In Ten on Ten, a 2004 documentary featuring ten short scenes in which Abbas Kiarostami speaks in a car on his work in filming 2001’s Ten, itself a ten part movie featuring short video sequences shot entirely inside a car, the filmmaker makes a series of extremely provocative statements. This occurs in the context of a discussion of the radical possibilities that he claims opened to him when, starting with one famous and beautiful scene at the very end of 1997’s Taste of Cherry, Kiarostami started using digital cameras. Referring to the production of ABC Africa – his first feature length digital production, and which was shot in Uganda – he says:

I felt that a 35mm camera would limit both us and the people there, whereas the video camera displayed truth from every angle, and not a forged truth. To me this camera was a discovery. Like a God it was all encompassing, omnipresent. The camera could turn 360 degrees and thus reported the truth, an absolute truth. (1)


I want to try to take seriously Kiarostami’s claim that his move to digital – which resulted in two of his most morally unsettling movies – allowed him to report ‘absolute truth.’ This term is surprising, even shocking, coming from Kiarostami. After all, as with his other films ABC Africa – the only feature length Kiarostami work that we can reasonably safely call a documentary – seems to subvert distinctions between fact and fiction, truth and artifice, the real and the fake, and so on (distinctions on which documentary cinema is sometimes seen to rely). (2) The term also jars with certain tropes that have become rather familiar in film and documentary theory: tropes which emphasise the constructedness of the film image, the partiality of the documentarian’s claim to truth, the power relations silently bound up in the very act of attempting to ‘neutrally’ report the facts, the inevitability of bias in a filmed account of events, etc. (3) Further, the term sits uneasily with much of the academic criticism of Kiarostami’s work, with its emphasis on the categories of uncertainty, partiality, and ambiguity, and which has lauded the director for the complex ways in which he draws attention to the tenuousness and contingency of cinematic claims to truth through reflexive formal techniques. (4) There are clear questions, in other words, about what to make of these provocative statements. Were we wrong about what Kiarostami is up to in his films? Is there a way of taking seriously what he says here? Or is Kiarostami himself simply being disingenuous, hyperbolic, impulsive, and/or hubristic? For the sake of interest and risk I want to set aside the latter as a possibility (even if it might be reasonably plausible), and experiment with answering the first two questions in the affirmative: it is possible to take Kiarostami seriously – or at least, to read him charitably – when he speaks of ‘absolute truth,’ and doing so will require us to nuance our understanding of the filmmaker’s project.

Obviously this will turn on how we understand what ‘absolute truth’ might mean in this context. As such it is worth turning to the scene in Ten on Ten in which Kiarostami uses the loaded term. Here we see images not only of the director in his car delivering his monologue to camera, but excerpts from ABC Africa. As he speaks of returning to Iran, watching the video footage, coming to decide that the ease and comfort displayed by his subjects could never have been achieved if he had used a 35mm camera, that the medium of video allowed access to absolute truth, we see: a Ugandan child hiding shyly behind a roll of material; footage of Kiarostami himself videoing children as other children watch the footage as he records it; a group of children who play to the camera, pulling funny faces; more children scrambling about to try and get into (or out of) the frame; a woman’s face caught in slow motion as she stares directly into the camera; one child jumping up and down in order to enter the shot. In other words what we see is precisely not life ‘as it really is’ among Ugandan orphans, but rather a series of events that are intimately bound up with – indeed, events that are in various ways the direct result of – the presence of the cameras in the village. One is tempted to say that we’re not seeing life in this Ugandan village as it is, but life as it is when it is acting up and showing off, responding to the presence of strangers, and performing for – or hiding from – digital images of itself. Not only is there no attempt to hide the artifice inherent in the act of videoing: in fact it is deliberately emphasised (as when, for instance, a shot of Kiarostami videoing is followed up with a shot of his collaborator Seifollah Samadian videoing Kiarostami videoing). So this truth must not be that of a full and objective account of the facts, where ‘objective’ means a report of how things stand externally to the reporter. At the same time, however, I want to say that it really is a truth – and not, for instance, simply an acknowledgment of the irreducibly ‘subjective’ and/or mediated nature of what it is to screen reality. In that sense, that while ABC Africa fits in some respects with what Bill Nichols, in his influential taxonomy of documentary styles, called ‘the reflexive mode of representation’ (5), it is nevertheless much more than another attempt at formally enacting a critique of “[r]ealist access to the world, the ability to provide persuasive evidence, the possibility of indisputable argument, the unbreakable bond between an indexical image and that which it represents.” (6) In Ten on Ten, Kiarostami quotes Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil: “That which is truly deep needs a mask.” (7) It is this marriage of depth and surface, sincerity and masking, reality and artifice that I want to identify as essential to the documentary evidence – and, if you like, truth – presented in Kiarostami’s movie (remembering that ‘marriages’ are not always harmonious). Such an identification may also make it possible to clarify aspects of the ethical and aesthetic problems inherent to documentary filmmaking more generally: the sorts of relations between fiction and fact that are crucial to the genre’s self-understanding; the notion of affect and its connection to truth; questions of evidence, rhetoric, and persuasion. If it helps to generalise, I would do so by saying that this is one subset of the problems stemming from that separation of fact and value which plagues – but also appears to provide a condition of the possibility of – modern philosophy. Part of the intellectual depth and beauty of Kiarostami’s modernism consists in how it can help us think differently here.


