Abbas Kiarostami didn’t come to Beirut to talk about censorship. He prefers to talk about the possible, not the forbidden. He did discuss the inspiration he has derived from children over the course of his career, and the optimism he feels for the increasing “democratization” of film arising from the digital video disk (DVD) revolution.
It would have been a simple matter to avoid the subject of censorship. Kiarostami prefers not to give personal interviews. But over two days of public question-and-answering, the director’s thoughts on the matter of censorship did emerge not as a political stand but as an expression of his artistic temperament.
Kiarostami first addressed the question of censorship at Monday’s press conference in Sodeco Square. There, adjacent the food court with people trying on eyeglasses and pneumatic drills firing in the background someone asked how his work would change without a censor.
“If I had total freedom,” he smiled, “I would make my films in exactly the same way that I do now. It’s not that we don’t have censorship, but once you have freedom in your mind, you can make whatever film you want.”
He paused for a moment. before adding “once you see all the closed doors, you find the one that’s open.”
On Wednesday, Kiarostami was the focus of a forum at the Theater Monnot, where film students could ask him questions. At this time the director was able to expand upon his previous, rather elusive, response to the question of censorship. State restrictions to film-making, in fact, ran through the forum like a leitmotif.
Addressing questions of his popularity in Iran, the film-maker shrugs that one must be pragmatic about exposure at home and abroad. For the first 20 years of his career, Kiarostami says, he was effectively working for the government, so his films were shown only in Iran. Today he still has a small home audience there, like elsewhere in the world, action movies are more popular than art films.
“The only advantage Iranian film-makers have at home,” he smiled, “is that American films are banned there.” There would seem to be some irony in the director’s smile: his 1999 film The Wind Will Carry Us has yet to get past the Iranian censor.
Anyone watching the films featured in Sodeco Six’s Tribute to Kiarostami would find that they have a remarkable timelessness. There is no noticeable difference between films directed at the time of the shah and those coming after the 1979 Iranian revolution.
Kiarostami says that over the past 20 years he has come to his own definition of revolution. It can’t, he said, take place outside your spirit. “A political revolution is impossible without a revolution of the mind,” he said.
“After 1979 some directors did change their style of film-making because they lacked a necessary element within themselves. I was fortunate enough to be working with children at the time, and children have rules and regulations quite independent of politics. I’ve always thought that censorship should never be left to the censor alone. It’s up to the film-maker to work within the bounds of what is possible.”
Kiarostami’s recent films have taken up such mature themes as suicide and mortality, but most of his early films feature child actors. The relationship was a pragmatic one, growing out of his work with an Iranian organization called Kanun which is dedicated to working with children and young adults.
“I no longer work with children as closely as I did,” he explains, “but I try to keep the spirit of the child behind the camera while I film.”
“In their own way, they are like sages.” he said. “They’re in touch with a spontaneity of mind that we lose when we become adults. You can learn something about the meaning of this life from them.
“I stopped working with Kanun in 1994, when a new generation of radicals took over and tried to dictate the type of films I made. Perhaps if I had stayed on with them, you would see how the revolution changed my films.”
But he remains an optimist. The clerical establishment which has not yet released The Wind Will Carry Us also had problems with Kiarostami’s last film, The Taste of Cherry about a man who wants to commit suicide. “The Taste of Cherry is not about suicide: it’s about life,” Kiarostami said. “This is how I convinced the censor to let it pass.
“This movie doesn’t encourage suicide. It just shows you the exit door. We do not choose to be born. We do not choose our country. We do not choose our religion. We do not choose our language. There is only one choice left, that is to stay or to leave. If I’m living today I want to know that it’s my choice.”