Martin Scorsese once praised Abbas Kiarostami as representing “the highest level of artistry in the cinema.” Responding to those words several years ago, the Iranian director replied, “This admiration is perhaps more appropriate after I am dead.” Sadly, it now is: Kiarostami passed away in Paris on July 4, 2016 at the age of 76.
In celebration of his legacy and commemoration of his passing, the Walker presents a memorial screening of Kiarostami’s 1990 film Close-Up tonight, July 28. The film was screened at the Walker in 1998, as part of the Walker Dialogue and Retrospective series. Occurring shortly after the director won the Palme d’Or at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival for his feature Taste of Cherry, Abbas Kiarostami: In Retrospect welcomed the director as the series’ 25th guest.
But Kiarostami’s visit almost didn’t happen, as Bruce Jenkins, Walker film curator at the time (now a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago), recalled to me in an email:
One of the distinctive aspects of the Dialogues series involves the financial wherewithal to support visits by major international artists. Wim Wenders had come to the Walker from Germany; Jane Campion flew in from Australia; Chen Kaige traveled from China; and the Quay Brothers—Timothy and Stephen—made a rare trip from London to the Twin Cities. But no visit seemed to involve more planning or more problem-solving than one that brought the extraordinary Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami in February 1998 to the Walker.
The invitation had been made a year earlier and while it was received positively, the arrangements for his travel to the US were to prove both complicated (because of governmental restrictions) and costly. Since there was no official US presence in Tehran, travel visas could only be obtained abroad. Kiarostami had been able to do this in the past at the American Embassy in Paris, but a recent negative experience convinced the filmmaker that this was no longer a viable route, and he proposed canceling the trip.
That’s when we contacted Joan Mondale, who having recently returned from Japan had rejoined the Walker board, and asked her advice and help. Mrs. Mondale quickly got her husband Walter, the former ambassador to Japan (and vice president), involved. While neither Kiarostami nor the Walker ever learned the exact nature of his intervention, Kiarostami was given his visa in Paris without incident and flew from there to the Twin Cities, a bit baffled perhaps by the VIP treatment he had received en route to his Dialogue at the Walker.
At the Walker, Kiarostami discussed the entirety of his career—including Close-Up—with Richard Peña, then program director for the Film Society of Lincoln Center and chair of the selection committee for the New York Film Festival. A blend of documentary and fiction, Close-Up depicted the sensational real life event of Hossein Sabzian fraudulently impersonating the famous Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf and lying his way into the life of a Tehran family. Speaking to the Guardian about Kiarostami, Makhalmabaf observed: “He changed the world’s cinema; he freshened it and humanized it in contrast with Hollywood’s rough version.”
Initially panned by Iranian critics, Close-Up—which was notable for its destabilizing use of realism, puncturing of the fourth wall and curiosity about small moments and secondary characters—eventually brought the director to international acclaim and is now widely celebrated as a cinematic masterpiece and ranked by BFI as one of the greatest films of all time.
Telling Peña about his first film, Bread and Alley (1970), Kiarostami noted that he opted to work with a non-professional boy and dog after unsuccessfully trying to find a seven year-old professional actor. The film was the first of eight shorts produced for the Centre for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults (Kanun) and aptly anticipated a career-long interest in portraying the seemingly mundane texture of daily life with humor, sensitivity and an eye for detail.