With minimal dialogue, non-professional actors, and practically no written script, Abbas Kiarostami plots an innocent world where modest characters live complex, layered lives. While Kiarostomi mixes documentary and fiction fluently, he admits his failure in revealing the “truth” through cinema. But this search takes him from one film to another. Born and based in Teheran, Iran, Kiarostami started making films in the early 1970s, when he founded the film department of the Centre for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults. While his work transcends the specificity of locale, his latest film Through the Olive Trees is the result of an emotional attachment to Koker, the rural part of Iran where he shot two of his earlier films, Where is the Friend’s House? (1987) and Life Goes On (1989). An intricate puzzle of narratives unfolding within one another, each film reveals what was faked in the previous one, but also fabricates a new lie. Life Goes On revisits the area of Friend’s House, and shows that its characters have their own life outside the film they are creating. Through the Olive Trees is, in turn, about how Life Goes On was made. In Olive Trees, Kiarostami shows a scene being shot from Life Goes On in which Hossein and Tahereh, who play a married couple, argue off camera. After the scene has been shot, Hossein returns to his role as the film’s production assistant and makes tea for the crew. A continuous shot follows his tea tray around the set and then finally up a staircase where he places a flower next to the last glass of tea for Tahereh. She responds with negative silence. As often happens in the cinema of Abbas Kiarostami, the real drama was taking place after the cameras stopped rolling. Or was it?
Akram Zaatari I would like to know more about your idea of the film and the lie. Let’s start with Close-up in which a man fabricates a lie out of his passion for cinema and hence makes his own film. One of the powerful points of Close-up for me was the fact that it merges film and life. Through the Olive Trees, on the other hand, presents itself clearly as the making of a film. What’s different in the second approach?
Abbas Kiarostami Our work starts with a lie on a daily-routine basis. When you make a film you bring elements from other places, other environments, and you gather them together in a unity that really doesn’t exist. You’re faking that unity. You call someone a husband or a son. My own son was critical of me because in the second film, Life Goes On, I hint that these two people are married, and that’s what I lead the audience to believe at the end of that film. In Through the Olive Trees, I come up with the idea that they are not really married, and it’s just the boy who is really fascinated by the girl. In my next film, I’m going to show another layer of truth in that actually the boy is not really that crazy about the girl. So, my son is critical that I keep lying to people, that I keep changing. In the next film it’s really the girl who loves the boy. My son concluded that perhaps if we analyze different aspects of the lie, then we can arrive at the truth. In cinema anything that can happen would be true. It doesn’t have to correspond to a reality, it doesn’t have to “really” be happening. In cinema, by fabricating lies we may never reach the fundamental truth, but we will always be on our way to it. We can never get close to the truth except through lying.
AZ You’re now working on a fourth addition to what was to be a trilogy. The idea of a film that develops into another film can go on indefinitely. Where are you reaching with this? Is it merely a motivation to make another film?
AK As long as this series is fresh and has energy, I’ll go with it until I’m exhausted. I have had other scripts I have made a commitment to making, but when I finish a film, I still have emotional attachments to elements of that film. So it becomes an edge on my part, to go back to the same story and make another film so I can get it out of my system. When I made the first movie in that trilogy, Where Is the Friend’s House?, I never felt the certainty and intimacy that I feel now about that particular environment. Back then it presented a new environment, new people, fresh subject matter . . . but it didn’t have the same energy. Now I feel I am much more deeply involved with the actors of this film.
AZ How did you connect to the narrative of Through the Olive Trees?
AK There was a four-minute scene in Life Goes On in which the main character, Hossein, is attracted to Tahereh, the same girl in Through the Olive Trees. It was interesting to me that the girl wasn’t reacting to him because I was under the impression that in a village community there would be more equality in terms of relationships. You wouldn’t see the kind of choices people make in urban environments. But she says, “You’re not good enough for me.” It was interesting that something like that existed in a village environment.
AZ How did the narrative evolve from that point? I read that you started with a 15-page treatment. What changed between the treatment and the film?
