Monday, March 12, 2007

Abbas Kiarostami's Short Films

The celebrated Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami actually started his career making short educational films for the "department of cultural development of children and young people" in the mid seventies and continued after the revolution too. A sample of these short films were shown at the ongoing retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The government department's name may vaguely sound Orwellian but the films, almost all of them, were very witty, humane and endlessly fascinating and insightful. Most of these shorts in fact were greeted with loud applause from the audiences. And the attendance was quite good too in all the screenings that I went to.

In a way these films are perfect and ideal introductions to his work as a whole because his full length feature films may confound even the most sympathetic of viewers at first viewing. These short films also use similar devices as his later feature films, like talkative characters engaging in long dialogues, an interest in the mundane and everyday reality, the use of offscreen dialogues, the alienating interventions from behind the camera or his use of repetition which frustrates the forward flow of narrative but at the same time also manages to capture a sense of reality and the complexity beneath it. Another very important aspect of his work is the way he avoids giving fancy (or complex) psychological motives to his characters. Even when the subject is philosophical as in The Taste of Cherry (which is about suicide) there are no grandiloquent debates about meaning of life and yet it is extremely powerful and effective. These people that Kiarostami films may not have read philosophy books but their problems and their understanding of their problems is no less complex because of this. They have their own home grown metaphors and analogies and they do have a good understanding of these complex and mysterious questions, so what if they don't know the meaning of those complex and fancy concepts.

After all this if one asks what his films are about, I would say they are about the art of observing, or rather, art of observing through a camera. And it is a proof of his artistry that after watching his films you realize how complex, unobvious, even morally and politically significant can the seemingly simple act of observing potentially be. His two didactic short films Colours and How to Make Use of Leisure Time wittily capture this everyday-ness and yet an essentially complex nature of reality all around us. In the first a singing voice of the narrator describes different colours by associating them with familiar objects. The other film shows how children can make use of their leisure time by painting old doors and furniture. They are both quite funny and also revealing in the way they capture the childlike enthusiasm and freshness of perception of the mundane reality all around us that we lose because of habit as we grow up. I think I am making it sound like a cliche--beauty in everyday reality--but the film avoids it completely. It is quite irreverent in a way. Another short film Toothache meant for the children instructs them about dental hygiene. A young boy, who has a family history of dental troubles (both his father and grandfather lost their teeth early in their adulthood!) is too lazy to brush his teeth regularly. Soon he starts suffering from Toothache. There is one sequence when the teacher in the school is taking students' attendance and for a long time we see every kid responding with their hands up one after the another, it feels so long, and when the teacher announces the name of the boy there is no response. He has gone to visit the dentist! It is again something that one finds in his later movies, he doesn't hurry through a scene. It feels like submitting to the real time in which the events in "reality" unfold.

Another of these shorts illustrates this unfolding of reality in real time even better. A man is with a repaired punctured tire is looking to hitch a ride on a highway. What we get to see is a sequence of one vehicle after the other for what seems to be a long time. Each time we feel that okay, this one will stop and the man will get a ride but no, none of them stop. He helps a man with unloading at the opposite side of the road in the hope of gaining a favour (the film is dialogue-less) but apparently the man is going in the opposite direction. Finally the stranded man decides to take things in his own control and starts rolling the tire by pushing and nudging it through the winding roads of the hilly area. What follows is another long and seemingly interminable sequence in which we follow the man and his tire hurtling fast ahead of him. On the way we see him sweating, taking off his jacket, combing his hair, we fear that tire may fall down in the valley and worry if he will ever reach his destination. But reach he does in the end. He feels victorious and so do the audiences who clap after fifteen minutes of this spectacle. And yes, the short is called Solution No. 1 :) Another short Orderly or Disorderly illustrates which is efficient, an orderly way of doing things or disorderly? It is again the familiar Kiarostami territory of film within a film. We see clapboxes before each scene and we see offscreen voices of the cameraman who fears that things might be taking too much time in the "disorderly" sequences (a bunch of children getting on a bus) or worries about why it is so difficult to film orderly scenes (scenes of an orderly traffic!) Fellow Citizen again is another familiar territory for Kiarostami regulars. In it a traffic policemen is trying to stop people from getting into a no-vehicle zone without much result to show though. The problem: he engages in arguments and counter-arguments with people who have a million excuses for not following the rules. It is repetition carried to an extreme. I didn't count but I am sure there must have almost more than thirty people that the traffic man would have interacted with, some of them at the same time!

