994 in the small village of Koker in northern Iran (this trilogy includes the films Where is the Friend’s Home? (1987), Life and Nothing More, and Through the Olive Trees). Where is the Friend’s Home? depicts the simple story of a young boy who travels from Koker to a neighbouring village to return the notebook of a schoolmate. Life and Nothing More follows a father (a film director perhaps) and his young son as they drive from Tehran to Koker in search of the two young boys from Where is the Friend’s Home?, fearing that the two might have perished in the 1990 earthquake that killed 50,000 people in northern Iran. Through the Olive Trees examines the making of a small scene from the Life and Nothing More, forcing us to view a peripheral drama from Life and Nothing More as the central drama in Through the Olive Trees.
All this intertextual rambling through Koker and its environs inevitably results in the repetition of certain places. For instance, in a peculiar moment in Life and Nothing More, the father is inspired to pull his car off the road and wander on foot through a wooded area. He spots a small hammock holding a baby and walks up to it. He stands over the hammock for a moment and observes the young baby. In Through the Olive Trees, the character Hossein, after failing once more to gain the affection of his beloved Tahereh, happens to walk through the filming (or perhaps a re-enactment of the filming) of this very scene from Life and Nothing More! In effect, we witness Hossein pausing upon the father pausing over the baby in the hammock. By having characters from different films interact, Kiarostami is, of course, laying bare the constructed nature of cinema, but, by repeating this specific location across two films, he is also strengthening the sense of place of this particular stand of olive trees (see Figure 3).
Figure 3: Establishing Place Through Intertextuality (image on left from Life and Nothing More, image on right from Through the Olive Trees)
What makes Kiarostami a film artist and not just a sophisticated social observer is the way in which he filters poetic devices into his filmmaking practice. Kiarostami applies the simplest device of written poetry – the rhyme – to images in ways that are both subtle and profound. Grasping his visual rhymes requires an alternative mode of film viewing, a mode that is non-linear and even non-narrative in some respects. His visual rhymes don’t establish place in a concrete, specific manner like we’ve seen with the cemetery and the stand of olive trees, but, instead, form what might be called a “poetics of place”. As Kiarostami matures as a director, his capacity to communicate a “poetics of place” has improved, and it’s arguable that his 1999 film The Wind Will Carry Us is his most successful attempt to date of articulating a “poetics of place”. The basic premise of The Wind Will Carry Us is that a video crew from Tehran is on assignment in the small rural village of Siah Dareh to document the elaborate scarification ritual that some of the local women will apparently perform as a sign of mourning when a hundred year old woman from the village dies. There is no real “action” that carries the film along; the only thing the video crew and the audience can do is wait until this woman, Ms Malek, passes away. The main character, Behzad, wanders around the village in anticipation of her death, occasionally staking out a position outside her home in hope that something will happen. When Behzad waits outside her home, he is frustrated because there is essentially nothing to see (except a male relative of Ms Malek, who, like Behzad, also is resigned to sitting outside her home and waiting things out). The old woman’s windows are shut and covered up, and, during the course of the entire film, Behzad never catches a single glimpse of her (Figure 4).
Figure 4 and Figure 5: A Poetics of Place in The Wind Will Carry Us
The shot of the exterior of the old woman’s home is visually rhymed off a later shot of one of Behzad’s “neighbours”. Behzad’s living quarters in the village feature a balcony that faces the balcony of a local family. Periodically, when Behzad is shaving or cleaning himself up, he chats with the young mother on the adjacent balcony, who is always in the process of hanging out her family’s laundry on a clothesline (Figure 5). What compositionally connects the shot of Ms Malek’s home to the shot of the woman hanging out the laundry is the use of strong diagonal lines: power (or telephone?) lines in the first shot and the clothesline in the second shot. This compositional rhyme highlights a narrative contrast: in one case, Behzad has no visual or verbal connection to a character, and, in another case, Behzad has considerable interaction with a character. Another important narrative contrast is the fact that the invisible character, Ms Malek, is on the verge of death, while the visible character, the mother on the balcony, is on the verge of giving birth (this parallel structure holds up throughout the film: soon after the mother has her baby, it is suggested that Ms Malek has passed away). I’m hesitant to ascribe a thematic meaning to this visual/narrative rhyme because what’s important is the sheer associative logic that links these two shots together – the establishment of a “poetics of place” – rather than any conceptual synthesis that might arise from the link (13).
If place is defined as a “centre of felt value” marked by moments of pause, then space can be regarded as the system that links various places together within a society and across societies. In this model of space and place, what characterises space, above all, is movement. In Kiarostami’s films, there is an almost perpetual sense of movement. This movement is enacted either on foot or, more frequently, via an automobile. The entire narrative of Life and Nothing More, in fact, involves an extended automotive journey: the father and son drive across the Iranian countryside in search of the two boys from Where is the Friend’s Home? The journey of the father and son is not presented as a steady march towards a specific destination but is more of an examination of orientation itself, a commentary about how individuals literally and figuratively make their way through the world. (A more extreme example of the use of automobile is Kiarostami’s most recent film Ten  which is set exclusively within the front seat of a single automobile and involves ten separate conversations between a female driver and her passengers.)
While we can and should understand Kiarostami’s films as road movies, we shouldn’t associate his films with the sense of placelessness and blinding speed that is typical of most modern road movies (Two Lane Blacktop [Monte Hellman, 1971] and Paris, Texas [Wim Wenders, 1984] being notable examples). Vehicles in Kiarostami’s films do not function as the means by which drivers and viewers arrive at a final destination, but rather as sophisticated instruments of social and geographical scrutiny. There are no romantic notions about the freedom and mobility of “the open road” in Kiarostami’s films. Drivers in Kiarostami’s films are often anxious about obstacles that might impede their vehicles’ progress, and this anxiety is well founded: obstacles often do block roads, forcing drivers to take alternative routes or to seek assistance in removing the obstacles (see Figure 6). Because the various impediments force drivers to exercise caution in navigating a sometimes dangerous and uncertain terrain, the pace of vehicles in Kiarostami’s films is generally slow and deliberate. This slow pace means that drivers and audience members have more time to absorb the surrounding landscape, and, as a result, we get the sense that we’re not just driving through a landscape but actually mapping an uncertain and often neglected geography.
Figure 6: Steering clear of the “open road” myth (images from Life and Nothing More)
Reflecting on Kidlat Tahimik’s 1977 film Perfumed Nightmare, Fredric Jameson comments: “It is encouraging to find the concept of mapping validated by conscious artistic production, and to come upon this or that new work, which, like a straw in the wind, independently seems to have conceived of the vocation of art itself as that of inventing new geotopical cartographies” (14). In his article on Perfumed Nightmare, Jameson reads the process of cinematic mapping via the automobile within the geopolitical context of developing countries (in Tahimik’s case, the Philippines). In doing so, he has helped clarify the emergence of an interesting sub-genre of modern cinema, what might be termed the developing country road movie. Kiarostami’s films have significantly contributed to this emerging genre.
Many cultural critics and theorists have expressed concern that development and globalisation are ushering in what James Howard Kunstler calls a “geography of nowhere” and fostering a growing sense of placelessness in the world. Even Kiarostami expresses concern about the increased homogenisation of place: “Things seem to be losing those specific characteristics they used to have that separate one area or nation from another” (15). And yet, despite all the grumblings about the levelling of local and regional identities, there’s evidence to suggest that local and regional identities are forming and being articulated more than ever before. Yi-Fu Tuan suggests (in a passage referring specifically to Americans but applicable to anyone) that people need a sense of place to combat the overwhelming effects of development and globalisation: “The more Americans participate in…globalism, the more they yearn for locality, tradition, roots – for the hearths and ethnos that they can directly experience and understand, for the small milieu that yields emotional satisfaction” (16).