ABC Africa opens with a call: a phone rings as the letters A. B. C. are presented red on black, and rings again roughly in time with the appearance of AFRICA. The titles fade and we hear the sound of printing. The first image is that of a fax arriving. The content is read in a woman’s monotone. The fax from the Assistant President of the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development confirms an invitation extended to Kiarostami to travel to Uganda to shoot a documentary on the Uganda Women’s Effort to Save Orphans Program, an NGO set up in 1986 to provide aid to Ugandan children living in extreme poverty in a country devastated by AIDS and civil war. The idea is to give the plight of these orphans “greater relevance” and “draw much needed international attention” to it. So far, so standard: an internationally acclaimed director with significant festival clout, some experience in taking commissions, and a demonstrated interest in recording the lives of people (and particularly children) facing poverty and disaster is to travel to Uganda to shoot a film in order to raise international awareness about a terrible social/moral/political problem. And certain early scenes of the movie come across as intelligible in these familiar terms, such as when we hear from a representative at IFAD about the extent of the Ugandan orphan problem (in 2002 there were estimated to be two million orphans in the country), or when the filmmakers visit a village where they are informed about the organisation’s work in teaching local women – many of whom have taken on the burden of care for large numbers of orphaned children – basic skills relating to financial planning, obtaining an income, and so on. Nevertheless, Kiarostami’s personal stamp is obvious from the start: we are treated, for instance, to a series of long takes shot from inside cars, and the movie seems to include more footage of relatively unimportant events than one would expect from a ‘standard’ documentary (by which I mean, something like IFAD might have been expecting him to make), including many extended takes of women and (especially) children singing, dancing, and playing (as well as some rather mundane footage of the two filmmakers arriving at the airport, checking into their hotel, chatting to their driver, etc.).

In a mainstream expository or observational approach, (8) we might expect that these shots would – if employed at all – be used as background, as a means of establishing setting and perhaps granting the viewer some kind of emotional connection to the ostensible subjects of the film; in Kiarostami’s movie, however, the length and sheer quantity of them suggests they are in no way peripheral. Plus with their wobbly handheld framing, the freely associative way in which Kiarostami records them (letting himself be ‘distracted’; following whatever turns up), and the employment on them of some rather naff digital effects (including repeated ‘snapshot’ style freezeframes complete with fake shutter sound effects), these shots are surprisingly unserious, whimsical, and not a little touristic. In other words things are strange: this film is refusing to do what we expect it to (especially given its subject). Here it is worth recognising that the footage presented in the final cut of ABC Africa was not originally intended to make it into the film at all: rather, these images were merely intended as ‘travel notes’ taken down by Kiarostami and Samadian for the sake of getting an initial sense of their subject; the two were originally planning on returning to Uganda in order to make the real movie, but on getting home decided that the twenty hours of footage they’d taken was all they needed (with some serious editing work that, as Alberto Elena notes, took place over the course of eight months). (9) This is a movie constructed out of notes for a movie that was never actually made. While this may explain some of the roughness and apparent “artlessness” (10) of the final product, it only raises further questions: why was Kiarostami happy with this preliminary digital footage? Why not go back and complete the original project? More generally, why has Kiarostami largely refused to follow through on the traditional tasks of documentary (presenting facts, gathering evidence, making an argument, persuading the viewer to a certain position, etc.)?


