The Films of Abbas Kiarostami: Framing the Burdens of Contemporary Muslim Identities

By Mitha, Farouk | Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ), Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

The Films of Abbas Kiarostami: Framing the Burdens of Contemporary Muslim Identities


Mitha, Farouk, Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)


"Words cannot describe my feelings about his films."

Akira Kurosawa

"We are living in the age of Kiarostami, but don't yet know it."

Werner Herzog

"Kiarostami represents the highest level of artistry in the cinema."

Martin Scorsese

THE ABOVE EXTRAVAGANT PRAISE for the films of Abbas Kiarostami can serve as a fertile point of departure for examining the tensions between, on one hand, the culture of censorship in the Islamic Republic of Iran and on the other the emergence of an artistically daring and internationally celebrated generation of Iranian filmmakers. Abbas Kiarostami's international reputation as a major contemporary filmmaker and artist is borne out through numerous Kiarostami film festivals and Kiarostami conferences held in North America and Europe over the past six years, including recent high profile exhibitions of his films, photography, video installations and poetry at MOMA in New York and at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Critical attention on Kiarostami's work has been further heightened by the lifetime achievement awards he has been receiving at major film festivals including festivals in Asia, Africa and the Arab world.

This review essay examines a theme that remains inadequately explored in critical commentary on Kiarostami, namely, the politics of Muslim identity played out or framed in his films. I am arguing that this relative silence, even resistance, to discussing Kiarostami and Islam is shaped by the larger politics of identity framing the context of:

a) Kiarostami's description of his own directorial methods (i.e. artistic self-definition context);

b) Kiarostami's negotiation of censorship challenges inside Iran (i.e. production context); and

c) Kiarostami's reception outside Iran (i.e. reception context).

In the spirit of an agent provocateur I argue that in all three contexts (artistic self-definition, production, and reception contexts) Islam functions as the proverbial elephant in the room. By virtue of being an Iranian Muslim filmmaker working in Iran today, Kiarostami's work serves as a productive case study for analyzing types of burdens associated with defining and representing contemporary Muslim identities. More importantly, Kiarostami's response to these burdens opens up new ways of thinking about the politics of Muslim identity, both inside Muslim societies and in relation to the West.

ARTISTIC SELF-DEFINITION CONTEXT

Inserting questions about representations of Islam into a discussion of Kiarostami's films can arguably be seen, especially in the eyes of devoted Western critics, as running the risk of generating rather narrow (if not ideological) readings of Kiarostami's humanistic (i.e. universal) themes and questions explored through his art. I am not blind to this potential risk, yet the underlying assumption here is deeply problematic. The taken for granted assumption that there is an inherent opposition between Islam and humanism (or Islam and universalism). The terms of this opposition reflect variations of a secular outlook which, though rooted in European history, certainly refer to very real anxieties around how Muslims today distinguish between public and private (or political and spiritual) definitions of Islam, particularly in modern nation states. What I am suggesting is that these anxieties are not absent in Kiarostami's films and that arguably a key aspect of Kiarostami's humanistic vision can be appreciated more fully when seen in light of how he frames and engages questions about Muslim identity in Iran.

In a 1998 interview Kiarostami commented that:

... once a film is made, its creator should get detached and try to step back and look at it in a way just like any spectator sees it ... the filmmaker's comments are less important and valid than those of simple movie fans (Kiarostami, 1998).

This quotation, apart from generously inviting interpretation, points to a key stylistic feature in almost all his films, namely, the use of elliptical techniques, most notably the staging of ambiguous endings which require the viewer to, as it were, fill in the blanks of what Kiarostami refers to as his "half-made films.

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