World cinema plays an important role in the expression of unique spatial identities and the mapping of specific “geotopical cartographies”. It can provide viewers with a detailed snapshot of a locality and an intricate map of a “small milieu”. These maps can yield “emotional satisfaction” for those who feel increasingly disconnected from a sense of place, but these maps also have serious political implications, particularly for areas of the world that are typically neglected within dominant systems of representation, i.e. rural spaces, especially rural spaces in developing countries. By literally driving through marginal areas of northern Iran, Kiarostami is helping to put these areas on the global map of representation.
The Iranian government, comprised of mostly conservative male Muslim clerics, wields immense power in setting the parameters of social and cultural life in Iran. Like other art forms, the cinema in Iran is subject to strict censorship guidelines. Regardless of whether films are shown at a commercial theatre or at a festival, domestically or abroad, all Iranian films must be reviewed and approved by the state censorship board. If a film does not pass the censorship board, it is either re-cut or is shelved indefinitely. Iran’s social structure is rooted in patriarchy, so it’s not surprising that a great deal of the censorship of Iranian cinema reflects patriarchal imperatives. As a general rule, for instance, men and women in Iranian films cannot be depicted together in a nonpublic indoor space unless they are married or related by blood. Female actors are also forced to wear scarves for all indoors scenes they appear in, despite the fact that most Iranian women rarely wear these scarves indoors.
Instead of creating a skewed portrait of “interior” life, many Iranian filmmakers have chosen to avoid painting around the corners of censorship and have opted to focus on the various shades of “exterior” public life. This is certainly true of Kiarostami. His films are highly public and highly social. In the three films I am examining, all of the action takes places outdoors, with the exception of one notable scene from The Wind Will Carry Us, which will be discussed later.
Kiarostami’s dedication to the representation of “exterior” Iranian life doesn’t mean that his characters aren’t preoccupied with what’s happening indoors. As was evident with the previously mentioned example of Behzad staking out a position outside of Ms Malek’s home in The Wind Will Carry Us, projections about what is happening indoors often shape the reality of what happens outdoors. To visualise this, Kiarostami fills his films with images of doors and thresholds and often has characters hover at the foot of these thresholds to peer inside (see Figure 7). As viewers, we’re rarely, if ever, given a clear glimpse of what lies beyond these thresholds. By avoiding interiors, Kiarostami is leaving what happens within indoor spaces up to the viewer’s imagination, but, by repeating images of open doors, it seems that he is also, like a conscientious social scientist, being upfront about what he’s leaving out of his social analysis.
Figure 7: Outside In (image on left from Through the Olive Trees, image on right from The Wind Will Carry Us)
Kiarostami nuances his social style of filmmaking by including hybrid zones that are both public and private. This includes a variety of architectural locations like balconies, porches, and outdoor cafes, but the most pervasive public/private zone in his films is the automobile itself. At times, vehicles in Kiarostami’s films function as self-contained environments that cut characters off from the rest of society. Passengers frequently detach themselves from the public sphere by absorbing themselves in the micro-dramas unfolding within their vehicle or by passively watching the outside world through the frame that the car window makes, much like a film spectator watching a movie screen (see Figure 7).
At other moments in Kiarostami’s films, the car window, rather than detaching characters from the outside world, actually functions as the primary zone of interaction between “main” characters and the outside world. It may seem trivial, but the side windows of cars in Kiarostami’s movies are almost always open. Through these windows, countless conversations are held between passengers and pedestrians (Figure 9). On a few occasions, the interaction between passengers and the outside world even involves physical contact, like when the son in Life and Nothing More pours soda into a baby bottle for a mother in an adjoining car (Figure 10). Automobiles are omnipresent in Iran, and one of Kiarostami’s aims is to show that cars, despite the fact that they are individually owned and operated, are intertwined into the social structure of the country in meaningful ways.
Figure 8: Car as self-contained world, Car seat as cinema seat (images from Life and Nothing More)
Figure 9 & 10: Social interaction through car windows (images from Life and Nothing More)
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Up to this point, the discussion has been mostly limited to various ways in which Kiarostami articulates social space and place, but what do we learn about the specific spaces and places featured in Life and Nothing More, Through the Olive Trees, and The Wind Will Carry Us? The most obvious thing we learn is that the rural villages of Koker and Siah Dareh, while certainly remote and difficult to reach via car, are not cut off from the rest of the world. While basic services like terrestrial telephone service, electricity, and indoor plumbing are likely not available to all members of these villages, these services are visibly integrated into the villages’ infrastructures, belying the notion that these villages are in some way “pre-modern” or “pre-industrial”. These villages have links, however limited, to external communities and cultures. Towards the end of Life and Nothing More, the refugees in the makeshift tent village set up a satellite dish in order to watch a soccer game on a television (17) and, Behzad, in The Wind Will Carry Us, uses his mobile phone in the cemetery of Siah Dareh to chat with his producer and his family members back in Tehran (18). Modern technology may not be pervasive in these small villages, but it is certainly not absent.
While Kiarostami acknowledges that Koker, Siah Dareh and virtually every other small village on the planet shouldn’t be regarded as isolated or self-contained because of the pervasiveness of transportation and communication technologies, there are obviously reasons why Kiarostami chose such remote and relatively primitive locations for these three films (beyond his affinity for beautiful locations or his interest in the complex architecture of rural villages). We can perhaps begin to understand Kiarostami’s motivation for picking such remote locations if we place these three films in a larger artistic context and link them to a cultural genre outside the realm of film. An interesting and appropriate link to these films is the regional novel.
In her book Regional Fictions, Stephanie Foote examines a handful of American novels written in the latter part of the 19th century that explore rural spaces through the perspective of an urban outsider. Sometimes the outsiders in these novels are urban inhabitants with no connection to the rural towns they visit, sometimes these outsiders are former residents of small towns who have chosen to return to these towns after a long absence. While the main thrust of Foote’s argument is that the portrayals of rural towns in these regional novels ultimately have more to say about the anxieties and desires of authors and readers about the changing face of urban life than they do about the reality of life in small towns, Foote does nuance her argument with the following point: “Regional writing was a powerful method of understanding not just the ‘place’ where certain people lived but also the ‘place’ they inhabited in a social hierarchy” (19). Late 19th century regional writing clearly didn’t provide an accurate portrait of rural life in America, but it also wasn’t entirely preoccupied with the changing face of urban life. An important function of regional writing, as Foote suggests, was to examine the relationship between country and city and to understand the “place” of small rural towns within regional and even national hierarchies.
Life and Nothing More, Through the Olive Trees, and The Wind Will Carry Us share regional fiction’s aim of understanding the “place” of rural towns within broader regional and national contexts. What differentiates these films from the novels that Foote examines is the fact that Kiarostami extends the notion of “social hierarchy” to a truly global scale. For the most part, Kiarostami’s view of the “place” of these villages within broader spatial contexts is rather bleak. Modern technologies may have filtered into these villages, but it’s clear that these villages are not integrated into the flow of the modern information economy. Rosenbaum sums up Kiarostami’s intent quite well on this point: “In comically divvying up his world between media ‘experts’ and peasants – moguls with cellular phones and ordinary working people – he’s raising the issue of whom this world actually belongs to, both deservedly and in fact” (20).