AK I really wanted to avoid having a film-within-the-film structure but I just couldn’t come up with anything else. So, I followed the 15-page treatment I had put together, and that was the basis of the film. I wrote those 15 pages as an encouragement to the cast and crew so they could base their work on something. But as far as I’m concerned, I’d be fine with only five pages of material. That provides enough of a narrative foundation. If you write something well in advance, you develop a fixation and a sense of commitment to it that might restrict your freedom in terms of improvising or coming up with new ideas. I like to save that kind of freedom for when I shoot the film. When you write a script and think it should be turned into a film word by word, then what is the motivation to go out and turn it into a film?
AZ You’ve said that you wrote the dialogue of Olive Trees, but in fact it belongs to the non-actors and actors in your film. Can you elaborate on that?
AK I give them the general subject matter the night before. And I start communicating with them so they can really clear out their minds from any previous exposure to a script. This way they come to the set with a fresh mind. The following day, rehearsing before the shoot, I work on it with them from an entirely different angle. Then, the moment before starting to shoot, I play this trick on them. I say, “Forget about what we just discussed, let’s go back to what we discussed last night.” The advantage of this technique is that the actors are unable to use memorized words. They know what the idea is, but they have to make up new ways of putting a sentence together. And doing that, they have the same anxieties you would have. So, I simply remind them of a general subject while we’re shooting. It’s like a computer: you want them to be blank-minded so you program them, then get immediate feedback.
AZ Both Hossein in Through the Olive Trees and Sabzian in Close-up are men who are unsuccessful in their lives. Hossein would like to marry Tahereh, but she refuses him because he doesn’t own a house. Sabzian has lost his job and his wife. However, they are both able to realize their dreams through faking reality: Hossein plays the husband of Tahereh in the film shown being made in Olive Trees. Sabzian fabricates a lie and lives for a while the way he would like to live, as a director. Your male characters are very modest, except for the filmmaker characters, who operate on a different level and seem able to solve everyone’s problems. I would like to know more about the role you attribute to the filmmaker in society.
AK I can see why you might have misunderstood me in terms of the power I give to the director. In both films, the directors are really the background characters. The real figures come to exist within that background. So the background is just a vehicle. I use the director characters to bring the other characters to the forefront. A director character needs to show some strength and power, some control of the environment. It’s only natural that they would be perceived as stronger characters.
AZ In Olive Trees, there are three strong women characters: Tahereh, who refuses to marry Hossein; her stubborn grandmother; and Mrs. Shiva, the assistant director. But these characters, like women characters in your other films, remain opaque and unexplored. Is this deliberate?
AK Traditionally, in Iranian films, the female characters are portrayed in two categories: as mothers or as mistresses. And in neither of these categories are characters I’d like to use. They lack human dimension. Many Western films suffer from the same shortcomings. Women are treated like cosmetic characters, just to boost box office sales. There are two other types of women characters in Iranian films. The first is the heroic type, which I can’t relate to because they’re too shrewd. The second is the victim, which again is a type I can’t relate to. Outside of these four categories there isn’t much left to deal with. There are exceptional women characters, but then I don’t make movies about exceptions. I would like to deal with normal women, and I don’t find too many of them. I would like to have that kind of woman character whose womanhood is not an issue, but I just can’t find them. There’s an Italian actor, Lando Bozanco, whose films are very popular in Iran. His characters are macho and naive at the same time. In Iranian films you have a lot of women who are like that male character. They are too concerned or too much aware of their womanhood, and are somewhat pretentious about it.
AZ And your male characters are the opposite of that.
AK They are just normal human beings. Their sexuality is not a question.
AZ You rely on your own experiences in your films, things that happen within the family or that you observe in society. What do you think outsiders to your culture wouldn’t understand in your films?
AK I normally go with the most commonplace experiences, so every type of audience can relate to them. Can you pinpoint something in particular that you think relates to me personally and would not be visible to other audiences?