Here I want to point to two scenes that effectively transform – and make up the cinematic core of – the whole movie. They occur in near succession. First, the filmmakers visit a hospital in the town of Masaka (described in the film as the ‘epicenter’ of the AIDS pandemic). The scene is surreal and disturbing: entering the crude building, we see Catholic posters and a calendar promoting abstinence on the walls as we hear the cries of a sick child off screen; we see a series of terrible images in a ward for children; the crying child then appears for a moment, only to be quickly replaced by shots of a nurse joking and laughing; we get more freezeframes (this time of adult nurses, doctors, patients) with fake sound effects. Having already been made intensely aware of the presence of the cameras – and of the ethical questions surrounding these rather invasive sequences – we now enter a room where the body of a small child is being wrapped in a sheet. Nurses gather up the body; we follow it outside to see it being placed on the back of a bicycle and taken away, presumably for burial. The setting then changes abruptly and we are presented with a long sequence featuring hundreds of singing schoolchildren – back on similar ground to be sure, but after the shift in tone occasioned by the hospital sequence it has been defamiliarised, rendered a bit uncanny. Then, after another road sequence, Kiarostami and his collaborator arrive at the building that is to accommodate them for the night. After nightfall, we hear a long conversation between them as we view a thick swarm of mosquitoes gathering around an outdoor light. Now we are surprised: the light goes out as the electricity is cut. So begins the most intriguing scene in the movie, in which Kiarostami and Samadian make their way toward their rooms by torch and match light, musing on the difficulty of darkness and the problems it must cause each night for the villagers they have been videoing (“I can’t think of anywhere in the world where sunlight would be more precious”). As we hear Kiarostami fumbling with and opening a door, there is the sound of thunder. As the rumbling builds the other sounds slowly drop away and the screen, which has been entirely dark (or close to it) for some eight minutes, is lit by a series of flashes of lightning – flashes lighting the silhouette of a tree. The sound of rain builds along with thunder cracks as the flashes continue. Then we are surprised again: this time by a dissolve to daylight, and the tree – accompanied by birdsong – now appears fully illuminated. The whole sequence is beguiling and powerful, and not just for the various ways in which it mimics the final video sequence from Taste of Cherry. Coming as it does in the middle of the film – and so shortly after the hospital scene – it signals quite definitively that Kiarostami’s interest is not exclusively with the facts of the matter surrounding the plight of Ugandan orphans, but with something more ambiguous. As Olivier Joyard remarks, it is clear at this stage that “the deal with [IFAD] is off.” (11)

The effect of the appearance of the daylight is poetic. In that sense the movie, by refusing to accede to our expectations, and by continuously presenting events peripheral to its supposed subject matter, hits on something that is not reducible to knowledge and the facts of which it consists. This is not to say that Kiarostami ignores the unbearable facts of life for Ugandan orphans, because he does present them – rather it is to say that he never suggests or implies that they are what he really wants to show (even if they are essential to it). The minutes of darkness at the core of the film are connected to this: I take them as a kind of acknowledgment that there is non-knowledge at its heart. Kiaorstami mobilises something irreducible to the world of facts, something that arrives at us obliquely. It is not as simple as a heightening of our awareness of artifice, though that is part of the procedure. When the body is wrapped, and when the dark dissolves to light, the moments arrive emphatically – if I am distanced from them thanks to Kiarostami’s reflexive techniques, my response is not thereby dampened, but deepened and complicated. Elena writes that, in ABC Africa, “[f]ar from trying to conceal his active role in shooting the film, Kiarostami demonstrates his interference with the real situation around him as soon as he possibly can…” (12) While he is undoubtedly right to emphasise Kiarostami’s rejection of the aesthetics of mainstream documentary, I want to disagree with the ontological structure that has nevertheless been presupposed here: that there exists an external and objective realm of facts, and which the documentary filmmaker necessarily disturbs with his presence. Part of what is fascinating about this movie is how it refuses the philosophical pictures that might allow us to frame things in this way. It is not particularly interested in staging a confrontation between realist and anti-realist accounts of documentary evidence; it does not make us side either with the claim that objectivity is attainable if the filmmaker truly sticks to the facts, or with the claim that the act of filming always introduces an angle on the facts, a partiality attributable to documentarian’s own personal (socially and culturally conditioned) ‘perspective.’ Kiarostami’s cinema is not about the irremovable stain of subjectivity, some idea that by filming the world, we are fatally altering a pristine or virginal set-up. Rather, the presence of the filmmaker is itself part of the world that Kiarostami wants to record. In a sense, his is a recording of recording: a recording of the very fact that the world, and the human beings in it, appear. To make appearance itself appear: this is the poetic task of Kiarostami’s cinema.


