Jul 06 2016

Abbas Kiarostami (1940–2016)

by Amelia Abramson

“Cinema seats make people lazy. They expect to be given all the information. But for me, question marks are the punctuation of life.”

—Abbas Kiarostami

Iranian filmmaker ABBAS KIAROSTAMI, who died on July 4, 2016, at the age of 76. Photo by and courtesy Laurent Thurin Nal / MK2. 

On July 4, 2016, world-renowned Iranian film director, photographer and poet Abbas Kiarostami died at age 76. After being diagnosed with gastrointestinal cancer in March, Kiarostami underwent a series of operations in Tehran that led to complications. His family decided to pursue further medical treatment in Paris, where he was flown to by an air-ambulance last week. Kiarostami unexpectedly died of a brain stroke on Monday.

Born in Tehran in 1940, Kiarostami began his cinematic career as a filmmaker in 1970 and was one of the few artists who remained in Iran when the 1979 revolution broke out. Though he completed his first feature film, The Report, in 1977, it was not until after the revolution that his works began to gain international recognition, specifically in the United States. Throughout his illustrious career, Kiarostami won over 70 awards, most notably the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1997. The award-winning film, Taste of Cherry, follows a middle-aged man on his search for a person who would be willing to bury him after the former commits suicide in a grave that he has dug for himself.

Often described as being minimalist, Kiarostami’s cinematic style was one that posed existential questions and shied away from dramatic sequences and effects that are so common in today’s mainstream films. Though his films appear simple, each frame and scene is carefully executed and packed with hidden meaning that prompt viewers to read between the lines.

Kiarostami’s stark and subdued aesthetic in his films is mirrored in his poetry and photography, particularly in his series “Untitled Photographs” (1978–2003), comprising over 30 photographs of Tehran’s landscapes, which are often covered in snow. The most recent exhibition of his photographs was “Doors Without Keys,” a solo presentation at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, Canada, where he showed portraits of 50-odd doors from Iran, Morocco, Italy and France as life-size prints. 

In 2013, Rossi & Rossi in Hong Kong held an exhibition of Kiarostami’s photographs. Discussing the artist’s photographic oeuvre, gallery owner Fabio Rossi commented to ArtAsiaPacific via email: “[Kiarostami] was a quiet but very charismatic man with a strong and determined personality. Though it was clearly difficult for him to make movies in Iran, I could not detect any bitterness as he could still do photography, which was his first love. I don’t think he felt any separation between his movies and his photographs; the same sensibility and aesthetics inhabited both.” 

Kiarostami himself once said, “The work of an artist resembles his sentiments, contradictory or not. In fact, either we resemble our work or not at all. Even if I belong to the second category, it is apparent that my photographs are made of the same substance as my dreams.”