Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

In April 2000, Abbas Kiarostami received the Akira Kurosawa Lifetime Achievement Award at the San Francisco Film Festival. While in the United States, Kiarostami visited New York City, where the Andrea Rosen Gallery mounted the first US exhibition of Kiarostami’s photographs. The photographs, which were shown in a stark white loft space, appeared without titles, dates or labels. Anthony Shadid and Shiva Balaghi spoke with Kiarostami about his art photography.

A battered SUV rumbles across a country road, winding through wheat fields. We hear a conversation between the passengers, who are trying to decipher the vague driving directions they’ve been given for finding a small village tucked in the hillside. They are to take a turn just beyond the solitary tree. As they drive along, they pass a majestic free-standing tree, its branches sprawled against a crisp cloudless sky. Moments later, they pass another solitary tree — and then another and another. Which of these trees marks the spot, they wonder? So begins Abbas Kiarostami’s latest film, The Wind Will Carry Us (1999). Perhaps more than any other, this Kiarostami film treats the Iranian countryside as a character and not a placid backdrop. The landscapes — the contrasting colors of earth and sky, the stalks of wheat delicately moving to the breeze, the trees dotting the hillside — appear in characteristically long, uncut wide shots.

The title of the film is taken from the poetry of Forugh Farrokhzad and in a pivotal scene of the film, Forugh’s poem is recited. A leading feminist poet who rose to prominence in the 1960s, Forugh drew on nature to construct strikingly visual metaphors describing the complexities of her quest for independence as a woman writer in Iran. At times, she depicted herself in her poetry as enclosed and detached, watching the world through the frame of a window. Yet Forugh’s most evocative statement of intellectual and personal growth came in a verse where she exclaimed that she would plant her hands in the garden and grow. In Forugh’s writings, nature and the garden, common tropes in classical Persian poetry, came to represent the elemental quality of gender politics, the unnaturalness of restrictions on women’s lives. Kiarostami draws on and extends Forugh’s interpretation of nature in both his film and photographs.

The photographs exhibited in Manhattan in spring 2000 echo scenes from The Wind Will Carry Us. Though they are not film stills or location shots, Kiarostami said there is little difference between his filmmaking and photography. In the end, he sees their qualities merging.

“The nature that is in the location of my films can be seen in my photography, and I want my films to become closer to my photography and more distant from storytelling,” he said. “It is true that these are completely separate milieus, but in my opinion, the ideal situation for me is for these two areas — photography and cinema — to become closer to one another.”

Long before he began his career as a filmmaker, Kiarostami trained as a painter at the School of Fine Arts at Tehran University. He went on to work as a graphic artist and as a commercial director. In 1969, one of his commercials caught the eye of Firuz Shirvanlu, the director of the Center for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults. Kiarostami was asked to establish a film division at the center. In 1970, he produced his first film, a short entitled Bread and Alley. [1] Since then, Kiarostami has directed nearly 30 films and has come to the attention of some of the leading figures of world cinema. [2] Akira Kurosawa has said, “When Satyajit Ray passed on, I was very depressed. But after seeing Kiarostami’s films, I thanked God for giving us just the right person to take his place.” [3]

In his films, Kiarostami has explored the relationship between fiction and reality, the subjectivity of truth as framed by the camera’s lens. Resisting a comfortable narrative, Kiarostami challenges the viewer to engage with his films, rather than to view them passively. Photography, which he took up during the revolution at a time that he doubted his future as a filmmaker, offers him another way to interact with his audience; they are called on to actively participate in the generation of meaning in Kiarostami’s art. [4]

“I prefer the gaze of a viewer in front of a photograph to the kind of gaze that an audience of my films has in a theater,” Kiarostami said. “The expectation of a viewer in the theater is to look for the continuities and changes in a story. He has grown accustomed to sitting in a theater and listening to a story. But in a gallery, I have seen that the viewers look at each single photograph, their gaze is more focused on the photograph, because they do not expect to hear a story.”

Like his films, his photographs are presented without expected guideposts that explain their significance. There are no labels, no titles, no dates. It is left to the viewer to lend them a particular meaning. Though it may appear that his lens reveals an unchanging and placid nature, Kiarostami’s photographs, in fact, seem to reveal a deeply political use of the landscape. “Photographs of nature are universal,” he said. “A tree has no ethnicity, no birth certificate, no passport, no nationality, therefore what difference does it make where in the world this tree is? What is important is the similarity between all trees, the similarity between all skies, the similarity between all landscapes. Nature has no specific culture. I am emphasizing this lack of ethnicity of nature. Therefore I do not want to mark the specific time and place of my photographs.”

Some themes emerge in his photographs — the solitary tree, for instance. Kiarostami acknowledges the pattern, but assigns a random, incidental quality to it. “I did not know that there would be a theme found in my photographs at a later stage,” he said. “I know that each solitary tree, if it had a particular purity, invited me to stop and take its photograph. I did not plan to have so many solitary trees in my photographs over the years. But each of these trees has its own purity, its own individuality. I may have passed by a tree time and again over the years and never photographed it; one day it may invite me to stop and take its picture. If there is a theme, it has developed over the years.”

By chronicling what he sees, Kiarostami said he views himself as a journalist, in a sense. His intervention, he said, is crucial to capture a moment in time. “A photojournalist covers the news from the scene of war, and I, with nature, cover the news of the scene of peace. I don’t think there is a fundamental difference; it is a difference in the selection of a subject. For a photo-journalist, a moment is important — the moment for taking a photograph. For a photographer of nature, this particular moment is also important. Without those moments, no image is worth recording. There is only one moment in which a photograph can be taken.”

Since the 1980s, when his films were first shown outside of Iran, Kiarostami has achieved a growing reputation as a filmmaker in the West. When asked if he sees a difference in his role as an artist within Iran as opposed to an artist producing for a Western audience, Kiarostami offers an emphatic response that signals the clearly political quality of the universality in his nature photographs. “No, in a sense, this is a question that has its answer in it. You ask me this question but know my answer. In my mind a human being has a universal quality. If there has been a division of humanity into smaller groups, it is because of economic and political condi- tions. And the framework of cultural conditions that exist are influenced by economics and politics. But mankind must be a universal being. It is my ambition that each person see themselves as a human being first and not as an ethnicity. These classifications occurred later, in my opinion. A person is not born with a birth certificate, with a passport. When you speak about a human being, and not about his culture or his nationality or his politics, naturally, you can communicate with all of the people of the world. And for this reason, each person who speaks at a profound level of humanity can be understood by anyone. Without nationality, language, tribalism and culture, all people are the same.”

Authors’ Note: The authors would like to thank Abbas Kiarostami, Jamsheed Akrami and Andrea Rosen.

Endnotes

[1] For more on the history of the Center’s activities, see Saeed Sharifi, “The Center for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults, 1965-1996,” Goftego (Spring 1998). Translated into English at www.netiran.com.
[2] For a complete filmography, consult www.imdb.com.
[3] From the official website for the film Taste of Cherry, www.zeitgeistfilm.com/current/tasteofcherry/ kiarostami.html. Kiarostami won numerous prestigious awards, including the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1997 for Taste of Cherry. The same year, he received the UNESCO Fellini Medal in Gold for his achievements in film, freedom, peace and tolerance.
[4] Casey Williamson, “Art Matters: The Films of Abbas Kiarostami,” in Rose Issa and Sheila Whitaker, eds., Life and Art:The New Iranian Cinema (London: Visiting Arts, 1999).

How to cite this article:

Anthony Shadid, Shiva Balaghi "Nature Has No Culture," Middle East Report 219 (Summer 2001).
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