Tuesday 5 July 2016

Abbas Kiarostami - Anne Demy-Geroe remembers the great man with much love and affection

A D-G & AK 
Anne Demy-Geroe is a former director of the Brisbane International Film Festival and is now the director of the Iranian Film Festival in Australia (IFFA) an annual event showcasing the best in Iranian cinema which screens in six capital cities.

“Abbas Kiarostami” – it’s the first name in my phone directory, but let me make it clear that, far from claiming a close acquaintance, I only met him a few times. My Iranian partner knew him well. I don’t remember exactly when I first met him – it was at one of those famous parties that Jafar Panahi held during the Fajr International Film Festival in the early 2000s. Mr Kiaorostami sat on the couch holding court – reserved but eminently approachable - and most of the foreign guests made our way over to pay homage.

In 2008 his film Shirin screened in Venice. (It’s such a ‘Venice film’ but I recall that he was peeved that Cannes had rejected it.) Iranians in my experience tend to herd at film festivals, and we became part of his ‘herd’.  If I couldn’t find Ali, I knew he’d be with Abbas…  We drank expensive cocktails at his hotel, the famous old Grand Hotel des Bains where Death in Venice was shot. For the record, his drink was, and could be seen as, non-alcoholic – he’d already been rapped over the knuckles for kissing Catherine Deneuve on accepting his Palme d’Or from her. We spent a bit of time with him, to the point where he offered me some important personal observations, and he ensured that we had tickets next to him at the closing night ceremony. (This incidentally was the famous occasion when Heath Ledger accepted prizes for I’m Not There on behalf of Cate Blanchett and Tod Haynes, endearingly assuming roles as them, to the great amusement of the audience. He was dead a short time later.)

I did not see Abbas for a few years. The Iranian filmmakers had boycotted Fajr and Kiarostami was always conveniently overseas on matters relating to the films he was now shooting elsewhere. He had once said, “When you take a tree that is rooted in the ground, and transfer it from one place to another, the tree will no longer bear fruit. And if it does, the fruit will not be as good as it was in its original place. This is a rule of nature. I think if I had left my country, I would be the same as the tree.” But even though no film since The Taste of Cherry had been released in Iran, he too had now given up shooting there.

In 2015 the Fajr International Film Festival showed Certified Copy as its opening night film. This was post Ahmadinejad, and followed an apology to the filmmakers from the new Deputy Minister for Cinematographic Affairs at the previous edition of Fajr. The government was trying hard to woo back the filmmakers, who were out in full force for this event. In 2010 the then Deputy Culture Minister, Javad Shamaqdari, had been reported as saying “If Juliette Binoche were better clad it could have been screened but due to her attire there will not be a general screening.” I was curious. Would Juliette be seen dangling her bra in front of William Shimell? I asked Kiarostami – in his usual tactful way of deflection, he said he did not know – I’d have to watch the film. Regrettably I’ll never know…

Kiarostami was famous for avoiding conflict. He negotiated the minefields of Iranian politics with care. He was chastised by others for not taking a political stance publicly during the Ahmadinejad era. But, as I have written elsewhere, I read Shirin, which features 100 Iranian actresses, many pre-revolutionary and forbidden to appear on screen, which deals with an ancient text suddenly banned (we can hear the text but never see it), as highly political. But done his way.

Finally I would like to acknowledge Kiarostami’s kindness and generosity to filmmakers. He was always available to help with their filmmaking problems, and he was always giving them stories. How many films from young indie filmmakers carry the credit “from a story by Abbas Kiarostami”…

This year at Fajr Mr Kiarostami was absent – he was in hospital. A group of us sent him flowers and hoped beyond hope really, that we’d see him next year. But there will be no more films, no more photos, no more haiku, and we won’t see him again.

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