The "99 Homes" director salutes his mentor, who inspired the younger filmmaker's career.
When I saw “Where is the Friend’s House?” as a teenager, my path as a burgeoning filmmaker was irrevocably altered. I immediately tracked down VHS copies (badly dubbed, pirated) of “Close Up” and “Life and Nothing Else…” and watched them in my hometown of Winston-Salem, NC, wondering how the prosaic can be revealed with such a profound depth of poetry. Can cinema be like this?
I landed in New York for college in time to see a magnificent 35mm print of “Through the Olive Trees” at the New York Film Festival in 1994. In the Q&A that followed, an elderly viewer angrily demanded of Kiarostami to know what happened in the final long shot. Had the young man convinced the woman to marry him or not? In typical sly form, Kiarostami replied that he was too far away to hear. The woman stormed out, believing it was a sin not to provide an ending. I, on the other hand, was bewitched.
“Drink wine and look at the moon
and think of all the civilizations
the moon has seen passing by.”
– Omar Khayyam
Afterwards, I lied my way backstage like a burglar, hoping to steal one leaf from one branch of the Maestro’s giant tree of wisdom. I wanted to know: How does one make a film that doesn’t seem to even be a film? How did you reveal everything around us that we have been unable to see? He listened politely, asked me a few questions and gave me a fax number to contact him. As I scribbled it down, my pen ran out of ink. When I looked up, he was already gone.
I would next find him in Tehran, in the late nineties. Inspired by the cinema of Kiarostami, Naderi and Bezai (and to learn about my parents’ homeland and culture) I went to Iran for the first time in my life. During my three years there, Kiarostami was gracious enough to meet with me on many occasions where he quietly, often reluctantly, and sometimes impatiently, offered guidance in response to my persistent badgering.
I returned to New York to make my first film with many lessons learned, including: the importance of going for walks, of finding creativity in restrictions, on making your second film immediately after the first, on interviewing non-actors and rewriting for them and for locations, and of learning how to look.
“One’s eyes must be cleaned,
a new way must be seen.”
– Sohrab Sepheri
In 2005, while screening my first feature at the Marrakech Film Festival, I was asked to translate Kiarostami’s week-long master class, which hosted by the Tribeca Film Institute and Hunter College. I was joined by his elder son, my dear friend, Ahmad, for one of the most important and memorable weeks of my life. There was no right or wrong, Kiarostami would say, and I have nothing to teach you. “Stay simple” was one of his mantras.
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At the time, I was dead broke and casting my next film while living from sofa to sofa. I asked Mick Hurbis-Cherrier, the wonderful professor and host from Hunter, if he would hire me. As I had no graduate degree and had only made one film, I was shocked and grateful when he offered me an adjunct position. Years later, I asked him why he did it. He thought for a moment and laughed. I liked your film, he said, but honestly, for one week you were speaking Kiarostami’s words, so I thought you were a genius. A decade later, I am still repeating Kiarostami’s words to my students at Columbia University — and to myself.
Let us drink water of wisdom
when we thirst for speech.
– Sohrab Sepheri
Kiarostami was enthusiastic after seeing my film, “Man Push Cart,” but had a comment: orchestral music has highs and lows, sadness and joy, bursts of quick, bold energy followed by lulls that allow you to nap. It is not a straight line, he said, and then drew an erratic line on his napkin illustrating the emotions he had described. Life is more like this, he said, pointing to the line.
The next year, he was seated behind me in Cannes at the premiere of my second film, “Chop Shop.” When it ended, he hugged and kissed me, and said, this is more like life. The next day, we bumped into each other. He had two complaints about my film: one shot should have been six frames shorter and another 36 frames shorter. I went back and looked. He was right. This detailed precision was something I never expected. It exemplifies the elusiveness of the depth, complexity and power of his cinema.
If you are coming to me
Approach gently, softly lest you crack
The fragile china of my solitude!
– Sohrab Sepheri
While taking a walk tonight to remember Kiarostami and his films, I bumped into one of my gifted students, a Taiwanese young man by way of Vancouver. He had just wrapped his thesis film. When I told him the news, he was bewildered. He mumbled something and stumbled away, leaning on his Japanese non-actress (a hairdresser whose real life inspired the film) for support. As I watched him, I realized he is one of the thousands of seeds that Kiarostami inadvertently planted around the globe. In times of darkness, Kiarostami’s cinema will illuminate and nurture them – and all of us – with its great beauty, simplicity, solitude, joy, humor and magnificence of life and of…
“Behind this window, a stranger
Worries about me and you.
You in your greenery,
Lay your hands – those burning memories –
On my loving hands.
And entrust your lips, replete with life’s warmth,
To the touch of my loving lips
The wind will carry us!
The wind will carry us!”
– Forough Farrokhzad