We Are All The Same: Abbas Kiarostami Interview

Dustin Chang, Contributing Writer
In my short career as a film journalist/blogger, I have been lucky enough to interview some of my idols over the years -- Claire Denis, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Michael Haneke and John Sayles among them. But no one (not even Haneke!) made me as nervous as I was when I sat down for a round table interview with the master Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami at last year's New York Film Festival. What could you possibly ask an artist who is infinitely wiser than you (not that others aren't), whose films leave you with awe and admiration, who seems to have figured out what life is about?

Having spent all day answering questions, Kiarostami looked tired behind those dark glasses (he has light sensitivity issues). And, unfortunately, our group occupied the last slot of the press day, so the interview felt very short and unsatisfying. I didn't get to ask any of the questions about restrictions and censorship put on his filmmaking. Looking back, without any nervousness I felt that day, listening to his calm voice again as I write this, I am now able to appreciate his warmth and generosity and his sense of humor a lot more than the first time.


Twitch: I ask you this because you directed FIVE: DEDICATED TO OZU and seem to have great admiration for Japanese culture. What kind of conversation did you have within yourself before making LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE?

Abbas Kiarostami: I am certain that my fascination with Japan has been with me forever, even before I got to go to Japan. Even my very first attempt at any kind of artistic expression, which were poems that I wrote when I was 20 years old, resemble haiku. I had no idea at the time, but I wrote poems that are very like haikus. And in my photography work, there are some kind of common forms found in traditional Japanese paintings. There is some sort of resonance in my practice and Japanese art. So there has always been real interests before my first visit there which was confirmed whenever I went back thereafter. I've been visiting Japan periodically over 20 years now.

Filmmaking for me is quite contradictory. It happened to all my films: whenever I feel attracted to a project there is this necessary heaviness -- the pre-production period is always longer than it should be. So I get bored and restless until things get ready. Deep down, I always wish something would happen to cancel it all. The more I am excited about a project, [the more] I want it be stopped by some kind of unforeseen event. The only exception was the production of Close-Up. Because it was the only film that didn't take long to prepare it. I came up with the idea the day before I started to shoot it, so I didn't have time to get bored. This double state of mind also happened in this Japanese project. I was very much looking forward to it except that I found its pre-production idling as it's always been as with others.

Did the tsunami affect the production of the film at all?

That tsunami was the exact unforeseen event I was telling you about! It was a sign for me because I couldn't find actors, even though the pre-production had started. I thought the project was not meant to be and I thought I would give it up.

This old close friend of mine, a Japanese woman who has been an assistant to a director for a long time (Nogami Teruyo, a long time assistant to Kurosawa Akira). She's always asked me why, what was it that I love so much about Japan and the Japanese people. She told me that just after the tsunami, she was a part of these people in Shibuya sitting on the floor and just seeing what was going on without any reaction or fear or despair. "I wish you would've been with us to see how Japanese people react to a catastrophe,"  she said. And love and admiration she had for her co-citizens, she was seeing them through my eyes.

There is a certain universality in your films that anyone can relate to whether they take place in Tehran, Tokyo or Florence. How did you cultivate that universality?

I think it's a lifetime practice, or habit or way of seeing things. I remember for a long time as a young man I wouldn't take what I see on TV for granted. I would never accept generalizing 'that's how Americans are,' or 'that's how Japanese are.' I was always much more interested in individuals rather than a culture or a country in general sense. This collective judgment or agreement on certain culture has always annoyed me. I deeply believe, excluding ideological positions, that we are the same. In details we can have our differences but in the main aspects of our lives -- our sufferings, joy and pain -- no matter if we are Japanese, American or Iranian, we are the same human beings. So if you have this as the principle of life and relationship, then it shows in your work.

The title of this film LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE, sung by Ella Fitzgerald, is an American jazz standard. Considering the poetic nature of many of your films' titles -- TASTE OF CHERRY, WIND WILL CARRY US -- why did you choose this particular one? And are you a fan of jazz music?

I would say it's more of a generational thing. Jazz was a worldwide phenomenon when I was growing up. It would play on the radio and the LP came along and jazz came with it. So when it came to music for the film, I asked Mr. Okuno (Okuno Tadash, who plays professor in the film), what his character would listen to; even though he is ten years older than me, he said jazz because that's what he grew up listening to.

I think in Iran, the era of modernity was accompanied by this music. So the music came and the lyrics were translated and there are many singers who'd imitate jazz music. So I think of jazz as not the music that was born somewhere between America and Africa but as something that is shared universally in a certain generation. So for me the title is not a cultural reference, but came from a nostalgia for a certain era.

I was struck by the presence of many cell phones/telephones in LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE. We are living in a society where we depend on those almost exclusively as a means of communication. How do you feel about that?

There is not much I can do. Things come into our lives and become part of our everyday living. People's lives in my stories also rely on those devices and there is no escaping it.

I never had a mobile phone myself and never imagined having one until the day I was given one. That day I had left home and in the middle of the traffic, I realized that I forgot the mobile phone at home, so I had to drive back to get it. Then suddenly I realized that it's less helpful and more of a constraint, a restriction. Now it's part of everyone's lives: they visit me and they leave their phones at my house and there is a knock on the door....(everyone laughs)

The professor even says in the film that he doesn't have a mobile phone. He only has his telephone with an answering machine and complains that he has to check stupid messages other people leave for him. That's my sentiment too.

There is obviously a progression in your filmmaking over the years. So what's different now than when you first started making films?

Well, if there were any changes in my method, it should be reflected in my films. I think best way anyone put it comes from my friend Nogami Teruyo who told me a story. She hesitantly told me the reaction of Kurosawa when he saw my first (feature) film, The Traveler. She said, "I don't know if I should tell you this because I don't know if you will take it as a compliment or an insult." I said, " No, tell me. Tell me." It happened that he (Kurosawa) had seen my other films but it was much later that he saw The Traveler. And apparently he said, "Oh that Kiarostami fellow, he hasn't progressed a bit!" (everyone laughs)

I don't think my concept has changed since the beginning. All I know is that I don't rely on my previous efforts. Every film I do, I start it from scratch. If there is a change or progression, it's there on the screen. I can't tell you much more than that.


His new film Like Someone in Love opens on February 15 in New York and Los Angeles with a national roll out to follow.

Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on the world can be found at www.dustinchang.com
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