Tehran’s Abbas Kiarostami, poetry and films celebrated

TEHRAN — It was a hot June evening last year when my wife and I received an invitation for a gathering at a rooftop garden here. No reason for the event was given, but when we walked in — carelessly, without gifts — it turned out that a monument of cinema was celebrating his 75th birthday.

It was a surprise get-together, and the guest of honor, Abbas Kiarostami — a filmmaker, photographer and poet — quietly and modestly received congratulations, the same way he had received dozens of international awards for his movies.

His trusted assistant, Hamideh Razavi, had invited intellectuals, cinematographers, actors and actresses, and journalists like me to celebrate a man who was one of the most internationally well known Iranians alive. Ms. Razavi made the rounds, hopping from guest to guest while Mr. Kiarostami, wearing his signature sunglasses, sat surrounded by friends and acquaintances. He was silent, shy almost, as he had always been.

The scene of men and women mingling at a gathering could never have appeared in one of the dozens of movies Mr. Kiarostami made in Iran. Even Iran’s master filmmaker had to work his way around the country’s censors.

He was extremely successful in these efforts. Always balancing between realism and poetry, Mr. Kiarostami’s films tried to leave as much space as possible for the viewer’s fantasy to connect the dots.06kiarostomi-master768.jpg

Many of his films were well known by international audiences and acclaimed by foreign critics: “Ten,” where he follows a female taxi driver through the streets of Tehran; “The Wind Will Carry Us,” about a television crew working in a remote village; and “Certified Copy,” featuring the French actress Juliette Binoche.

But in Iran, Mr. Kiarostami also was the ambassador of a vibrant cultural scene, showing others that success was possible. Despite the restrictions he faced in his movies, he managed to reach a global audience.

And not by playing the exotic card, which can quickly win the sympathy of a Western audience, but by focusing on universal themes. His movies were about love and life and death, and while filmed against an Iranian backdrop, they were never only about Iran.

Despite his nonpolitical approach, Mr. Kiarostami had numerous run-ins with the powers that be. His association with foreigners was enough for hard-liners to distrust him, and some of his movies were seen as dangerous because of his large fan base and the influence he wielded.

In 1997, he won the highest award at the Cannes film festival, the Palme d’Or, for “Taste of Cherry,” about a man planning to kill himself and looking for someone who can bury him afterward. When he returned to Tehran after his victory in Cannes, security officials forced him to leave the airport through a back door, because hard-liners, angry over the foreign recognition, were protesting in the arrival hall.

He was the embodiment of the dilemma all Iranian artists face: Stay in Iran despite the pressures, or migrate away from the culture that feeds their creativity. The fact that he continued to work and live in Tehran was an inspiration for many here.

In 2013, at the end of a long and difficult period for artists during the last term of the conservative president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mr. Kiarostami made his second film outside Iran, shooting in Japan. “Like Someone in Love” centers on a love triangle involving a prostitute, her jealous boyfriend and her older client. Mr. Kiarostami said he had felt “terribly lonely” during the filming in an interview with the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant. “I didn’t cry every night, but quite often,” he said.

During that time, I met Mr. Kiarostami at the airport in Tehran, a backpack slung over his shoulder, coming home to Iran for visits between filming.

In December, Ms. Razavi, his joyful assistant, died in a car accident. Her death hit him hard. Not long after, he was treated for stomach pain in a Tehran hospital. Mistakes were made by one of his care givers, and Mr. Kiarostami caught a virus and never recovered. He died on Monday in a Paris hospital, where he had been moved for treatment.

When news of his passing reached Tehran on Monday evening, phones started ringing and social media overflowed with sadness.

The director Asghar Farhadi, who in 2012 won an Oscar for his film “A Separation,” had difficulty grasping what had happened. “I just met him some weeks ago.”

He recalled how Mr. Kiarostami had been lying in his bed, laptop at hand, showing a new four-minute movie he had just made in China. “This man was great, not only for us Iranians, but for the world,” Mr. Farhadi said.

On Tuesday hundreds of Iranians gathered at Tehran’s cinema museum to honor the filmmaker. Old men could be seen weeping. Teenagers lit candles. His body will be flown home this week.

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