Two of my personal favourites were also two of most conventional (as compared to others) films in the selection. In The Chorus an old man uses his hearing aid to shut off the noise from the outer world -- the people bickering on the street, the noise from the traffic etc. There is also a construction work going on near his house which is again creating lot of noise so the poor old man has again taken off his hearing aid and peacefully doing his stuff in his room. In the meanwhile his granddaughter has returned from school and is ringing the bell, knocking at the door, shouting from below. But the grandfather is oblivious of his surrounding. Soon a crowd of children gather below and they all start shouting together at the top of their voices. Again the shouting goes on for so long that it becomes suspenseful and very amusing! Will the old man ever hear children's voices? If so when? Finally the grandfather does hear something and gets suspicious and looks down from the window. Final shot: his smiling face through the window followed by a big applause from the audience. I clapped too!

The Wedding Suit was the only full length (slightly less than an hour long) feature film in the selection and it was certainly one of the best. I think it is right up there with his later films that he made in the nineties. A young boy works as an apprentice in a tailoring shop. Two of his friends want to borrow a suit, which is scheduled to be delivered the next day, for one night. One of them wants to impress a girlfriend and another wants to go to a magic show. The suit itself is meant for an upper class boy of the same age as the three of them. Most of the film is about how the three boys argue with each other and how he is finally persuaded to hand over the suit to him. The way Kiarostami handles dialogues is again riveting. It never feels pre-written and yet it is all so tightly woven that it is difficult to imagine that the exchange is happening on camera! One of them does finally get the suit for one night, just that we don't know whether the suit will be returned in the right condition. It is extremely insightful and thoroughly unsentimental look at the life of deprived young children, how they struggle for small pleasures and sometimes succeed and sometimes fail. It is a wonderful little masterpiece.

All in all, I can't recommend these shorts highly enough, I hope they get a wider audience that they deserve for they not only will help understand Kiarostami's later works better but are also exceptional in their own right. At least I hope they get released as extras on the DVDs of major films.

This is the link to the schedule of the retrospective. Wikipedia has an extensive article with lots of links at the bottom.


Cheshire Cat said...

Thanks for that, Alok! I feel even worse now about having missed the shorts... Hope they come out on DVD sometime.

Kiarostami's movies are inexhaustible, but there is never any patronizing or self-importance. No self-importance, so much self-possession; he's given himself to his art. This is rarer than one might imagine.

jyothsnay said...

"art of observing" Vs "art of observing through a camera"
splendid Alok!
However, I still feel the influence of the viewing eye, its biased glance, its opinions as colored by past experiences that woud certainly carry a rub-off on the summary for observations drawn!
what do u say? ye sure we need to consider "open-minded intelligent naked eye"
what I understood from u wrote is the "slice-of-life" mundaneness presented in a subtle yet celebrated way...would love to watch this set.suggest if u can,upload a clip of that childrens' painting format..I wrote a poem sometime ago on children painting (when I was travelling, I observed similar thing in one of those hamlets in Tamil Nadu)...
ige of wm I
Toothache is funny..self-inflicted pain in life!haha..
that "hearing aid" reminds me of one of the stories in "Voice Imitator" by Thomas Bernhard
thank you for scripting out such a wonderful piece for all of us , thus pulling us out of the heavier mundane rigmarolic existence to the sunday u spent with ur friend..umm, great a read!

Alok said...

cat: thanks! All of these shorts were really worthwhile. It is also interesting because you can see similar patterns in all of his films, in his style and subjects, he is a very consistent filmmaker.

jyothsnay: I think that Bangalore dvd library has "Ten" which is one of my favourite kiarostami films. You will also appreciate it because it is about the problems women face in iranian society. There is also a nasty little boy in the movie. It is quite funny in the way these people talk in the film. It is a great feminist work which completely avoids all kinds of sentimentality or shallowness. Taste of Cherry and Close-up are his other acclaimed films.

reg "art of observation" definitely any act of observation is coloured by past experiences but the idea is to be aware of that. a observing through a camera gives you feeling of distance which makes it easier to do.