The Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami was in London last weekend, just before the news came through that the US authorities had denied him a visa to travel to the premiere of his film Ten at the New York Film Festival on September 29th. Not event the clout of Harvard University – where he’s also been booked to speak – could get him in. This rather shocking piece of information hadn’t been reported when I met him on Monday at the ICA, and in consequence I was unable to ask him about it, though having met him I suspect he’s probably rather relieved at not having to go at all. He’s no friend of the mullahs, indeed in his work he is discretely and carefully rebellious, and as the NYFF director Richard Pena told Variety: ‘policies that deny or make difficulty with visas are very short-sighted and counterproductive especially at a time when we need more contact with the Muslim world, especially their finest artists and thinkers’.
The bizarre spectacle of a delicate Kiarostami having to wend his way through the Countryside March on Sunday was a sight I missed, alas, though I first caught a glimpse of him at the lavish evening party thrown in his honour in the ICA Nash Rooms, surrounded by bangled bevvies of wealthy Iranian exiles who routinely turn out en masse to such functions in London. I didn’t get the feeling the he felt any more at home with them than with the muddy old Wellington boots clumping down the Mall a little earlier. Kiarostami is a reclusive man, as I was to find out during the interview, who fastidiously wears dark glasses like Garbo, though some say this is to protect his strained and sensitive eyes.
This Iranian auteur – who many, especially within the French intelligentsia, consider the finest film director in the world – had surprised his ICA audience earlier on Sunday by pulling out some finished reels of his new short film from a duffle bag which showed nothing but the waves of the Caspian sea gently lapping onto the shore. One can’t imagine what the Iranian exiles, haughtily quaffing white wine at his reception later, could have made of such languid seascapes. As he told me later, he found their cocktail party chatter a taxing experience, almost impossible to bear. But then everything is a taxing experience for the 62 year-old Kiarostami these days. As he told me on Monday morning, he wants to strip his life down, he wants people to let him be, and most of all, he wants to be alone.
It was difficult to get him to agree to an interview, difficult to get him to come to the UK (he felt slighted for many years by not receiving an invite to visit). Even at the time of walking into the ICA canteen, he was quietly threatening to dispense with the interview in a mere ten minutes. He’s like that. He’s temperamental. No doubt he’d rather be spending time with children (the fond subject of all his earlier films such as Where is My Friends House and Homework) or driving out to the country outside his native Tehran to be with ordinary country people (as featured in films like Through the Olive Trees and The Wind Will Carry Us), or ideally, completely on his ownsome. Incommunicado. A lot of your films are about people deciding how and what to communicate, I say to him, before the sound of the ICA canteen staff clanking thick water glasses together forces us to move to the calm of the cinema (‘I hate to object to people simply doing their work,’ he says, with a pained expression’).
He tells me about someone who works for him, a house servant, who after eighteen years left to marry and bring back an Afghan girl. He wants to explain to me about the horrors of modern technology and how it is robbing us of our space. ‘For one year his wife stayed inside my house and never went out the door. One day I forced her husband to take her out, and at least stroll around the neighbourhood. And when they returned, I asked her, did you enjoy going out? She said: no. It hurt my face. She couldn’t explain it more than that, but I understood exactly what she meant, that the noise and the cars and the people oppressed her. For another two years, she wouldn’t leave the house again’.
I suggest the poor woman is simply suffering from agoraphobia. ‘I don’t believe that,’ he says, firmly, like a family doctor, with his soft, exactly modulated Farsi being quickly translated by our interpreter. He’s an elegant-looking man, clean-shaven, with a brushed-down receding hairline. ‘It’s true that anything that doesn’t fit into the social norm could be a disease. I get annoyed by mobile phones; possibly that’s a disease. Nowadays if you invite someone to dinner they harass you two or three times with their mobile phones on the day, ringing to say they’re on their way, and that they’re halfway there, and then that they’re at your door.’ I mention how he satirises the use of mobile phones in The Wind Will Carry Us, where an engineer has to keep running up a hillside to get a signal. ‘I’m against the mobile phone, I don’t want to be accessible all the time.’ I suggest he doesn’t have to answer a ringing phone. ‘For me this is a matter of personality, but I find it very rude not to answer. If I don’t answer my nerves are completely destroyed, the contact has already happened, the energy has been taken. I now put my phone at home always on the fax – now I’m even frightened of the fax. You close the door and lock the house and go away but these letters still come into your home without you wanting it’.
Kiarostami denies he is a monkish recluse, but the picture building up, as we talk amicably, is of a man of almost Proustian nervous sensitivity, at bay from a forest of marching fax messages and phone calls enough to make the head of a dervish spin. He’s in despair of having to use a mobile whenever he’s in Paris being lionised in all the salons. ‘I turn it off, but when you turn it on, there are sixteen messages of people who have called me. And I never give out my number! When the phone goes off, it’s as if you’re asleep, and someone has woken you. Recently in Paris a man, who’s about eighty years old and very lonely I think, wanted me to have a copy of his book on cinema. He was very insistent. And then he left messages about which pages I should read.‘ Behind his Garbo shades I sense his eyes have widened in horror. Amusingly the nice interpreter gargles and interjects: ‘I once had you number, Abbas, but I never used it and I NEVER WROTE IT DOWN’.
The car is his lifeline and escape, and its no coincidence that his new film Ten, as well as The Taste of Cherry (about a man driving round and trying to get people to assist his suicide) and his semi-documentary And Life Goes On (about his return to Kokor – scene of Where is My Friends House - after an earthquake has destroyed the town), all relate to long car journeys. Kiarostami owns a big jeep, and he loves it. That jeep for him is the ‘best chair in the world’ because he’s ‘not obliged to see people and socialise’. This makes you sound like a misanthrope, I warn him. ‘On the contrary, it’s because I love people that I want quality time with them. Once you give water to a flower you’re responsible to the end’. You friends must be respectful of your need for isolation to remain your friend, I venture. He agrees.
‘After some struggles we settle down, yes. Just because I agree to see them on a set day, I might change my mind - it’s not because I don’t respect them. But promises are made to be broken. Sometimes in the middle of a traffic jam I see a friend, and I turn my face away, because that’s what I feel like at the time, because I’m in a state of solitude. Seeing so many people puts a pressure on you. Any object that is not useful is a nuisance. If you have two chairs in a house and you only use one, you have to get rid of the other, it’s an intrusion. Sometimes I drive out into the desert just to be alone, because it’s so relaxing. Even if there’s a tree – I love them and photograph them – it’s an object and I’m happier if there’s nothing to be seen. The less I can see the better’.
Funnily enough, although all this probably makes him sound rather mad, and rather intolerable, I understood exactly what he meant at the time; he seemed sweetly sensitive and pained. After all, It’s hard not to warm to a man who sees no difference between a tree, a chair, and a friend.
This interview was conducted in 2002. You can find out more about Kiarostami at the IMDB and news of his most recent prize in the Tehran Times. See also his 2007 interview with the New York Times where he ponders further on his eternal battle with US immigration authorities