Contemporary Film Directors: Abbas Kiarostami by Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa and Jonathan Rosenbaum

The unorthodox presentation of individual criticism by two admirers of Kiarostami’s cinema from different continents in the book Contemporary Film Directors: Abbas Kiarostami is a fascinating approach: the first, a more universal, Western ‘outsider’ perspective from the venerable American film critic Rosenbaum, then subsequently, a more culturally rooted, ‘insider’ perspective from contemporary Iranian filmmaker Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa. Saeed-Vafa and Rosenbaum then review each other’s critical essays and continue their appraisal of Kiarostami’s oeuvre through a transcripted dialogue between the two authors. What emerges from the interaction is an insightful analysis of Kiarostami’s cinema as a distinctively native view of modern-day Iran, but also as a universal, cross-cultural representation of contemporary society.

Rosenbaum provides an impassioned and compelling defense for the thematic purpose and essentiality of the often maligned, jarring, and controversial video epilogue that concludes A Taste of Cherry. Rosenbaum proposes:

Though it invites us into the laboratory from which the film sprang and places us on an equal footing with the filmmaker, it does this in the spirit of collective euphoria, suddenly liberating us from the oppressive solitude of Badii alone in his grave. By harking back to the soldiers who remind us of the happiest part of Badii’s life and a tree in full bloom that reminds us of the Turkish taxidermist’s own epiphany – though soldiers also signify the wars that made refugees of both the Kurdish soldier and the Afghan seminarian and a tree is almost where the Turk almost hanged himself – Kiarostami is representing life in all its complexity. He reconfigures elements from the preceding eighty-odd minutes in video to clarify what in their ingredients is real and what’s concocted.

During the discussion of Close-Up, Rosenbaum underscores the social implications of the Makhmalbaf impersonator Sabzian’s Turkish nationality – an ethnic minority in Iran – as a culturally significant situational subtlety that is often overlooked in the analysis of the film. Rosenbaum compares the film to the John Guare play, Six Degrees of Separation that, like Close-Up, is based on the real-life deception by a socially marginalized man named Paul, gaining admission into New York society by claiming to be the son of actor Sidney Poitier. Citing similarities in the characters’ mutual status as social minorities who feign association with the film industry, the author illustrates the universality of public perception towards the achievement of celebrity as a means of attaining power, privilege, and respect. Saeed-Vafa further expounds on the appropriateness of having self-taught filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf as the subject of the impersonation, commenting that his popular appeal in Iran is as much for his films as it is for the idea of social mobility that he represents: a poor and undereducated man who has achieved success through filmmaking. Saeed-Vafa explains:

When I was a teenager, everyone was a poet, but now everyone is a filmmaker, especially after the Revolution. Seeing that [Close-Up] for the first time, so many [Iranian] filmmakers were not educated in film – and many were not educated, period. But becoming a filmmaker or artist originally conferred a status that was only reserved for the privilege or the educated and then, all of a sudden, it became something noneducated people could achieve, if they worked hard to get there.

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