Abbas Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us opens with a panoramic shot of a car making its way along a dusty track winding through a bare landscape dotted with occasional trees. In the car a group of film-makers argue about directions to the village where they have arranged to make a film. They are looking for a turning that should be near a single tree. One of the film-makers quotes a line from a Sufi poem: ‘Near the tree is a wooded lane/Greener than the dreams of God… .’
In those few seconds of film are encapsulated several of the defining characteristics and concerns of the films of the Iranian director, whose death was announced earlier this month. Years after seeing his films, images from them still haunt my imagination.
What we see in the opening moments of The Wind Will Carry Us – regarded by many as this acclaimed director’s defining work – are elements that recur in all his films: extended conversations in cars; the quest by one individual or a group that one thing that will fulfil them, or give them what they lack in life, only to find that it lay within them all the time; an eye for the beauty of landscapes which invariably feature roads that twist and turn towards the horizon; a poetic vision rooted in the poetry of his homeland. When the travellers arrive at their destination more characteristic elements of a Kiarostami film are revealed: how he combines his poetic vision with a clear-eyed observation of reality, often by working with non-actors, particularly children.
Kiarostami’s aesthetic unites poetry and photography: he came to film-making relatively late, having worked as commercial artist and illustrating children’s books. But he also gained recognition as a published poet and as a still photographer. In the early days of this blog I wrote a post after his ‘rain’ and ‘snow’ photographs featured in a Guardian series. Speaking to the newspaper he said, ‘It’s said that in the beginning was the word, but for me the beginning is always an image.’
By that time I had fallen in love with Kiarostami’s films which had formed part of a season of films from the Iranian New Wave which BBC4 screened in 2006. These included his early trilogy – consisting of Where is the Friend’s House (1987), And Life Goes On (1992) and Through the Olive Trees (1994) – which overlap and comment on each other in a complex manner, as discussed by Mark Cousins in the clip from The Story of Film below. Each one of these films is wonderful, but they are surpassed by Taste of Cherry (1997) with which Kiarostami became the first Iranian director ever to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes, The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), and Ten (2002).
We are living in the era of Kiarostami, but don’t yet know it.
– Werner Herzog
Pressed to make a hard choice, I would take The Wind Will Carry Us to my desert island. The film is set in an ancient and remote Kurdish village 400 miles from Tehran where a film crew have arrived in anticipation of the death of an elderly woman. They are commissioned to film the traditional burial ceremony that will follow for a television documentary. But the old woman clings to life and the crew are forced to wait, sleeping late and eating fresh strawberries as their producer wrangles with his boss back in the capital and slowly begins to understand the villagers and their ways.
It might seem that a film set in a remote Iranian village isolated from the ways and means of the modern world would have no appeal to a western viewer. But as Kiarostami once stated in an interview:
A movie is about human beings, about humanity. All the different nations in the world, despite their differences of appearance and religion and language and way of life, still have one thing in common, and that is what’s inside of all of us. If we X-rayed the insides of different human beings, we wouldn’t be able to tell from those X-rays what the person’s language or background or race is. Our blood circulates exactly the same way, our nervous system and our eyes work the same way, we laugh and cry the same way, we feel pain the same way.
The central focus of The Wind Will Carry Us is the producer, Behzad (played by the only professional actor in the film); as the days go by he explores the village, assisted by a young boy named Farzhad, who is happy to show the stranger around as long as it doesn’t interfere with his preparations for a school exam. We never see the other two members of Behzad’s crew, only hearing them in conversation with him. Nor do we glimpse other key characters – the dying woman, or the ditch digger who Behzad encounters in the local cemetery, digging a hole for ‘telecommunications’.
This is a film in which almost nothing happens in the sense of a conventional narrative; indeed, as David Walsh argued in a perceptive review, the only way to make sense of the film is as a tale of oblique social criticism designed to evade the Iranian censors, a critique of the social and psychological situation in that country which Kiarostami finds nearly unbearable:
The Wind Will Carry Us is about the plight of labourers, women, young people, perhaps the Kurds too, as well as the dilemma of the intellectuals. It is probably about a dozen other things I’ve missed. It is a work of exceptional grace and beauty. It respects people, even as it criticises them. It does not shy away from the extraordinary difficulties of the situation, without giving in to easy cynicism and despair. It expresses confidence in nature and life, even as it condemns the way life is presently organized. For those reasons and more, in my view, this is an indispensable work.
A great work of humanist cinema, The Wind Will Carry Us presents its characters with compassion and sensitivity. Though set against the backdrop of hard lives eked out in a harsh landscape and ruled by religious precepts and ritual, yet Kiarostami celebrates life lived in the present, free from the constraints of tradition. he does so with humour, too. There’s a running joke about the lack of mobile phone reception: to get a signal, Behzad has to jump into his car and drive to the cemetery on the hill where the ditch digger is perpetually digging a hole for ‘telecommunications’.
