Legendary filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami tells Time Out about the burden of narratives
Abbas Kiarostami tells a tall tale. When we met with him at Meem gallery, just as the latest in the Iranian filmmaker’s string of photography shows opened, he tried to tell us that crows can live up to 140 years.
We wanted to believe him. His huge catalogue of movies, such as Taste Of Cherry and Ten, has earned the director awards from Cannes and critics have called Kiarostami the most important filmmaker of the ’90s. But he’s adamant about the crows: ‘They are older than the trees,’ he says from behind his staple dark-tinted glasses. ‘After turtles, they are the longest living creatures.’
Despite finding no validation for this wily claim, we are quite taken with Kiarostami’s perception of these birds. He tells us that after repeatedly trying to photograph them for years, he was starting to get a complex about the crow. ‘Whenever I would take out my camera they would fly away,’ he explains. ‘In Iran there are a lot of stories about crows and they are usually negative. I think it is the crow’s fault because they haven’t given us the opportunity to know them. When you don’t know someone, you develop negative thoughts about them.’
Trees And Crows is the most recent exhibition of Kiarostami’s photography. Since first heading out with his trusty Leika camera in the ’70s, he has assembled vast archives of images which he’s been exhibiting for the past 10 years. Some collections, like Road, which was shown in Dubai late last year, are bleak and lonely. They capture a rootless vision of Iran’s highways – isolated trees and the occasional figure, are glimpsed through a rain-speckled windscreen. But Trees And Crows is quite different: we see long shadows that skate across green fields. Shot in the grounds of the Niavaran Palace in northern Tehran, the images capture something pure yet visually boisterous, a simple joy in colour. The serenity of each landscape is complicated only by one or two crows that hop, march or gaze longingly across each scene.
But we say ‘scene’ carefully. Kiarostami tells us that photography offers relief from ‘the burden of narration’ – and any story we might find in his pictures is incidental. ‘They only seem to have a narrative,’ he says. ‘Like the one that shows a crow with a mouthful of fruit, or the one where a crow is looking between the trees and appears to be checking something out, as if his partner is doing something through the trees. I don’t think these narratives are so significant, though. What’s significant is the grandeur of the trees and their juxtaposition with the crows. There is a sense of history and time about them.’
What then is Kiarostami aiming for? We are told that, when he sets out with his camera, he just snaps and snaps. So he must have selected these photographs carefully to find images that in some way tell a story, however vague that might be. ‘When a viewer sees a photograph, if it doesn’t have some narrative for them, they will pass it by,’ he says when we ask if he planned any of the apparent narratives that surface in these shots. ‘It’s not explainable but if it lights something up, connects to other references in your mind, it will sparkle.’
Perhaps the filmmaker in Kiarostami can’t let go. He must, in some way, arrange – order, compose and present a tableau. That in itself is more interesting than these shots – the idea that, despite all his intentions, the director can never stop directing.
‘Day by day I try to diminish the role of narrative in my movies,’ he says, perhaps in reference to last year’s Shirin, a movie that goes, face by face, through a theatre – dwelling on some viewers as they watch a production of a Persian poem. The play is out of sight, so we only know what’s happening from the reactions of the audience.
He talks about the constraints of a concrete narrative, and how the longevity of a work of art is measured only by its resistance to that concreteness of storytelling. He tells us a haiku that captures his views on narrative: ‘The one who I admire, I do not count as a friend.’ He looks quizzically over his glasses. ‘It means, I say this woman is tall, I like her skin. But I don’t love her, while another one is ugly, rude and bitter. There are so many negatives about this woman, but I love her. It’s unexplainable. That is the difference between abstract and concrete art. In a concrete narrative, I just applaud and it doesn’t have a connection to me. I am recounting a dead story. But the abstract, the one we can’t explain our love for. That is the objective of art. It does something to you and you don’t have an explanation for it.’ MeemGallery (04 347 7883). Until April 10