Kiarostami, “death is part of life”

Aaron Guthrie
5 min readJul 4, 2016

I’m sharing this as a letter of love to Kiarostami — maybe you’ll find something in it.

(This is the conclusion of my BA dissertation titled “The role of the spectator; the cinema of Abbas Kiarostami” A critical analysis of the audience’s gaze and the role of the spectator through the cinematic work of Abbas Kiarostami in light of the work of contemporary French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy.)

It’s worth noting here that as an undergraduate student in film theory in the early 21st century, there’s always that feeling of being too late to the debate. The most influential debates happened in the past and only now lie written in books and instilled in traditional teachings of film theory. It too seems the case with Deleuze and post-modernism that it’s just out of reach — until Jean Luc Nancy’s on Kiarostami.

It’s becoming clear to me, as I pull apart the above elements of Kiarostami’s film and put them side-by-side, that illusory theme of education exists. Surely, it matters that Kiarostami worked in an educational institution for some time and through that offered a view of his country’s reality to his people, even to those at an elementary level. This language is different from the didactic cinema found in “documentary films” even though some aspects of his films do resemble documentary or reportage in a calculated manner. What’s most interesting, is that through this education, and his shift toward a more cinema ‘art’, that still holds true the movement of education — in it’s precise sense — meaning “to bring out”. It’s an education of looking at the world, a look where cinema dwells. It’s a look where the spectator is taken by the hand and led away on a journey that is not an initiation, that does not drive to any secret, but that amounts to making the spectators’ gaze move, oscillate, stirring and shaking it up, in order to make it carry further, closer, and more accurately to the world of each individual spectator.

It can be argued that lies, a theme present in the very nature of cinema, progresses towards a truth, and appearances intervene only to “underscore the manner in which looking and the real together are mobilised”. The exposing of Taste of Cherry’s ending, unveiling the artifices and lies that he needed to produce The Wind Will Carry Us and the whole fable of the unlawful love story in Through the Olive Trees.

These lies and breaking down of the concealed cinema picture are used in such a way that this unconcealment introduces a new story, neither more nor less effective than the original. He is showing another angle of what is real and therefore many-faceted.

As Geoff Andrews commented ‘what kinds his work together [is] not so much the narrative or visual content [..] as the contemplative quality of his gaze’.[1]

More than ever, Kiarostami’s audience requires great patience in order to discover gradually what lies behind these apparently anodyne images or simply to enjoy them without the usual need to understand them, something on which Kiarostami has insisted on very many occasion — including the lesson of 10 on Ten — and which, in his opinion, could bring cinema closer to the experience of poetry or music, in contrast to the usual parameters of mainstream narrative cinema. It is what Bergala has appropriately called ‘the belief in a cinema without a story, in both senses of the term; cinema before the story of cinema, and cinema that does not necessarily have to tell a story, although stories might well surface in this kind of cinema’.[2]

Kiarostami, in 1995 noted in a speech shared in Paris:

“It is a fact that films without a story are not very popular with audiences, yet a story also requires gaps, empty spaces like in a crossword puzzle, voids that it is up to the audience to fill in. Or, like a private detective in a thriller to discover. I believe in a type of cinema that gives greater possibilities and time to its audience. A half-created cinema, an unfinished cinema that attains completion through the creative spirit of the audience, so resulting in hundreds of films. It belongs to the members of the audience and corresponds to their own world.”

“Only a few decades ago, the notion of cinema that combined the ambitions of poetry and philosophy was embraced by cinephiles worldwide, and practiced by filmmakers as diverse as Antonioni, Bergman, Godard and Mizoguchi. Today, even to glimpse this possibility you have to look as far afield as Iran, and Kiarostami. Such an effort can be delightful but also soberingly instructive. For once one allows his films’ logic to assert itself, it becomes clearer and clearer that what’s “challenging” and “baffling” about Kiarostami’s work lies mainly in our own loss of vision.”

Kiarostami is not interested in the representation of “film about film”, He isn’t interested in “film on film”, or even “film in film” — contrary to what certain commentators seem to have perceived in Kiarostami’s work — these themes never exist in his work.

It’s been a fascinating journey finding Nancy’s philosophy of looking at the spectatorship of Kiarostami’s films. After dissecting Kiarostami’s above films it’s becoming evident that this ontology can be applied quite thoroughly, and to even garner the possibility of Kiarostami fostering a ‘New Wave’ of the spectator.


Title quote from: “Death is part of life,..” Jean Luc Nancy explains in his book L’evidence du film, “… instead of making life part of (or parted from) something other than itself. Death is neither the opposite of life nor the passage into another life: it is itself the blind spot that opens up the looking, and it is such a way of looking that films life, a way of looking through which we have to look but, that is not to be seen itself, that is not of this order. For that reason, death is also always close to birth.”

[1] Geoff Andrew, ‘Long and Winding Roads’, Sight and Sound, vol. 13, n. 11, November 2003, p. 5

[2] Alain Bergala, ‘Abbas Kiarostami: Les pleins pouvoirs du cinéma’, p. 45