Koker and Siah Dareh are literally located on the northern margins of Iran, but they are also located on the economic and cultural margins of Iran and the rest of the world. Kiarostami is not necessarily lamenting the poverty and primitive technology of these rural villages. Rather, he is trying to show that, because these villages are so socially marginalised, they literally get no visibility within global systems of representation. Two thirds of the world’s population continue to make their livelihood from “agricultural employment, rooted in the fields” (21) but it is very rare, particularly in the United States, to see what it’s actually like to live in a place where this is the norm.
Life and Nothing More and Through the Olive Trees both take place in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake that rocked northern Iran in 1990, killing nearly 50,000 people. The earthquake destroyed countless homes in northern Iran, and, as a result, thousands of people were forced to live in makeshift tent villages all across the countryside. While Kiarostami is clearly concerned about the death and destruction that the earthquake caused in the northern portion of Iran, it seems at times that he uses the earthquake as a subtle means by which to comment upon the “place” of these villages and villagers within national and global contexts. A good example of this is when the producer in Through the Olive Trees asks an old woman living in one of the tent villages for her address so that she might be contacted about playing a role in the film. The old woman tells the producer that she lives “nowhere”. When she is pressed for a precise location, the old woman says, “Over there behind the tree. We haven’t got a phone. We live behind the tree, our tent is over there. We’ve got no address, nothing” (see Figure 11). “Nowhere” is a concept that runs throughout these three films. In fact, in the very opening shot of The Wind Will Carry Us, Behzad (or perhaps one his crew members), says, “We’re heading nowhere” (see Figure 12) as the crew makes their way to Siah Dareh. I believe that Kiarostami repeatedly uses the term “nowhere” for a specific reason: he is trying to emphasise that these villages and villagers are literally nowhere to be found within global systems of representation.
Figure 11 & 12: The rural “nowhere” (image on left from Through the Olive Trees, image on right from The Wind Will Carry Us)
Visibility and invisibility are important ideas that run throughout these three films and are, of course, connected to the relative visibility of these rural spaces within larger regional, national, and global contexts. In some respects, Kiarostami conforms to traditional notions of the openness of social life in the country as compared to the detached and isolated nature of life in the city. In Kiarostami’s countryside, most members of a village know the other members intimately, primarily because the space of the village is so compact and because the majority of travel within a village and between other villages is by foot. Raymond Williams succinctly describes the relatively open and visible nature of social life in a village:
A village…is an epitome of direct relationships: of face-to-face contacts within which we can find and value the real substance of personal relationships. Certainly this immediate aspect of its difference from the city or the suburb is important; it is smaller in scale; people are more easily identified and connected within it; the structure of the community is in many ways more visible (22).
This definition certainly applies to the villages depicted in Life and Nothing More, Through the Olive Trees, and The Wind Will Carry Us. At the end of Life and Nothing More, for instance, when the father is 20 minutes from the town of Koker, he takes a chance and asks a man walking down the road if he knows the two young boys from Koker. The man tells him that he does and that he saw them earlier walking down the road. Shocked and excited, the father asks the man how he knows the young boys, and the man responds, “One knows all the people in this area”. The intimate contact of village life provides villagers with detailed knowledge of other villagers and their whereabouts.
The social structures of Koker and Siah Dareh may appear open and visible as compared to city life, but Kiarostami complicates this traditional formulation by cloaking many of the social relationships in these villages in invisibility. For instance, in The Wind Will Carry Us, there are no less than 11 characters integral to the story that are never visually displayed onscreen. The “invisible” characters in the film include the main character Behzad’s video crew (they are heard off camera in the car or in their bedroom), Ms Malek (the ailing old woman remains indoors, and the film crew is not invited into her home), the ditchdigger Youssef that Behzad befriends at the village’s cemetery (he is working on ditch for “telecommunication” purposes and is “below” the sight line of Behzad and the viewer, see Figure 13), and several other villagers that serve as hosts for Behzad and his crew. Part of Kiarostami’s motivation for creating invisible characters and other forms of narrative void is to shift the psychology of film from the character to the viewer: rather than being about the interior psychological life of characters, it’s fair to say that “we are what Kiarostami’s films are about” (23). But the use of invisibility in The Wind Will Carry Us also implies a distinct social message: members of these rural communities are literally invisible within larger regional, national, and global contexts. Later, when I discuss the pivotal scene in the cellar between Behzad and Zeynab, I will expand the meaning and function of invisibility in The Wind Will Carry Us beyond this reading of it as a symbolic reflection of the villagers’ non-existent status within larger social hierarchies. The cellar scene will demonstrate that invisibility is also used as an intentional strategy by villagers to avoid and subvert the dominating gaze of outsiders.
Figure 13: Marginal characters (image from The Wind Will Carry Us)
Kiarostami is generally not considered a political filmmaker. Some critics have taken him to task for being apolitical, while other critics excuse his omission of specific political issues because they feel that he is a purely poetic filmmaker and shouldn’t be expected to directly engage politics (24). I disagree with the claim that Kiarostami is an apolitical filmmaker. In fact, I find him to be intensely engaged with political issues, albeit in ways that diverge from traditional political discourse. Hamid Dabashi, in his excellent book Close-up: Iranian Cinema Past, Present and Future, begins to unravel the complexity of Kiarostami and politics:
A common reading of Iranian cinema is predicated on the demagogic claim that many of the so-called auteur or art films which are internationally acclaimed are in fact locally irrelevant and inaccessible. This argument holds that the more accessible films that address common social issues – the oppression of women, the predicament of the youth – are far more locally relevant… To put art, the visual and performing arts in particular, consciously at the service of social and political causes ultimately and paradoxically ossifies and thus intensifies precisely those forces that have conditioned those causes. A far more radical and effective negation of those forces is to abandon the site of their authority on which the most politically subversive is mutated into its instrumental logic. That is why Kiarostami remains thus far the most political of all Iranian filmmakers despite the fact that he himself has never taken any political stance on anything (25).
The “site of authority” that Dabashi suggests that Kiarostami is abandoning is language itself. The social analysis and political commentary in Kiarostami’s films isn’t articulated through dialogue but, instead, through imagery. The political messages in his films are never explicit or didactic; they are indirectly suggested or hinted at through symbolic compositions but are never made the focal point of the story. Some might say that this approach to politics is the result of stifling censorship restrictions in Iran, but I take the position that this is Kiarostami’s preferred method of articulating politics. By “showing without showing” and “saying without saying” (26), Kiarostami has been able to fashion a unique and beautiful mode of political discourse. Of course, by using this approach, he also runs the risk that many viewers will not apprehend his various embedded messages.
The use of “invisible” characters in The Wind Will Carry Us is a good example of Kiarostami’s indirect visual method of articulating politics. The suggestion of off-screen, marginal characters outside the boundaries of the frame implies the “off-screen”, marginal place of rural villagers. And yet, while Kiarostami is certainly dedicated to implying a vast off-screen world that exceeds the boundaries of the frame, he is also equally obsessed with making frames within the overall frame, with bounding characters into enclosed spaces. Doors, windows, and various architectural structures form rectangular shapes that often serve to visually contain characters. These “frames within a frame” are not simply compositional strategies, for Kiarostami is interested in examining the social ramifications of the frame. Kiarostami’s sub-frames are never natural formations: they are always created by human hands. This is made clear in an early moment in Life and Nothing More when the young Puya makes a frame with his fingers in the back seat of the car, framing in the landscape that is already framed in by the window (Figure 14).