The film takes its title from a poem by an Iranian artist Forugh Farrokhzad, a controversial progressive and feminist, who died in 1967. We hear Behzad recite this verse to 16-year-old Zeynab, a girl who is perhaps betrothed to Yossef the ditch-digger on the hill. This occurs in a remarkable scene after Yossef, with village courtesy and hospitality, has encouraged Behzad to get some milk from his house in the village. There, Behzad is directed down into an unlit cellar where, as the girl milks a cow in subterranean darkness, he recites the words written by a woman who, like her, had only a limited education. You don’t have to be a scholar in order to write or appreciate words, Behzad insists.
In this hypnotic scene, the girl’s face barely illuminated in the cellar darkness by a flickering oil lamp, Behzad reads a verse that speaks of the transience of all things, of ‘the wind of darkness howling’ and ‘scything its way towards us’, but at the same time of the passion of lovers and the ‘warm sense of being’:
in my small night, what mounting regret!
wind has a rendezvous with the trees’ leaves
in my small night, there is terror
listen! do you hear
the wind of darkness howling?
I watch breathlessly and wondrously this alien happiness
I am addicted to my own hopelessness
listen! listen well!
can you hear the darkness
howling? – the dark hell
its way towards us?
in the night now, there is something passing
the moon is red restless and uneasy
and on this roof—which fears
it may cave in—
clouds like crowds of mourners
await to break in rain
a moment and then after that, nothing.
behind this window, night shivers
and the earth stands still
behind this window an unknown
something fears for me and you
O you who are green from head to toe!
put your hands
like a burning
memory into my loving hands—lover’s hands!
entrust your lips—your lips
like a warm sense of being!—
entrust!—your lips to the caress of my
loving lips—lover’s lips!
the wind will carry us with it
the wind will carry us with it
The days go by – a week, two weeks – and Behzad becomes more involved with the village and its life. Then a dramatic event occurs – Yossef is trapped when the hole that he has been digging caves in. Behzad rushes through the fields to gather men to save the ditch digger.
What follows is my favourite scene in the whole film. After Yossef is rescued and transported to hospital, Behzad rides with the local doctor on the back of his motorcycle to a nearby town to get medicine. As they ride along the track that winds through fields of waving corn, they discuss what is important in life.
Behzad suggests that the doctor must have a lot of patients?
Almost no one. I have to ride around, looking at nature’s beauty, calling on people, doing the odd circumcision, giving jabs, piercing ears, and so on. If I’m no use to others, at least I make the most of life. I observe nature. Observing nature is better than playing backgammon. Or doing nothing.
Later, Behzad asks the doctor what it is that ails the dying woman. The doctor replies, simply, ‘old age!’ Though there is no recovery from old age, the doctor says, there is something worse than old age – death:
Yes, but there are worse illnesses. … Death is the worst. When you close your eyes on this world, this beauty, the wonders of nature and the generosity of God, it means you’ll never be coming back. They say that the other world is more beautiful. But who has come back from there to tell us if it’s beautiful or not?
Behzad observes that some people assert that after one dies, one goes to a better place. But the doctor points out that no-one has ever come back to verify such tales; quoting a quatrain from Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat, he insists that it is better to get the most of this world, the one in which we are alive:
They tell me the other world is as beautiful as a houri from heaven!
Yet I say that the juice of the vine is better.
Prefer the present to those fine promises.
Even a drum sounds melodious from afar.
Life is a journey, and it may be a struggle, but we only get one opportunity to travel its road. There’s a tiny vignette when, during a moment of angry frustration, Behzad kicks a turtle onto its back and leaves it stranded. The turtle struggles, then slowly rights itself as Behzad drives back down the hill.
When the old woman does finally die, Behzad has lost interest in the funeral ceremony. As he packs up to leave the village, he tosses into a stream a human bone passed to him by the ditch digger from his hole. As the bone floats downstream past oblivious grazing goats, it seems to signify the transience of existence and Behzad’s realisation of the truth in the doctor’s insistence that it is in the vital present, rather than in rituals and religious texts, that our only hope lies.
There is something else, too. In all his films, and particularly in his early trilogy, Kiarostami reflects on his own practice as a film maker who points his camera at, and perhaps exploits poor people. He does that here, too: Behzad the producer of the documentary that never gets made, may well be a critical self-portrait. At both the beginning and the end of the film there is a scene in which Behzad points his camera at a group of village women who object to being photographed. (Incidentally, Kiarostami represents the village women as secluded, yet formidable, possessing strong personalities and pivotal to the life of the village. This may be his way of raising the difficult question of the position of women in Iranian society.)
Film begins with DW Griffith and ends with Abbas Kiarostami.
– Jean-Luc Godard
Two years earlier, Kiarostami had posed similar questions about life and death in Taste of Cherry, a film which when described sounds bleak, but is nevertheless possessed of a kind of moral beauty. A weary middle-aged man drives around Tehran looking for someone to help him. Someone who is good with a spade, and willing to bury him after he has committed suicide.
Like Ten which followed in 2002, Taste of Cherry consists almost entirely of conversations with those picked up the desperate man filmed inside the car. His proposal triggers astonishment and horror (in Iranian law it is illegal to ask another person to kill you). Some try to talk him out of it, attempting to persuade him of the simple pleasures of the world – like the taste of a cherry:
One morning, before dawn, I put a rope in my car. My mind was made up, I wanted to kill myself. … I reached the mulberry tree plantations. I stopped there. It was still dark. I threw the rope over a tree but it didn’t catch hold. I tried once, twice, but to no avail. So then I climbed the tree and tied the rope on tight.
