Iranian film Director Abbas Kiarostami has died in Paris at the age of 76. He had been undergoing surgery in Tehran, but then traveled to France for treatment of cancer. The multi award-winning film director was one of the most influential filmmakers of the last 30 years. He made 40 films, including documentaries. He won the Palme D’Or for his film Taste of Cherry in 1997 — the only Iranian to ever win this award.
Unlike many other artists who fled Iran after the Iranian Revolution broke out, Kiorastami felt it was important for him to stay.
“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.”
Shirin was the very first Abbas Kiarostami film I watched. It was one of the most refreshing and unique cinematic experiences I had ever encountered. The film is a series of close-ups of 113 actresses who are watching a film.
We never see the film they watch, but we hear it. The story we hear is a powerful 12th century Persian tale called Khosrow and Shirin. It’s similar to Romeo & Juliet, with themes of female self-sacrifice written by Persian poet Nazami. The whole film is the faces reacting to the story they watch.
It played with my expectations of a film more than any other film I had come across, and it left me completely inspired and thinking about the potentials of cinema in a whole different light.
It’s a film that opens up the viewer’s imagination.
It feels like reading a book. I also spent the first 30 minutes waiting for the characters to walk out of the cinema, and for the rest of the film to continue. When time continued and we still were on the faces, I thought any second now we will get on with the rest of the film.
Then toward the end I thought, what if they stay in the cinema the whole film? Wow… So I accepted this could be it. And went with it, trying to imagine what the actresses might be seeing in the film they are watching, but equally as absorbed in the faces of these women, and what they might be thinking.
The really interesting thing that I found out later in Hamideh Razavi’s 27-minute documentary about the making of Shirin, called Taste of Shirin, is that the actresses were not reacting to the film or sound of the film at all. They performed following Kiarostami’s special improvisational technique, and were given a mark above his camera to watch.
They weren’t even in a cinema — they had to just pretend! Also, the story the women were watching was not even chosen until the women’s reactions were already shot.
Kiarostami was interested in the audience, and believed cinema was not much without its audience. In classical Kiarostami style of a “film within a film,” Shirin is the story of the empathy of audiences — the audiences that are watching the empathy of the other audiences.
It sounds complex, but when you watch the film, it’s simple, beautiful, and absorbing. Below is a trailer to Shirin;
This is how I would like to remember Abbas Kiarostami as I re-visit one of his many great films.