It’s probably not a coincidence that the majority of characters bounded in frames in Life and Nothing More, Through the Olive Trees, and The Wind Will Carry Us are women. In these films, women are frequently framed in by doorways or between columns (see Figure 15). Perhaps this is Kiarostami’s subtle way of expressing the bound and limited role of women within Iranian society.
Figure 14 & 15: Framing gender (left image from Life and Nothing More, right image from The Wind Will Carry Us)
It’s true that women in Iran have made great strides in terms of political, sexual and economic freedom over the past 20 years. Women in Iran can vote in elections and hold political office. Unlike the strict or non-existent family planning practices in other Islamic countries, birth control is widely available in Iran. Iranian women currently make up about 25 percent of Iran’s labour force, and many Iranian women have launched their own businesses. Iranian women keep their names at marriage and can buy and sell their own property (27). And yet, despite all of these changes and despite the emergence of a vibrant feminist movement in Iran, the country remains a patriarchal society locked into traditional attitudes about the proper place and role of women. In her book Persian Mirrors, Elaine Sciolino lists some of the ongoing social problems that Iranian women are forced to endure:
Women do not serve as judges or religious leaders. Adultery is still punishable by stoning to death. Polygamy is legal. In a divorce, fathers control custody of sons over the age of two and daughters over the age of seven. A girl can be tried for a crime as an adult at the age of nine (a boy at 15)…Women inherit only half of what men do. Men can divorce their wives at will, but women need to prove that their spouses are insane, impotent, violent, or unable to support the family. A woman needs her husband’s permission to start a business and sometimes even to get a job. Married women cannot get passports or leave the country without written permission of their husbands…Rape is more often than not blamed on the woman. A woman’s testimony in court has half the weight of a man’s. Women can be arrested for jogging or bicycling or swimming in sexually integrated places, and for exposing their heads and necks and the curves of their bodies in public. Women are not even allowed routinely to share the same physical space with men of the same profession (28).
By visually bounding women in rectangular architectural forms, it appears that Kiarostami is politicising the most basic element of cinema – the frame.
* * *
Kiarostami’s 1990 film Close Up weaves together “real” documentary footage and fictionalised re-enactments of an incident involving Hossein Sabzian, an Iranian man arrested and imprisoned in 1990 for impersonating the famous Iranian film director Moshen Makhmalbaf. When asked why he went to such lengths to perpetuate this elaborate fraud, Sabzian, a working class labourer in reality, responds
I wanted them to see me as a director who is aware of people’s sufferings and difficulties, a director who is honest enough to mix with ordinary folk. I wanted to make them forget the idea that a film director is different than other people. I wanted them to realise that a true artist is someone who is close to the people and is prepared to go to the cinema with them.
Sabzian’s comments are no doubt sincere, but the fact that he is speaking as an “ordinary” person and not as a film director casts doubt on whether the boundary between directors and “ordinary folk” can really be ignored in the way he says it can. His vision of the union between filmmaker and “ordinary” subject is a tempting proposition, but, in actual practice, it is probably more of an illusion than a reality.
Kiarostami himself is highly skeptical that the boundary between filmmaker and “ordinary folk” can be erased or ignored. While many critics regard Kiarostami a humanist because he builds stories around basic human issues that seem to transcend societal divisions like class, nationality, gender, age, religion and race (29), Kiarostami is hyper-aware of these societal divisions and how they operate, partly because he recognises that his very livelihood – filmmaking – is in itself an expression of power. He is aware that representing “ordinary folk” is an enterprise ripe with power dynamics, but, rather than passively succumb to this power, Kiarostami has dedicated himself to examining and critiquing it. This means looking at the distance and detachment that filmmakers establish between themselves and their subjects, as well as the special entitlements and status that filmmaking bestows upon filmmakers.
It’s fair to say that Kiarostami’s films are “largely concerned with interactions between poor and well-to-do people” (30). Class is often the element that connects or disconnects “main” characters from other characters, and this is especially true of the various filmmaker/subject relationships depicted in Kiarostami’s films. There are obviously class differences between the directors featured in Life and Nothing More, Through the Olive Trees, and The Wind Will Carry Us and the villagers that these directors are visiting/filming. One clear example of a class difference between the directors and the villagers is the directors’ use of automobiles. Very few villagers get around by car: they either walk or, on a few occasions, use a motor scooter. The directors in these films all navigate the space of the village with a vehicle, and, although it may not seem like a special privilege to many Western viewers, having a car in rural Iran is undoubtedly a special privilege reserved for the well-to-do. Another clear expression of the class difference between the urban outsiders and the villagers is the deferential way that the villagers treat the directors. This is particularly evident in The Wind Will Carry Us: the villagers repeatedly tell Behzad that his presence “honours” them. As Rosenbaum points out, “Kiarostami seems as amused by [the villagers’] automatic respect for [Behzad] as he is by Behzad’s equally automatic indifference to most of their concerns” (31).
There are significant class differences between filmmakers and subjects in these three films, but there is also the basic geographical difference that separates filmmaker from villager. All of the filmmakers in these three films are in foreign territory; they are, in essence, spatial outsiders. They have moved from the city to the country, and, in doing so, they have brought many attitudes and biases about the country. Kiarostami is particularly interested in uncovering these attitudes and biases, while at the same time acknowledging that he may share some of those same attitudes and biases. Kiarostami’s focus is, however, more than just the “baggage” that urban outsiders bring to the country, for he is concerned about how cultural agents of the city end up speaking on behalf of the country. Urban inhabitants, filmmakers in this case, construct versions of the country that correspond to their own anxieties and desires, but these constructions ultimately become dominant, widespread representations of the country. Like the regional novelists of the late 19th century in America, the filmmakers in Life and Nothing More, Through the Olive Trees, and The Wind Will Carry Us highlight and affirm “bourgeois, urban visitors’ cultural authority to represent and interpret the inhabitants of a region” (32). Because all three films involve the actual making of a film (Life and Nothing More in an indirect way), we are encouraged to reflect on how country space is actively constructed by these urban outsiders. The filmmakers’ constructions of country life take on a number of different forms and directives: emphasising the old and traditional, turning the villagers into exotic Others, demanding that the younger female villagers conform to the male gaze, and viewing the villages through the lens of nostalgia (33)
When the father and son in Life and Nothing More drive into the village of Poshteh, they notice their friend Mr Ruhi carrying a sink up the road. In Kiarostami’s previous film Where is the Friend’s Home?, Mr Ruhi played the role of the wise old man who led the young Ahmad to the doorstep of his schoolmate to return a notebook. Mr Ruhi and the father discuss the devastating effects of the earthquake, but the son, more interested in the effects of cinema than in the effects of the earthquake, asks Mr Ruhi why he looked so much older and had a hump on his back in Where is the Friend’s Home?. Mr Ruhi explains that the hump
was put on my back by these gentlemen (34). They told me that you should look and act older. And I said yes sir. But to tell you the truth I didn’t like it. What kind of art is it to show people older and uglier than they are? If you make an old man a little younger, that’s art.
The father parks the car at the edge of the village (blocking the road, the significance of which will be discussed shortly), and Mr Ruhi and the father begin to walk through the village, discussing the filming that was done there for Where is the Friend’s Home?. Mr Ruhi points to a house and says, “That was my film house” (see Figure 16). The house he points to was his “film house” for Where is the Friend’s Home?, but it was not the actual place where he lived when that film was shot.