This requires a deconstruction of the opposition between fact and value (an opposition which goes to the heart of the theoretical difficulties facing documentary theory). Kiarostami’s cinema does not turn on the problem of how to present the facts in the face of ‘information overload’ or so-called ‘compassion fatigue,’ of how rhetorics of image and sound can be utilised in order to give those facts emotive purchase on the viewer. Indeed such a model seems to presuppose something that Kiarostami never assumes: that the viewer, whose sensibilities have been deadened, needs to be prodded and provoked into ethical affectivity. The problem with that model is not so much with the claim that our emotional responsiveness can (and has) been mortified, but with the aesthetico-ethical programs that stem from making that problem central: programs in which the filmmaker’s task is to startle the viewer into responding (as in a certain avant-garde cinema, but also now in the aesthetics of shock sometimes employed in government campaigns), or to manipulate him, say by attempting to present systemic socio-political problems as moral games of good versus evil. These programs share a commitment to the idea that the facts on their own are not enough, and need to be presented in such a way as to give them weight and punch. Half the problem with such attempts at re-sensitisation, of course, is that they are desensitising: perhaps the viewer’s deadness can be temporarily overcome with shocks or spectacular manipulations, but eventually she will recoil again, becoming deader still (rather like the snail in Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, and which provides, for them, “[t]he true symbol of intelligence.” (13) The other half is with the crude type of moral non-cognitivism implicit in that set-up: a non-cognitivism which takes ethical life to consist in emotional responses to – but which do not provide any rational grounding for making moral judgments regarding – the facts of which the world consists.

Wittgenstein hit on this with clarity in his 1929 lecture on ethics. Here he proposed a thought experiment: imagine an omniscient person – someone who knows every fact about the world since the beginning of time – decided to write a big book containing all his knowledge. Such a book would be perfectly encyclopedic; it “would contain the whole description of the world.” (14) Yet such a book, Wittgenstein argued, “would contain nothing that we would call an ethical judgment or anything that would logically imply such a judgment.” (15) It would seem there is no logical difference between a proposition like ‘she saw him’ and one like ‘she murdered him,’ no logical difference between ‘the stone fell’ and ‘the stone fell, killing a child.’ In the world there are simply events, and the moral distinctions we make between them are projections – or so the experiment seems to show. But it is not right to say that Wittgenstein rejected ethics or the possibility of a moral life; rather, he appears to have thought that the ethical has a different relation to the facts than many philosophers are in the habit of thinking. As such, this does not have to collapse into Mackie’s error theory (16) or the kind of non-cognitivism espoused by the logical positivists; (17) nor does it force us into the claim that the facts need to be made sensational or spectacular (the spectacle, after all, is essentially a regime of representation). (18) If a complete description of all the facts that make up the world would contain nothing of genuine ethical significance, then either our ethical life is based on arbitrary emotional responses to what occurs, or it is bound up with something other than the facts of the matter at hand, something other than factual content. It is important that when in this lecture Wittgenstein goes on to (try to) talk about what he calls “absolute or ethical value,” (19) he describes the experience of it in terms of a feeling of wonder at the existence of the world. This is what Kiarostami’s cinema – with its poetry – attunes us to. For the fact that the world appears to us is no fact in the world: it is not the kind of thing we can know; it is subtracted from the world of knowledge. If there is ‘absolute truth’ in Kiarostami’s movie, this is where I would locate it (though if this truth is absolute, it is also mundane). Making appearance appear means: getting this truth on screen, on and as the faces that it screens.


Now we have a way of understanding the closing images of the film, in which the ghostlike faces of Ugandan children are superimposed onto the clouds we see from the window of the plane taking Kiarostami and his companions out of the country. These images will seem contrived and sentimental at best if we interpret them in terms of the moral plight of the individual children whose faces turn up: in disconnecting these children from their particular circumstances, such that each appears for a moment only to dissolve into another, the sequence will seem to be melting them into an amorphous mass, calling out for only the vaguest and most self-congratulatory moral feeling from the viewer. But they do not have to be understood in this way. I would argue instead that the appeal of the face for Kiarostami comes from something very different; that what, for him, the face reveals, is human appearance itself: the face as apparition. In his essay on the face, Giorgio Agamben writes:

What the face exposes and reveals is not something that could be formulated as a signifying proposition of sorts, nor is it a secret doomed to remain forever incommunicable… Such a revelation… does not have any real content and does not tell the truth about this or that state of being, about this or that aspect of human beings and of the world: it is only opening, only communicability. (20)

