Godfrey Cheshire’s Conversations with Kiarostami

On Film / The Daily — Jul 22, 2019
Abbas Kiarostami

A vital companion to the major Abbas Kiarostami retrospective opening at the IFC Center in New York on Friday, Godfrey Cheshire’s Conversations with Kiarostami is a new collection of interviews conducted with the Iranian filmmaker, poet, and artist in the late 1990s. Cheshire, one of the earliest and most crucial champions of Iranian cinema in the English-speaking world, was first drawn to Kiarostami’s work in 1992, when Film Comment assigned him to cover a festival of postrevolutionary Iranian films. It was there and then, he notes in his introduction, that Close-up (1990) “struck me as one of the most extraordinary films I’d ever seen.” A few years later, Cheshire, having struck up a friendship with the director, began traveling to Iran and recording these conversations in which Kiarostami discusses each and every one of his films, from his first short, Bread and Alley (1970), through 1999’s The Wind Will Carry Us.

The book opens with a foreword by Kiarostami’s son, Ahmad, who notes appreciatively that “there is no trace of the usual ‘exotic’ approach in Godfrey’s view” of Iranian cinema. Cheshire, who has been writing award-winning film criticism since the late 1970s—he’s also the author of the essays that accompany our releases of Close-up, Taste of Cherry (1997), and Certified Copy (2010) as well as our forthcoming box set, The Koker Trilogy—then explains why he tends to divide Kiarostami’s oeuvre into three periods. The first, the Kanoon period, is named for the Center for the Intellectual Development for Children and Young Adults in Tehran, which produced all but a few of Kiarostami’s earliest films. Most of these have rarely been seen in States, if ever, and at the IFC Center on August 3, Cheshire will be discussing this period with a special focus on A Wedding Suit (1976), which he calls “a gem-like masterpiece that anticipates the accomplishments” of Kiarostami’s later work.

On August 4, Cheshire will be joined by film professor Jamsheed Akrami to talk about Case No. 1, Case No. 2 (1979). Shot in the immediate wake of the overthrow of the Shah, the film opens with a teacher sending seven boys from a classroom because none of them will tell on the one who’s disrupted the day’s lesson. The boys are to remain suspended until at least one of them breaks, and Kiarostami presents two outcomes, one in which the boys maintain their silence, and the other depicting one boy breaking it. Both outcomes are then discussed by school authorities, religious leaders, and the boys’ fathers, and in Conversations, Kiarostami tells Cheshire why these Q&A sessions had to be shot months later. “The day we went to the television station to conduct interviews, people stormed and occupied it,” he says. “We shot some interviews with one person who was later executed: the head of the TV station at the time of the Shah, called Jafarian. When the Revolution happened, the project stopped.”

Once it was eventually completed, Case No. 1, Case No. 2 won the top award at the first Children’s Film Festival to be staged after the Revolution—and shortly thereafter, it was banned. Kiarostami notes that “you can only make a film like this during a transition of power . . . If I was to make it again with the same people, the same film wouldn’t be made.”

For Cheshire, the second phase of Kiarostami’s filmmaking career, the Masterworks period, begins with the 1989 documentary Homework and extends through The Wind Will Carry Us. RogerEbert.com has posted an excerpt from Conversations in which Cheshire talks with Kiarostami about Where Is the Friend’s House? (1987), the first film to draw international attention to the director’s work. It’s also the first film in The Koker Trilogy, which Cheshire will be talking about at the IFC Center this coming Saturday. The trilogy takes its name from a village in northern Iran, where in the first film, a boy hopes to return a friend’s notebook. Three years later, Kiarostami returned to Koker to see if his actors had survived a devastating earthquake, and his fictionalized version of that journey became And Life Goes On (1992). Through the Olive Trees (1994) adds yet another meta-layer as it tells the somewhat true story of the previous film’s making.

For all the nontraditional narrative strategies of these films, Kiarostami’s third, Experimental period doesn’t begin until the 2001 documentary ABC Africa. This final phase includes such landmarks as Ten (2002), the film to which Kiarostami’s former assistant director, Jafar Panahi, paid homage with Taxi (2015), also filmed almost entirely inside a moving car; Shirin (2008), which focuses exclusively on the faces of women as they watch a film we never see; Certified Copy, Kiarostami’s first feature shot outside of Iran; the Tokyo-set Like Someone in Love (2012); and his final work, 24 Frames (2017), completed by Ahmad Kiarostami one year after his father’s passing.

None of the films from this period are addressed in Conversations, of course, but all of them have been more readily available than the films that are, the newly restored early projects that laid the groundwork for one of the most remarkable oeuvres in all of cinema. The retrospective runs in New York through August 15 and from August 2 through December 21 at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. If you’re on neither coast, while you wait for the retrospective to arrive in a city near you, why not listen to Cheshire talk with Cinephiliacs host Peter Labuza about Close-up or read his breakdown of Kiarostami’s major themes.

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