Figure 16: Constructed space (image from Life and Nothing More)
This scene is obviously self-reflexive. Mr Ruhi directly refers to the making of Where is the Friend’s Home? and explains how aspects of that film – his outward appearance and the location of his house – were fabricated for the purposes of that film. This self-reflexive gesture forces us to reflect on and remember the fact that the film we are watching – Life and Nothing More – is in itself an elaborate construction and not a faithful one-to-one reproduction of reality. But Kiarostami’s reflexivity has a deeper function than to simply jolt us out of the absorbing illusion of art. It serves to remind us that space – and not just art – is constructed and that cinema plays an active part in the construction, or production as Walter Lefebvre calls it, of space. When we begin to approach space as a social construction, notions of space as a neutral, empty vessel get discarded. As I’ve tried to emphasise throughout this paper, cinema has a strange double role when it comes to space: it both reflects a society’s space and helps to create that space. Jeff Hopkins sums up this double role well: “The meanings constituted through film do not simply reflect or report on space, place, and society, but actively participate in the production and consumption of the larger cultural systems of which they are a part” (35).
In Life and Nothing More, Mr Ruhi reveals that the creators of Where is the Friend’s Home? made him look older than he really was for purposes of the film. By exposing the constructed nature of characters like Mr Ruhi, Kiarostami is uncovering the desire of urban filmmakers to make rural villages and villagers look older and more archaic than they really are. In addition to making things look older, Kiarostami also wants to show how outsiders are obsessed with the “traditional” aspects of rural villages, to the degree that they are willing to create totally distorted portraits of villages and villagers. For instance, in Through the Olive Trees, there are a number of instances when the director and producer actively try to make their subjects look and act more “traditional”. The producer Mrs. Shiva insists that Tahereh wear a peasant dress for her scene with Hossein, but Tahereh protests, claiming that “no one wears them nowadays”. Mrs. Shiva continues to insist, and Tahereh ultimately ends up wearing the peasant dress for the scene.
Making villagers look older or more traditional than they really are is a relatively benign form of cultural authority, but Kiarostami knows that this practice can quickly slip into a more insidious practice: turning the rural villagers into exotic Others. In The Wind Will Carry Us, it is obvious that Behzad is not in the village of Siah Dareh to befriend the villagers or to learn from them. All Behzad wants to do is to capture images of the exotic rural Others (images of the women performing the scarification ritual after Ms Malek dies) and return these images to the city for cultural consumption.
More than any of the three films under examination, The Wind Will Carry Us focuses on the geographical exploitation that image making makes possible. When Behzad first enters the village of Siah Dareh, he tells his young guide Farzad not to tell any of the villagers why he and his crew are really there. If any of the villagers ask, he tells Farzad to tell them that they are looking for “buried treasure”. Even though this comment about buried treasure is a joke that is intended to distract the villagers from the crew’s real purpose, it is actually an accurate description of what the crew is doing. The crew is in Siah Dareh to dig up the exotic “treasure” of the rural Other so that it can be brought back to the city for profit.
It’s clear that the villagers are not the “target audience” of the outsiders’ films. The outsiders’ films are being made for the cultural consumers back in Tehran and in cities around the world. This fact is not lost on the villagers. In the opening of Through the Olive Trees, when the director is walking through the crowd of women looking for potential actresses for his film, one of the young girls asks him why they should participate in a film they will most likely never see. She tells the director, “Your last film went out on channel two which we can’t get here.” The director, responding as if he were asked a Zen riddle, asks this woman if that is sufficient enough reason not to make a film, but she seems convinced that a film that can’t be shared with its subjects is pointless (see Figure 17). The other women agree and begin to shout to the director, “You’ll have to show it!” These women know that the images that the director captures of them are not being made for them but for the audiences in Tehran and in cities around the world.
Figure 17: Who will be the audience of this film? (image from Through the Olive Trees)
The scene depicting the casting of young actresses in Through the Olive Trees brings up another problematic element of the outsiders’ presence: their fixation upon young female villagers. This fixation cannot be explained simply as a desire to find an appropriate actress for a film or even as a benign curiosity about what it’s like to be a young woman in a rural Iranian village. This fixation is undoubtedly connected to the fantasies and sexual desires of the visiting directors.
In a later moment in Through the Olive Trees, when the director and producer ride in the back of a truck with a group of local women, the director tells his producer to take down the name and address of a few of the women so that they might be used as extras in the film. The director notices a shy young girl sitting in the truck and asks her to show him her face (see Figure 18). She refuses. The director then asks for her name. An elderly woman tells the director, “We don’t give the name of women or girls to a stranger, that’s our custom”. When the director and producer eventually drop the group of women off, the director asks for the name and address of the shy girl’s mother. As the filmmakers drive away, the producer asks the director why he asked for the mother’s address. He tells her that he wasn’t interested in casting the old woman in his film; he only asked for her address because he potentially wants to use her daughter in his film.
The critic Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa has stated that Kiarostami, in his rural films, fixates his camera on young women and represents these young female characters as shy, quiet and mysterious individuals. Saeed-Vafa explains that representations of this sort are nothing new in Iranian cinema and that Kiarostami’s representations of rural Iranian women are ultimately rather conservative: “The rural women in [Kiarostami’s] films…suggest an ideal woman who is innocent, strong and in tune with nature” (36). I don’t dispute Saeed-Vafa’s argument that Kiarostami presents a number of idealised representations of rural Iranian women, but I don’t think we should ever underestimate the extent to which Kiarostami is self-conscious about what he is doing. With a director character in each of these three films, it’s easy to make a one-to-one parallel between the director characters and Kiarostami and easy to conclude that Kiarostami is mirroring or endorsing what his director characters are doing. While there’s no doubt that Kiarostami often implicates himself in the regressive habits and myopic privileges of his “stand-in” characters, I also think that he uses these characters to understand and dismantle problematic representations. In the scene with the women in the back of the truck, I don’t think it’s possible to argue that Kiarostami is falling back on traditional representations of idealised rural Iranian women. In fact, what it seems like Kiarostami is trying to do is to demonstrate the application of these problematic representations in a real-world social context. The director makes it seem like being in a film is a privilege that everyone craves, but these local women reveal that his casting requests are actually quite invasive and even sexist. The film seems to suggest that the director’s desire to “use” the shy and quiet daughter in his film is not an altruistic gesture but is, in fact, quite perverse.
Figures 18 & 19: Hiding the face (left image from Through the Olive Trees, right image from The Wind Will Carry Us)
The scene in The Wind Will Carry Us when Behzad follows the young woman Zeynab into a dark cellar to fetch some milk is undoubtedly one of the most unsettling and mysterious scenes in any of Kiarostami’s films. This is one of the few indoor scenes in Kiarostami’s rural films, and, to the best of my knowledge, it is the only scene in Kiarostami’s entire body of work where an unwed and unrelated man and woman share a private indoor space (as I previously stated, this is typically prohibited by Iranian state censorship). Moving into this dark cellar, we get the sense that we have entered a forbidden space, but, instead of respecting it, Behzad disgraces it. As Zeynab milks the cow for Behzad (with all of that action’s explicit sexual connotations), Behzad needles the young girl with questions as he recites a poem written by the legendary Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhad. He asks her to put the lamp next to her face so that he can see her more clearly (see Figure 19) and then has the audacity to claim that he is Zeynab’s boyfriend’s boss (her boyfriend is the unseen ditchdigger Youssef whom Behzad has befriended at the village cemetery).