AZ Is there any kind of humor, for example, that specific audiences would or would not react to?
AK The audiences have different expectations, and it wouldn’t be correct to categorize them by the regions they come from. There is a relationship with which I can’t interfere between the film and its audience. The movies and the way audiences react to them have to do with the audience’s minds, and it’s not something we can measure like somebody’s shoe size.
AZ Since you have worked so much with local communities in Iran, do you think you can work in some other society where you haven’t lived? Do you think you can come up with plots with the same power?
AK What is Iranian about Through the Olive Trees and Close-up? In Olive Trees, there is nothing terribly Iranian about the relationship between Hossein and Tahereh. The same is true about Sabzian and the way he relates to the family. It’s not really Iranian. I make my films about human beings and their universality. In that sense I don’t restrict myself to a certain area. We may be different in terms of the color of our skins, but we get the same toothaches.
AZ I think what speaks to the fact that your films do come from a very specific place is the way you examine the tension between tradition and modernity, between rurality and urbanity. The audience is made aware of the presence of new settlements next to a highway. We hear the noise of cars but never see them.
AK I’m only posing questions by showing those types of conflicts. I would never think of myself as someone who also comes up with some way of resolving them. In a scene in Olive Trees, a bunch of girls are dressed in black and later another bunch of children are dressed in bright colors. Compared to the earlier scene in the film where women are dressed in black, I treated the colorful scene with a lot more freedom to evoke an open environment. To me, that is the visual comment I’m making. I react with sorrow to any sort of change that would not be consistent with the freedom of people. When they chop down trees to construct buildings, I feel the same sadness.
AZ But isn’t that the way things have been going for a long time?
AK That’s why I mentioned earlier not to expect a solution or a judgement from me. I feel the same way about the idea of my grandmother’s death. I’m really sad, but there is nothing I can do about it. I don’t have the power to say, “No, I want to keep her forever.” But when she goes, there’s no way I would not be sad about it.
AZ Koker, the area you filmed, was depopulated by the earthquake. I see that as a big problem, but you seem to portray a very embellished image of the post-quake period in Koker. You called that film Life Goes On, as if the problems of the earthquake had been overcome, which is not the case.
AK I would agree with you that I do embellish. Life is alive and well and keeps on going. Life is stronger than death because life is still there. After I made the second film, somebody asked, “When do you think the normal life of these people will resume again?” And I said, “On the third day, when I saw them washing their carpets.” But I was mistaken when I talked further with the people. I realized they had stories going back to the time of the earthquake. There was a man who had fallen under a huge piece of metal, and the minute he started to get out from under it to save himself—as far as he’s concerned—that’s when life started again.
AZ In the beginning of this interview you mentioned something about your process of filmmaking being very open to change. From casting to editing, a film might transform into a different film. Can you comment more on what qualities this adds to the film? Could it be a film that is more open to interpretation, for example?
AK I wouldn’t know about people’s interpretations, but I find it extremely useful in terms of the way I work. It allows me to make those changes. During the film you have Hossein correct the director. He tells him that the girl doesn’t have to say Mr. Hossein—when she addresses him, that “Hossein” is enough. When you don’t have a prepared script and are allowing that kind of freedom you can have situations like that. Sometimes we go from Tehran to remote villages, and it would be a mistake for us to go there with preconceptions and the inability to change.
AZ I wanted to compliment you on the use of sound in your film. Relying on ambient sounds, you rarely use music as an emotional guide.
AK For some directors the significance of sound is more important than the visual. When we go out to shoot, sometimes people ask the crew where they’re going and they say, “We’re just going to record some sound, but we’re taking a cinematographer with us, just in case.” If you just concentrate on the visual, you would be dealing with only one side of the cube. Sometimes we put so much emphasis on our shot, it’s as if we’re telling the world, “Shut up, the picture is so important!” But if you look at you and me sitting here talking, there are all these noises around us. That’s an important part of reality.
Akram Zaatari is a filmmaker living in Beirut.