Kiarostami’s interest in faces really is an interest in faces: it is not about what they signify or mean (say ‘suffering’ or ‘the persistence of the human spirit’), but about their appearance as such; it is not about what the face expresses, but the fact that it does express. Thus the kind of ethico-political affectivity that he tracks throughout ABC Africa does not necessarily arise out of recognition of the hardship undergone by another, from coming to understand that experience, or grasp its meaning and significance. Rather, it arises out of recognition that the faces on screen are, before anything else, communicating “pure communicability,” the commonly shared “communicative nature of human beings.” (21) It would be wrong, then, to name this affect empathy – which is what distinguishes Kiarostami’s imagery of faces from the images of destitute Africans one sees, for example, in television commercials for various international charities. It is something closer to solidarity.

If with its roughness and idiosyncrasy ABC Africa must remain something of a minor film in Kiarostami’s oeuvre, it is also one of his most aesthetically (and perhaps politically) radical. Its philosophical interest consists in how it points to a way out of the dialectics of objectivity and subjectivity, realism and anti-realism, certainty and scepticism, and thus in how it asks us to rethink the basic problems of film and documentary evidence. To say that the filmmaker is part of the world that he records is not to say that he has no way of truly ‘accessing’ that world, of presenting it as it really is ‘in itself’ – nor is it to say that he has a way. It is to try to undo the philosophical attachments and metaphorical confusions that see us posing the problem in these terms in the first place. That Kiarostami can show this with the medium of cinema should itself show us something about its philosophical tendencies and potentials.

This article has been peer reviewed.


  1. He goes on: “Directing was spontaneously and unconsciously eliminated. By which I mean artificial and conventional directing… In this way the camera eliminates the artifice so implanted in the industry. It gives you the possibility of expanding the dimensions of cinema, and getting rid of the clichés, traditions, enclosed forms, and pretentious aesthetics. This camera gives the filmmaker an opportunity for experimenting without fear of losing the essential.”
  2. And not only in ‘naïve’ or pre-theoretical models, but also – though of course with more complication – in the field of documentary theory, including for instance the classic work by Bill Nichols which makes a sophisticated case for the claim that “the separation between an image and what it refers to continues to be a difference that makes a difference”. See Bill Nichols, Representing Reality. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. 7
  3. For an excellent collection that deals with these (and other) problems and ideas, see Michael Renov (ed.). Theorizing Documentary. New York: Routledge, 1993, particularly contributions by Winston, 37 – 57 and Trinh, 90 – 107
  4. See Bert Cardullo, In Search of Cinema: Writings on International Film Art. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press. 2004. 52-60; Alberto Elena, The Cinema of Abbas Kiarostami. Trans. Belinda Coombes. London: SAQI. 2005. 170-71; Christopher Gow, From Iran to Hollywood: Reframing Post-Revolutionary Iranian Cinema. London: I. B. Tauris. 2011. 18-39; Scott Krzych, “Auto-Motivations: Digital Cinema and Kiarostami’s Relational Aesthetics.” The Velvet Light Trap 66 (2010): 26-35; Laura Mulvey, “Kiarostami’s Uncertainty Principle.” Sight and Sound 8.6 (1998): 24-7; Jonathan Rosenbaum and Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa, Abbas Kiarostami. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2003. 37-40
  5. Nichols, 56-58
  6. Ibid., 57
  7. Translated by Walter Kaufmann as “[w]hatever is profound loves masks.”  Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil. Trans. Walter Kaufmann in Basic Writings of Nietzsche. New York: Modern Library. 2000. 240.
  8. For definitions of these styles, see Nichols, 32 – 75
  9. Elena, 169
  10. Rosenbaum, 39
  11. Quoted in Elena, 170
  12. Elena, 171
  13. Adorno, Theodor and Horkheimer, Max. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Trans. Edmund Jephcott.   Stanford: Stanford University Press. 2002. 256-7
  14. Wittgenstein, Ludwig. “Ethics, Life and Faith,” in The Wittgenstein Reader (ed. A. Kenny (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. 2006. 252
  15. Ibid., 253
  16. Mackie, J. M. Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. London: Penguin. 1990.
  17. See for instance A. J. Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic. New York: Dover. 1952. 106-7
  18. Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle. Trans. Ken Knabb. New York: Zone Books. 1995. 12
  19. Wittgenstein, 254
  20. Agamben, Giorgio. “The Face,” trans. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino in Means Without End. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2000. 92
  21. Agamben, 96