Hamid Dabashi has accurately equated this scene with a rape, but his reading of Kiarostami’s motivation is completely off the mark. Dabashi feels that Kiarostami is essentially in the same position as Behzad in this scene, that he replicates “the gaze of the First at the Third World, of the powerful at the powerless, of the centre at the periphery, of the metropolitan at the colonised, of the Tehrani at the Kurd, imitating the Europeans at the height of colonialism” (37). What Dabashi fails to recognise is that the gaze of the powerful at the powerless has been a part of Kiarostami’s cinema at least since Life and Nothing More, and, rather than perpetuate this practice, Kiarostami has dedicated himself to examining and questioning it. Kiarostami acknowledges that he, like Behzad, is an upper middle class, urban resident who makes his living, at least partially, by photographing people less fortunate than himself, but that doesn’t mean that he, unlike Behzad, isn’t self-conscious about what he’s doing.
What’s interesting about Kiarostami’s rural films, though, is that they exhibit more than just a self-consciousness of the gaze that cuts from city to country and coloniser to colonised. For one thing, the female “objects” of the male outsiders’ gaze generally realise that they are being gazed at, and these women generally attempt to avoid the objectifying gaze as much as they can. The daughter on the back of the truck in Through the Olive Trees turns her head when the director asks to see her face, and Zeynab refuses to lift her head when Behzad asks to see her face in the cellar. The cellar where Zeynab and Behzad interact is shrouded in darkness, and this darkness makes it difficult for the gaze to operate. The figure of Zeynab is barely visible, but I believe that her relative invisibility in this scene has a different function than the invisibility of other characters in the film. Rather than functioning as a comment upon the relative absence or marginality of poor rural people within broad societal contexts, Zeynab’s invisibility is being used as an intentional strategy, as a way to subvert the logic and power of the gaze (38). As Homi Bhabha has said of the subaltern woman, “She who was socially unseen will wreak her vengeance in the artifice of invisibility” (39).
Bhabha suggests that the gaze can be more than just avoided. It can be short-circuited and turned back upon itself: “The migrant woman can subvert the perverse satisfaction of the racist, masculinist gaze that disavowed her presence, by presenting it with an anxious absence, a counter-gaze that turns the discriminatory look, that denies her cultural and sexual difference, back upon itself” (40). This process of subverting the gaze and establishing a counter-gaze gets played out in a couple of striking moments in The Wind Will Carry Us when Behzad camps outside Ms Malek’s house. As Behzad’s waits outside the old woman’s house so that he might catch a glimpse of her, all he is presented with is an “anxious absence”, a house with all the doors and windows closed shut. It is not a coincidence that precisely at the moments when Behzad’s surveillance of Ms Malek fails, when all he can see is the blank facade of her house, he suddenly becomes aware that he, in fact, is the one being watched (see Figure 20). He suddenly notices that the local women are gazing at him gazing, and, it is in this moment of visual inversion that the “satisfaction of the racist, masculinist gaze” gets deflated and denied.
Figure 20: The “Anxious Absence” and the Counter-Gaze (Images from The Wind Will Carry Us)
The final construction of country space that I will discuss is country as seen through the lens of nostalgia. This construction is particularly evident in Life and Nothing More because the narrative of that film is arguably based entirely on nostalgia, on a sentimental longing for an imaginary past. The father and son make the long journey from Tehran to Koker to check on the status of the two young boys from Where is the Friend’s Home?, but they are ultimately unable to locate the two boys. Their obsession with finding these boys blinds them to the fact that several years – four years, in fact – have elapsed in these villages since Where is the Friend’s Home? was filmed. The father and son view Koker and its inhabitants as frozen in filmic time: they have a difficult time relating to the villagers beyond their celluloid representations (see Figure 21). For example, when the father runs into a young boy who appeared in Where is the Friend’s Home? (not one of the two boys he is looking for), he is astonished that the young boy has actually grown up. The boy is confused by this comment and responds, “Well, every person grows up”. The father’s reaction to the grown boy suggests that he is locked into an unchanging vision of these rural villages. He is locked into a fixed and idyllic past, i.e. into the previous film.
Figure 21: Searching for the filmic boy (image from Life and Nothing More)
It is significant that the only moments when music is played in Life and Nothing More are the moments when the father is lost in reverie. His reveries are always triggered by the sight of a beautiful landscape. There is a fascinating scene in Life and Nothing More when the father’s sentimental view of the landscape intermingles with the devastation that the earthquake has caused (see Figure 21). After the father has left Mr Ruhi and begun to wander Poshteh with his son, he sits for a moment to soak in the environment of the village. Suddenly, a balcony catches his eye. There is an open threshold in the middle of the balcony that provides a view of a green field just outside the village. The door to this threshold – a blue door, like the one Ahmad was looking for in Where is the Friend’s Home? – has fallen off its hinges and is lying on the ground. The camera zooms in on this field of green lying within the “frame within a frame” that the open threshold creates (this is one of the few zooms in the entire film), and the romantic classical music begins to swell. The father walks over to and up the balcony and moves through the threshold to view the landscape. Standing in the threshold, he recognises that this home has been seriously damaged by the earthquake. The father then moves onto the main portion of the balcony and examines a mural on the wall that has been cracked down the middle by the earthquake. The mural depicts a traditional indoor scene: an old man smoking a pipe sitting next to a wooden table that has a variety of food and kitchen items lying on it. The father eventually descends the balcony and begins to help a woman dig out a kettle from the compacted ground. By this point, the classical music has faded out.
Figure 22: Nostalgia for a lost village (images from Life and Nothing More, sequence moves like text from left to right and top to bottom, shots 2-5 are part of one zoom)
The father is seduced by the remarkable view of the green field. It’s what compels him to walk over to the balcony. But, when he walks over to the balcony, he understands what has made this remarkable view possible: the earthquake. The earthquake has turned much of these villages into rubble, but, rather than diminish the father’s nostalgia, the rubble is what solidifies his sentimental, nostalgic view of the countryside. The rubble solidifies his nostalgia by permanently lodging the beauty and charm of these villages in the irretrievable past. It’s impossible to be nostalgic for something that exists right before our eyes: something must vanish or be regarded as vanished in order for it to generate feelings of nostalgia. The rural charm of the villages in Where is the Friend’s Home? has been literally and figuratively destroyed by the earthquake, so the father can now enjoy these villages nostalgically as distant, romantic memories.
In his landmark study The Country and The City, Raymond Williams describes the phenomenon of how landscape is fashioned into ideal memory:
A natural country ease is contrasted with an unnatural urban unrest. The ‘modern world’, both in its suffering and, crucially, in its protest against suffering, is mediated by reference to a lost condition which is better than both and which can place both: a condition imagined out of a landscape and a selective observation and memory… the real step that has been taken is withdrawal from any full response to an existing society. Value is in the past, as a general retrospective condition…All that is left is a set of personal relationships and of intellectual and moral insights, in a history that for all valuing purposes has, disastrously, ended (41).
What drives the father to look for the two boys is his longing for a lost rural world, a world that has been disastrously demolished by the earthquake (42). The father never finds the boys, but he can conjure their memories when he is lost in reverie looking at a beautiful green field. In this respect, there is an interesting connection between Williams’ passage and Kiarostami’s Life and Nothing More: they both link the “lost condition” of nostalgia to the formulation and perception of landscape.
Kiarostami gets out of Tehran at least twice a week to take drives through the country. He mentioned once in an interview why he makes these trips: “As I gradually step into my old age I slowly have to separate from a great deal around me and replace those losses with nature” (43). That is a very telling comment and useful if applied to the nostalgia scene from Life and Nothing More. While Kiarostami certainly acknowledges that nature has a redemptive and healing effect on him, his comment seems to suggest that his healing and redemptive experiences in nature are generally conducted in isolation. Nature may uplift us, but it also serves to detach us from the social world. Gilberto Perez explores this issue in his insightful examination of Jean Renoir’s film A Day in the Country: “An individual [is] conditioned by her society to regard nature in a certain way, a way that, precisely, isolates the individual from society in the experience of nature…it is enchanting, this immersion in nature, and it is isolating in its enchantment” (44).
