Why Abbas Kiarostami's fierce optimism was a political act

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

When people talk about “representation” in film, they’re often talking about the people in the film, not the ones behind it. Not the people making the cuts, writing the content and calling the shots—literally. When people talk about representation, they forget that people who are allowed to make art with the depth and depravity they wish—and who also happen to not be white—allow those of us who rely on film as a soft release—who are also not white—to sigh with a readied, giddy absolution.


I’m not sure if Abbas Kiarostami, who died yesterday at the age of 76, ever considered these layers of representation when he started making films in 1970. His first film, just 12 minutes long, titled The Bread and Alley, was about a young boy’s harassment by a vicious dog. It was nine years before the Islamic revolution in Iran, a societal change like a grand seismic paradigm shift. Up until the fateful change, when Iran’s monarch was overthrown by an authoritarian theocracy, it was a country rooted in a rich historical past; before the revolution art was permissive and powerful, poetic and raw. Just before Kiarostami’s burgeoning career in film, the Iranian New Wave was cemented in history with filmmakers like Darius Mehrjui and Hajir Darioush. The country went from an intellectual elite mecca to a stark, pungent theocratic regime.

Since the revolution, it’s hard to escape the permeation of religion and its negative impacts. The social violence of containing a culture filled to the brim with historical nuance breeds anger and resentment in its tastemakers, and that feeling is residual in a lot of work coming out of Iran. Other films by Iranians like Shirin Neshat’s Women Without Men or Jafar Panahi’s The Circle have explicitly taken Iran’s post-revolution fundamentalism to task.

Yet, strangely, that righteous political anger is nowhere to be found in Kiarostami’s work. His films were always ringing with an eccentric positivity. As if the days of yore were not fully absent, but accessible somewhere in the fabric of his films.

Not that he hasn’t faced his fair share of backlash from the Iranian government. It’s never permitted his films to be shown within the country. But he stayed in Iran almost his entire life, famously saying: “When you take a tree that is rooted in the ground, and transfer it from one place to another, the tree will no longer bear fruit. And if it does, the fruit will not be as good as it was in its original place. This is a rule of nature. I think if I had left my country, I would be the same as the tree."

I first read that quote in The Guardian blistering with pride, knowing there was an otherworldly passion in his cultural martyrdom, and how fascinating and inspiring it was to see a man dedicated to the country that had bore him, rejected him, yet the fruits that he reaped were specifically from his background and this specific history. You see, Kiarostami was both political and not political, in the sense that it seemed as if he simultaneously cared wholly too much and not enough. His films weren’t necessarily about Iran (and the last two weren’t at all) but beautiful in their distillation of Persian society and the idiosyncrasies that exist.


For him, above all, art was about mastering the diegesis of the human condition, not about a specific identity. Even if his films weren’t jarring statements of an activist, they were real portraits of real humans living, surviving, as we all do, in a context that seems so foreign, so fueled by anger. That in itself is a political act.

My first foray into Kiarostami was Close Up, a film released in 1990, the year I was born. It’s about the real-life trial of a young man who impersonated well-known Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, conning a whole family into believing they would star in his new film. It was the gall of the narrative, but also the intricate delicacy and tangible beauty of the creamy backdrops of Iranian landscapes, that ruptured something inside of me. Like a beast waiting, I felt seen in the most inexplicable way. I felt enlivened by the cinematography, by art that appealed to me, and was made by someone who looked like me—who looked like my father, or his father. It felt familial, it felt vital, but, mostly, it felt like sacred permission. As if I now had the option to make films not about white people, but rather about the fractured, complicated lives of Iranians and Muslims like myself.


There is something deeply spiritual in his films that harks back to the days of Persian poetry by the greats like Omar Khayyam or Sohrab Sepehri. In fact, both Where is the Friend's Home and The Wind Will Carry Us recite haunting poetry as a medium for deliberation. The latter film is a meditation on death, an annunciation of its mystical nature, of its weird rhythms. Which I think perfectly encapsulates the reflections of Kiarostami’s great and poetic mind. The shadows he engendered told philosophical truths of all of us, whether Iranian or Muslim, or neither, or both.

His work will forever have a lasting legacy on my life because I was taught how to be through his magic. Not only was my body and that of my father valid—but, better yet, my father’s pain and sadness was worthy enough to parse through, valid enough to represent, enough to overcome—even in a small way. In Close Up Hossain Sabzian, one of the leads, says “For me, art is the experience of what you’ve felt inside.” The best way to have a human experience is to get a diverse group of people to make such art, so we can all be seen for our dimensions. That we all get a chance to be in the sun, to feel alive. I hope, somewhere, that Kiarostami is circling around a heaven-made Italy with the love of his life and contemplating existence, death, and marriage as the church bells sing soft hymns to remind him that he’s returned home.


Fariha Róisín is a writer living on Earth.