Then I felt something soft under my hand. Mulberries. Deliciously sweet mulberries. I ate one. It was succulent, then a second and third. Suddenly, I noticed that the sun was rising over the mountaintop. What sun, what scenery, what greenery! All of a sudden, I heard children heading off to school. They stopped to look at me. They asked me to shake the tree. The mulberries fell and they ate. I felt happy. Then I gathered some mulberries to take them home. My wife was still sleeping. When she woke up, she ate mulberries as well. And she enjoyed them too. I had left to kill myself, and I came back with mulberries.
In Ten, Kiarostami depicted ten conversations between a female taxi driver (played by Mania Akbari) and a variety of her passengers as she drives around Tehran. The passengers include her young son (played by Akbari’s real life son, Amin Maher), her sister, a bride, a prostitute, and a woman on her way to prayer. In this way, Kiarostami is able to confront themes in modern Iranian society such as the status of women, domesticity and divorce, sexuality, religion, the legal system, and parental control in a natural way. He recognised that while the car might occupy a public space, surrounded by other vehicles (mostly driven by men), the exchanges between women that took place inside the car would be entirely private. As he explained:
The car is … one of the few spaces in the Islamic Republic where women (while still, admittedly, with their heads covered) are free to express themselves without fear of recrimination. Where else, for example, could a mother tell her 10 year-old son that she branded his father a drug addict in order to secure her divorce because ‘the laws of this country give no rights to women’?
In 2005 Kiarostami made a film called Roads of Kiarostami for South Korea’s Green Film Festival which that year was commemorating the 50th anniversary of the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That year Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had begun his term as president of Iran, insisting on Iran’s right to develop nuclear power plants and enrich uranium.
In Roads of Kiarostami the director slowly zooms in and out or pans across some of the thousands of photographs he has taken which reflect – like his films – his obsession with roads. He speaks about roads in Persian poetry and Japanese haiku and about why, in images he had taken over twenty five years, there were over a thousand images of roads, tracks and paths:
I can’t say exactly when the subject of roads or ways came to me. Perhaps I can say when – from the beginning of my photography – but I can’t say why – why roads? Subconsciously the form of the road or the path has reappeared constantly in my film. One thing that is certain is that these paths carry with them memories from the past. They are images of the human search that has never been recorded, images from the search for life.
As the short film progresses, accompanied by Japanese shakuhachi music, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish the thoughts of Kiarostami from the poets and writers to whom he is alluding:
The road was continuous, without end, a winding road leading no-where, criss-crossed lines on a page of dust, like the lines of a child’s game drawn on paper. People are like ants, in search of their daily bread, discovering routes for travel and travel itself. And at last, when he beheld the path, he saw the tale of man: that man has one road in life, running from the end to the beginning, down which he is endlessly searching for meaning, and in this boundless existence each has his own road, sometimes endless, winding, sometimes leading nowhere, sometimes a straight line, a path leading to a garden, the shade of a tree, a spring in rocky ground.
The road is the expression of man’s journey, in search of provisions. The road is the illustration of the soul that has no peace, and the body is the pack animal of the soul that carries it from place to place. Whoever neglect his pack animal will never reach his journey’s end, but the journey of man continues. Our roads are like ourselves, sometimes stony, sometimes paved, sometimes winding, sometimes straight, and the paths we draw on the earth are like scratches upon it. And we have other ways inside us, ways of sadness, ways of joy, ways of love, ways of thought, ways of escape, and sometimes ways which spring from hatred, ways which destroy us, ways which go nowhere, ways without a conclusion like a stagnant river. The road is man’s confession of the places he is fleeing from, the places he is heading. The road is life, the road is man, and man’s road, however small, flows on the page of existence, sometimes without conclusion, sometimes victorious.
They told him that home held no refuge for him, that he must set out down the road keep silence and regard the path: ‘the road itself will yield the answer to your heart’s thousand questions.’ And he went in search of the road. The road was continuous, without end, a winding road leading no-where.
At the film’s conclusion an image of a dog wandering in a snowy landscape is slowly devoured by flames – the first appearance of colour in this monochrome film. As the image turns into ashes, a prayer from a Shiite text Nahjulbalagha appears alongside it in English: ‘Dear Lord, give us rain from tame, obedient clouds and not from dense and fiery clouds which summon death. Amen.’
The last word goes to Mark Cousins who, in his TV series The Story of Film, summed up the Kiarostami’s significance:
A country that didn’t invent cinema, that wasn’t rich enough to have a major film industry, a country whose religion, Islam, was in some ways suspicious of imagery, was, in the last days of celluloid, using film devotionally, as if films were sacred. One critic said, ‘We’re living in the era of Kiarostami’.
Just as the Lord of the Rings movies were coming at us like an express train, Kiarostami’s love of simple reality captured the spirit of his times.