With Perez’s comments in mind, the juxtaposition of the “frame within a frame” of the green field and the cracked mural of the old man on the wall in Life and Nothing More begins to make sense. This is a juxtaposition of nature and man, and the zoom to the green field with the romantic music swelling in the background suggests that the father, at this moment, is more connected to nature than to man. The mural of the old man on the wall is cracked down the middle, which implies that the father’s social links have been severed. It’s also significant to note that the father, when he parked his car before walking down into the ruined village, blocked the road coming in and out of the village. By doing this, it’s as if he was intentionally cutting himself off and imagining himself in a ghost town totally devoid of human traces.
Kiarostami understands that fixating on a vast, empty landscape can have the negative consequence of detaching individuals from the social world, so he is attempting to reformulate the representation of landscape by integrating moving figures into it. Other than a few rare exceptions like the nostalgic empty green field in Life and Nothing More, all of Kiarostami’s landscapes have figures moving through them (45). Sometimes these figures are in or on vehicles, sometimes they’re travelling on foot. Most times, these figures are extremely small in relationship to the overall frame, but their very presence, however minuscule, fundamentally alters the meaning and experience of the landscape.
The conclusion of Life and Nothing More signals the triumph of Kiarostami’s “humanistic landscape”. The father learns that the two young boys from Where is the Friend’s Home? are just over the hill from where he is. As he descends the valley before ascending the final hill, a man carrying a giant canister sticks out his thumb soliciting the father for the ride (see Figure 23). The father drives past this man and beings to make his way up the final hill, but he does not ascend with enough speed and is forced to coast back down in reverse (Figure 24). The man with the canister helps the father get his car unstuck (Figure 25), and then this unknown man proceeds to walk up the hill alone (Figure 26). In the amazing long shot that concludes the film, the father finally gets his car up the hill (Figure 27), and, just as he crests the hill, he stops to give the man with the canister a ride (Figure 28).
Figures 23-28: The humanistic landscape (images from Life and Nothing More)
Up until this final scene, the father has experienced landscape solipsistically, but, in his attempt to ascend the final hill, the landscape takes on social dimension. The father requires assistance to make it up the hill, and, because of this, the landscape suddenly becomes a social and even ethical space for the father and not just an idealised, romantic vision of a vanished past. The landscape that concludes Life and Nothing More isn’t lodged in an imagined past but, rather, exists in the active, living present.
* * *
When Ahmad shuttles back and forth between the villages of Koker and Poshteh in Where is the Friend’s Home?, he travels along a zigzag path on the side of a hill. After completing Where is the Friend’s Home?, Kiarostami acknowledged that he and his crew constructed this zigzag path for purposes of the film (46). Some viewers might learn this tidbit of information and be tempted to dismiss Kiarostami’s films, despite their obvious documentary tendencies, as carefully crafted illusions. This is problematised by the fact that four years after the path was constructed, when the father returns to this same spot in Life and Nothing More, we see that this path is still etched into the side of the hill (Figure 29). And, lo and behold, in Through the Olive Trees, another three years later, we again notice that the path is still etched into the hill (Figure 30).
Figure 29 & 30: Four years and then seven years later, the constructed path remains (left image from Life and Nothing More, right image from Through the Olive Trees)
A landscape construction has become a topographic reality. Abbas Kiarostami’s films are marked by this strange oscillation, by this perpetual movement between the real and imagined landscape.
“A Debate with Abbas Kiarostami, Iranian Movie Director”, Film International, Winter 1995, vol. 3, no. 1, pp. 46-49.
Bert Cardullo,“Still Life”, The Hudson Review, vol. 55, no. 2 (Summer 2002), pp. 277-285.
Godfrey Cheshire,“How to Read Kiarostami”, Cineaste, vol. 25, no. 4, September 2000, pp. 8-15
Scott Foundas,“Interview: Films without Borders: Abbas Kiarostami Talks About ABC Africa and Poetic Cinema”, accessed at www.indiewire.com/film/interviews/int_Kiarostami_Abb_010516.html, November 9, 2002.
Jean-Michel Frodon, “The Universal Iranian”, SAIS Review, vol. 21, no. 2, 2001, pp 217-224.
J. Hoberman, “Wander Land”, The Village Voice, Aug. 1, 2000, p. 75.
Stuart Klawans,“Nine views in a Looking Glass: Film Trilogies by Chahine, Gitai, and Kiarostami”, Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Vol. 25, no. 1/2 (2001), pp. 230–252.
Phillip Lopate, “Kiarostami Close Up”, Film Comment, vol. 32, no. 4, July–August 1996, p. 37.
Jean-Luc Nancy, “On Evidence: Life and Nothing More, by Abbas Kiarostami”, Discourse, vol. 21, no. 1, Winter 1999, pp 76–87.
Minna Proctor, “The Road Out: Abbas Kiarostami’s Views of the Infinite”, Aperture no. 164, Summer 2001, p. 66.
Ahmad Sadri, “Searchers: The New Iranian Cinema”, accessed at www.iranian.com/Sep96/Arts/NewCinema/NewCinema.html, November 9, 2002.
- J. Hoberman, “Minimalist Journeys and Maximum Overdrive: Formal Attire”, The Village Voice, March 5–11, 2003, accessed at www.villagevoice.com/film, March 6, 2003.
- This past/present slippage of this opening scene is even more complex because the film that Keshavarz is directing – pretending to direct, that is – is Life and Nothing More, Kiarostami’s previous film!
- Gilberto Perez, The Material Ghost: Films and their Medium, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1998, p. 227.
- Two notable examples: Laura Mulvey, “Kiarostami’s Uncertainty Principle”, Sight and Sound, June 1998, vol. 8, no. 5 and Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Reinventing the Present”, Chicago Reader, April 11, 2003, accessed at www.chireader.com/movies/archives/2003/0403/030411.html, April 11, 2003.
- A notable exception is Rosenbaum’s detailed description of Kiarostami’s working technique for Taste of Cherry. In Taste of Cherry, it appears that the main character Mr Badii speaks directly to the three passengers he picks up (a young soldier, a seminarian, and a taxidermist), but, in fact, these scenes were built from six separate conversations: three conversations Kiarostami had with Badii and three conversations Kiarostami had with the three passengers. Badii and the passengers were never in the car together. In fact, the actor that plays Badii never even met the three actors that played his passengers! It’s remarkable that coherent conversations were constructed from such disparate spatio-temporal fragments. On the one hand, these conversations can be considered spatial and narrative illusions, but, on the other hand, their artificiality serves as a catalyst for the “real”. For instance, Kiarostami has revealed that, in order to elicit a surprised look from the young soldier, he placed a revolver in the glove compartment of the car and then asked the soldier to open the compartment. This eliminates any belief that the soldier is re-acting to something Badii said, but that shouldn’t obscure the fact the surprised reaction of the young soldier is undeniably real. This contradiction echoes Kiarostami’s primary filmmaking motto: “We can never get close to the truth except by lying.”
- Kiarostami himself has said, “I personally can’t define the difference between a documentary and a narrative film.” See Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa and Jonathan Rosenbaum, Abbas Kiarostami, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 2003, p. 116. In another context, he said: “In my mind, there isn’t as much of a distinction between documentary and fiction as there is between a good movie and a bad one.” See Rosenbaum, 2003.
