Even in a year that seems to have taken a disproportionate number of world-changing artists from us, the news of Abbas Kiarostami’s death still hit me especially hard. I still remember how profoundly changed I was by seeing Through the Olive Trees (1994) in film school in the ‘90s. The film contained humor, compassion, tragedy, and a painter’s eye for the awe-inspiring power of nature. Yet it managed to blur—in a sophisticated, almost avant-garde way—the border between truth and fiction.
Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of both experiencing and presenting Kiarostami’s work many times. His 2001 traveling retrospective came to both the Freer|Sackler and LACMA, where I was working at the time. In addition to showing his films over the years, the Freer|Sackler also owns two of his photographs. And we exhibited his video installations The Ta’yieh (2003) in 2010 and Five: Dedicated to Ozu (2003) just last year.
In the Guardian’s posthumous tribute, Kiarostami’s fellow Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi described him “a modern mystic.” Among critics and scholars, Kiarostami is rightly praised a modernist formal innovator, beginning with his groundbreaking masterpiece (the first of many) Close-up (1990), which blended truth and lies, real life and fiction in ways that had never been attempted on film. It was this modernist innovator side of his work that inspired Jean-Luc Godard’s famous quote that “film begins with DW Griffith and ends with Abbas Kiarostami.”
But what makes Kiarostami’s formal innovations so compelling is that they always derive from deeper philosophical, even spiritual concerns. They are not empty exercises in form for form’s sake. Even when he temporarily stepped away from feature filmmaking at the height of his fame in the early 2000s to concentrate on photography and experimental video work, his formal experiments still sprung from that mystical impulse Farhadi mentioned. His many photographs of trees in snow, studies in minimalist visual composition, also evoke the life lying dormant in the bare trunks and branches.
Kiarostami’s most rigorously pared-down film from this period, Shirin (2008), consists entirely of shots of actresses’ faces as they watch a play taking place offscreen. It would come across as a gimmick if it didn’t so unnervingly force the viewer to ponder how much each actress is performing for the camera and how much she is reacting with true emotion to the play. It emphasizes how permeable the line between self and performance truly is.
When artists die, one is always compelled to parse their work for their attitudes toward death. With Kiarostami, you don’t have to look far. Two of his most famous films, Taste of Cherry (1997) and The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), are explicitly about death. But they are not about being obsessed with or fearful of it. They are about what being in death’s presence teaches us about living. And for this, they are worth watching over and over again, because each viewing reveals something new.
In my early years on the festival circuit, Kiarostami was one of the people I was too in awe of to even approach. When I finally did get up the courage to talk to him, I found him to be, as Martin Scorsese put it in his tribute, “quiet, elegant, modest, articulate, and quite observant.” Though I hadn’t seen him in several years, just last month I had the pleasure of meeting some of his former students, recent graduates of an art school in Tehran where he taught, who stopped at the Freer|Sackler on a tour of the United States. In the passion and intellectual rigor with which they talked about their work, I saw the flame Kiarostami lit within them. May it burn on in them and in everyone who has been moved by his work, now that he is gone.