Abbas Kiarostami: A Biography

Abbas Kiarostami
Biography by critic Godfrey Cheshire on the occasion of Abbas Kiarostami: A Retrospective (Jul 26 – Aug 15, 2019)

The most acclaimed and influential of Iran’s major filmmakers, Abbas Kiarostami was born in Tehran on June 22, 1940. Raised in a middle-class household, he was interested in art and literature from an early age. During and after university, where he majored in painting and graphic design, he illustrated children’s books, designed credit sequences for films, and made numerous television commercials. In 1969, he was invited to start a filmmaking division for the government-run Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults (an organization Iranians call Kanoon). The ten-minute Bread and Alley (1970) was the first of several short films, most centered on children, that he directed over the next two decades, a period during which he also made documentaries, including the feature-length First Graders (1984) and Homework (1989), both of which take up the subject of education. His first narrative feature, The Traveler (1974), about a provincial boy scheming to reach Tehran to see a soccer match, was made under Kanoon’s auspices, while his second, The Report (1977), an autobiographically tinged story of a collapsing marriage, was made independently.

It was after Iran’s 1979 revolution that Kiarostami began his rapid ascent to international renown. Where Is the Friend’s House? (1987), about a rural boy’s effort to return a pal’s notebook, won the Bronze Leopard at the Locarno Film Festival. Close-up (1990), about the trial of a man accused of impersonating a famous filmmaker, was the director’s first film to focus on cinema itself, and to blur the lines between documentary and fiction; it has been voted the best Iranian film ever made by Iranian and international film critics. In And Life Goes On (a.k.a. Life and Nothing More . . ., 1992), he dramatized a journey he made into an earthquake’s devastation zone to discover if the child actors of Where Is the Friend’s House? had survived. Those two films and Through the Olive Trees (1994), which dramatizes the making of the later one, have been dubbed The Koker Trilogy by critics after the village where much of their action was filmed.

After And Life Goes On and Through the Olive Trees earned Kiarostami wide acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival, his next film, Taste of Cherry (1997), became the first—and so far, only—Iranian film to win the festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or. Telling of a man’s attempt to gain assistance in committing suicide, a taboo under Islam, the film was one of several by Kiarostami to be banned in Iran while enjoying international success. His final film of this remarkable period, The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), which concerns a camera crew on an enigmatic assignment in Kurdistan, won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

In the new century, Kiarostami broadened his creative focus, devoting more time to forms including photography, installation art, poetry, and teaching. In cinema, he embraced low-budget digital filmmaking for the feature Ten (2002), the documentaries ABC Africa (2001) and 10 on Ten (2004), the experimental films Five Dedicated to Ozu (2003) and Shirin (2008), and several shorts. Beginning at the end of the decade, he went abroad to make two dramatic features, both centering on male-female relations: Certified Copy (2010), starring Juliette Binoche, in Italy, and Like Someone in Love (2012) in Japan. At the time of his death, he was preparing a movie to be made in China.

In March 2016, while he was in the midst of working on 24 Frames, Kiarostami was hospitalized and underwent two operations. He was transferred to Paris in late June of the same year, and died there on July 4. Charges have been made that his death was caused by medical malpractice by doctors in Iran. He is buried in Tehran. Posthumously completed, 24 Frames premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2017.

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