- Walter Lefebvre, “The Production of Space”, from The Spaces of Postmodernity: Readings in Human Geography, ed. Michael J. Dear and Steven Flusty, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 2002, p. 133.
- See note 5.
- Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, 1977, p. 12.
- Tuan, 1977, p. 12.
- Tuan, 1977, p. 6.
- Tuan, 1977, p. 4.
- Kiarostami establishes a “poetics of space” as well by rhyming movements and flows. For instance, the opening and closing shots of The Wind Will Carry Us are visual rhymes, the car meandering along the road in the opening shot and the hipbone meandering along the creek in the closing shot:
- Fredric Jameson, The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1992, p. 189.
- Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa & Jonathan Rosenbaum, Abbas Kiarostami, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 2003, p. 115.
- Quoted in Michael Steiner and David Wrobel, Many Wests: Discovering a Dynamic Western Regionalism” in Many Wests: Place, Culture, & Regional Identity, University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, 1997, p. 8.
- Elaine Sciolino describes the rapid proliferation of satellite dishes in Iran in the 1990s: “Then came satellite dishes. They were illegal but in high demand, particularly after intrepid entrepreneurs began producing them locally – which made them one-tenth the cost of foreign-made ones. Newspapers would periodically run stories of police seizures of hundreds of satellite dishes. That only made people more inventive in hiding the dishes: under foliage, elaborate covers of plastic sheeting, or camouflage tarps; in the trees; at the bottom of swimming pools; on balconies and in gardens. Even some of the most seemingly traditional families had ‘satellite’.” See Elaine Sciolino, Persian Mirrors, The Free Press, New York, p. 269.
- Kiarostami admitted that Behzad’s cell phone really didn’t work in the cemetery during the shoot: “It wouldn’t have even worked there – it was too remote. In order for a real mobile to have worked, you would have had to climb the equivalent of two mountains.” See Saeed-Vafa & Rosenbaum, 2003, p. 112.
- Stephanie Foote, Regional Fictions: Culture and Identity in Nineteenth Century American Literature, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 2001, p. 11.
- Foote, 2001, p. 37.
- Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 2000, p. 251.
- Raymond Williams, The Country and the City, Oxford University Press, New York, 1973, p. 165–166. Emphasis mine.
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Fill in the Blanks” (review of Taste of Cherry), accessed at www.chireader.com/movies/archives/1998/0598/05298.html, November 9, 2002. Emphasis mine.
- With Ten, Kiarostami is beginning to engage Iranian political issues in a much more direct fashion. In the film, the main character, a woman, complains about the difficulties she has had in obtaining a divorce (she had to claim her ex-husband took drugs in order to get the divorce), and one of the woman’s female passenger’s, in taking off her chador, reveals that her hair has been completely shaved off, a forbidden and subversive act for an Iranian woman. These are both slaps in the face of the Iranian clerical establishment and clear signs of the emerging feminist sensibility in Iran (and Kiarostami’s awareness and sensitivity towards it).
- Hamid Dabashi, Close Up: Iranian Cinema Past, Present and Future, Verso, New York, 2001, pp 276, 280.
- Saeed-Vafa and Rosenbaum, 2002, p. 114.
- Sciolino, 2000, p. 111–112.
- Sciolino, 2000, p. 115.
- In a number of interviews, Kiarostami has tried to de-emphasise the significance of national identity, stressing what links humans rather than what separates them: “All the different nations in the world, despite their differences of appearance and religion and language and way of life, still have one common thing, and that is what’s inside of all of us. If we X-rayed the insides of different human beings, we wouldn’t be able to tell from those X-rays what the person’s language or background or race is” See David Sterritt, “Taste of Kiarostami” (interview), accessed November 9, 2002. This comment undoubtedly exudes a certain “We are the World” sentimentality, but it helps to clarify that one of Kiarostami’s primary aims is to erase or at least to understand division, particularly division fostered by nationalism. In another interview, he explicitly makes this point: “My aim is to create unity between worlds that are usually apart. It’s the duty of the police and immigration officers to create borders, and it is the duty of artists to lessen or eliminate them”. See Pat Aufderheide, “Real Life is More Important than Cinema”, Cineaste, vol. 21, no. 3, 1995 (taken from http://proquest.umi.com search on November 9, 2002). It’s worth mentioning that Kiarostami, making the journey to New York City to launch his latest film at the 2002 New York Film Festival, was denied entry into the United States. He has visited the country eight times before, but, because of new security measures that require a two month background check and interview process for anyone visiting the U.S. from a nation that sponsors terrorism (especially a nation from the “Axis of Evil”), there wasn’t enough time for Kiarostami and festival coordinators to clear his visa.
- Saeed-Vafa and Rosenbaum, 2003, p. 6.
- Saeed-Vafa and Rosenbaum, 2003, p. 35.
- Foote, 2001, p. 36.
- I’m tempted to add one final construction: ignorance. Visitors from the city are granted a privileged status in Kiarostami’s countryside, but Kiarostami cleverly suggests that these urban visitors are often completely ignorant of what’s happening around them in the country. This is particularly true of the director in Through the Olive Trees. He films the scene with Hossein and Tahereh over and over again, but, throughout the filming, he is largely unaware of the nature of the couple’s relationship. It’s not until the end of Through the Olive Trees, when Hossein and Tarereh’s scene is complete, that the director begins to understand what’s happening between the two.
- Mr Ruhi’s reference to “these gentlemen” is doubly reflexive because it is, of course, a reference to the people who are currently filming this very scene! It’s also worth noting that Behzad appears to have a hump on his back in The Wind Will Carry Us, which encourages us to regard him self-consciously as a constructed character as well.
- Jeff Hopkins, “A Mapping of Cinematic Places: Icons, Ideology, and the Power of (Mis)representation” in Place, Power, Situation, and Spectacle, eds Stuart Aitken & Leo Zonn, Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, 1994, p. 50.
- Saeed-Vafa and Rosenbaum, 2003, p. 68–69.
- Dabashi, 2001, p. 255.
- It also seems possible to view the use of “Nowhere” as a kind of resistant strategy, for it upsets outsiders’ desires to fix rural inhabitants in space.
- Homi Bhabha, “Interrogating Identity”, in [Identity] The Real Me: Post-Modernism and the Question of Identity, ICA Documents 6, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 1987, p. 8.
- Bhabha, 1987, p. 5.
- Williams, 1973, p. 180.
- The process by which urban outsiders imprison villagers within predetermined narratives has an interesting history in cinema. Luis Bunuel’s bizarre 1933 “documentary” Land Without Bread is a notable example. In this film, a group of filmmakers travel to a poor village within the remote Spanish mountains. The destitute life of these villagers is detailed, but the filmmakers take little action to try to alleviate or even understand the villagers’ suffering. Ultimately, the film is not really “about” the village; instead, its focus is the detached and subordinating gaze of “humanitarian” documentaries. Many Iranians were outraged that Kiarostami didn’t show more death and destruction in Life and Nothing More, but he didn’t do this for a good reason. He didn’t focus on the devastation because he didn’t want to imprison villagers into a narrative that showed them only as people who desperately needed urban, humanitarian relief.
- Ali Akbar Mahdi, “In Dialogue with Kiarostami”, August 25, 1998, accessed at www.iranian.com/Arts/Aug98/Kiarostami, November 9, 2002.
- Perez, 1998, p. 221.
- Auguste Renoir once said, “I like pictures which make me want to wander about inside them.” See Perez, 1998, p. 203.
- Mulvey, 1998.