From the Nov 9 – Nov 15, 2000 issue
A New Outlook
The Stranger Interview with Abbas Kiarostami
by Caveh Zahedi
The Wind Will Carry Us
dir. Abbas Kiarostami (Le Magnifique!)
Opens Fri Nov 10 at the Egyptian.
ABBAS KIAROSTAMI'S newest film, The Wind Will Carry Us, is his best to date. That said, the deceptive simplicity of his style and the increasing refinement of his cinematic vocabulary also make it one of his most esoteric and inaccessible films--at least for the typical American viewer, accustomed as we are to a steady diet of the Hollywood equivalent of fast food. Characteristically, his newest film is bewilderingly enigmatic in its premise. Indeed, the "plot"--a nameless engineer journeys to a remote Iranian village to film some sort of death ritual--barely begins to describe what the film is actually about. But then, to watch Kiarostami's cinema and to surrender to its vision is to be almost inevitably transformed. It is to see the world anew, to start over again.
I sat down with the great director shortly after seeing The Wind Will Carry Us and asked him a few questions.
You once said that the way you like to work is similar to collage; that instead of inventing stories, you take pieces of things that have happened and put them together. How much of The Wind Will Carry Us is autobiographical?
All my movies are based on my experiences and on my perception of other people's lives and experiences. But while I do them as a collage, I also, in the putting together of pieces, deliberately leave out certain missing pieces so that the viewer is free to make whatever connection he or she wants between these missing pieces.
For example, in The Wind Will Carry Us, every single scene includes something about the co-existence of life and death. But the connections and the way they are put together are not necessarily evident in the story. The digger who is digging a grave--his job symbolizes death, and the fact that he's always in the dark is somewhat death-like. And the engineer's colleagues, whom we hear, but never see--they both exist and don't exist at the same time. We know they're there, but we don't see them.
I'm still curious to know which parts of the film were autobiographical.
The movies are definitely based on my own experiences, as well as my own thoughts and feelings. The reason I use my own experiences is that I believe that I am just like everybody else, and that what I want to say may therefore be what everyone else may want to say as well. Therefore, the movie is not personally mine. It is a personal movie, but it's not just my personal life. It is the personal life of anyone who might have similar experiences. Everyone thinks that they're different from others, but that's precisely what everyone has in common.
Could you be even more specific? Did you actually go to this same village before you shot the film, like the lead character in the movie, to try to make a film about the grieving ritual that the film depicts?
No. What I did was I spent a great deal of time trying to find a location that felt right, because the location is very important. The people of that location and the conditions of their lives decide what the movie is going to say. In this last movie, I started with a story, but I only ended up using the first two lines of that story, which was about a group of people going to film something about death in this remote village. The rest of it came from being there and feeling what the people were about and building a relationship with that place and with those people.
At this point, I feel that the best screenplay is a screenplay that can fit into half a page initially, and that's what I work with in pre-production. Once I'm on the location, I might expand it to, say, 10 pages. And then every night, before we go over the next day's shooting, I write down the dialogue for the next day, just for myself. I don't show it to the individual actors; I just go over the gist of it with them and let them say whatever comes naturally based on what I've told them, so that it's actually their dialogue, based on what I've told them.
We then set up the cameras, and I tell them the dialogue that they themselves have come up with--I just say it out loud to them right before they have to do the scene. So they don't have enough time to memorize it, and that keeps it fresh. If they can't say a part of the dialogue, then I realize right away that it was my mistake, that it wasn't really right for them, and I change it. And if we do three takes and it doesn't work after those three takes, then I know the actor has a mental block about it and is not going to get it that day, in which case we just postpone the shot. Because if you try too hard with them, then they're going to lose confidence in themselves. They'll start to think that their acting is poor and that they can't get it right. So we just stop and try again another day.
In an interview, you once used the phrase, "Because of the positive outlook that I've had in my recent personal and professional life...." Does this imply some specific recent transformation that has happened in your life?
Yes, and I think the reason this transformation has happened is because of my better understanding of life due to my having lived longer--although I have friends who have done the opposite; they have become sadder and more discontented with their lives as they have gotten older, perhaps because they want to keep things the way they were, and that's impossible. If you have an open outlook towards life and you replace the previous stages of your life with new things--in other words, when you lose something whose loss is inevitable (like your youth or your past), but replace it with something else in your life--then you are going to have a new outlook and the happiness that comes from that new stage in your life.
One of the most important moments of my life was the day I witnessed the devastating earthquake that occurred in northern Iran. It was my 50th birthday, and one of my friends had put together a birthday party for me--I was actually blowing out the candles at the very moment that the earthquake occurred, at exactly 12:00 midnight.
Prior to this, I had been depressed by the fact that all of a sudden I was about to lose the number four in my age and have it replaced with a five. But when I witnessed the earthquake's devastation, I realized all of a sudden how ridiculous it was to have been depressed by this. I went the next day to the locations of the devastation, and I realized that although here was a complete destruction of life, somehow life still went on.
When a man reaches the age of about 45 to 50, that is often the most difficult time in his life. Many suicides happen around that age. And quite a lot of illnesses also occur around that time, whether it be a heart attack or an illness brought on, perhaps, by depression. It is a difficult thing to take lightly; it's like the sunset of your life. A sunset is inherently sad, but if you have the resistance to endure it, then you will have a good night and the day will start again.