The death of renowned Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami has jolted the world of cinema mourning the loss of a genius who epitomized Albert Schweitzer’s philosophy of reverence for life. Although it is unclear if Kiarostami was familiar with the works of Schweitzer, nonetheless there is a great deal of natural affinity between them, worthy of reflection. It may be apt to say that what Schweitzer achieved in ethical philosophy has been mirrored by Kiarostami in the cinematic medium, which has been nowadays reduced to an “industry” rather than art under the spell of capitalism.
In fact, serious credit is due to Kiarostami for his pioneering role in nurturing a global culture of peace through his films — that were made in Iran, Europe, and Japan. The acclaimed director who deservedly won many awards at international film festivals was a kind, humble, and sincere humanist whose care for the other defined the essence of his work, much of which focused on the downtrodden, the marginalized, the rural invisible, illuminating the profound contradictions of his modernizing society, the role of women, foreign refugees, the poor and so on.
With some seventy short and feature films to his glorious career, Kiarostami was a true mirror of his society that is today self-agonizing for underappreciating him while he was alive, a belated adjustment toward a man who was simultaneously simple yet complex, whose identity was rooted in the Iranian culture yet was able to transcend the national limitations and inspire his audience to digest the humanist values and norms that his movies cultivated across borders east and west. In that sense, Kiarostami with his unique reverence for life approach to filmmaking was a cosmopolite who made films for the whole world and thus touched subjects such as friendship, identity, and relationship that resonate globally in today’s “global village.”
A clue to his originality, Kiarostami constantly blended facts and fiction and treated us with new discoveries about ourselves in each film, often, as in the movie Certified Copy, dwelling on the ambiguities of love and relationship. According to Mohsen Makhmalbaf, another renowned Iranian filmmaker, Kiarostami was not content to merely show the rich texture of human life and offered solutions as well, such as showing friendship as capable of offering the resolution of human alienation and existential loneliness. Indeed, this is what sets Kiarostami and some western like-minded filmmakers apart, that is, his refrain from cynicism and consistently projecting an optimism of will as well as optimism of the intellect.
At the same time, Kiarostami, who was an avid follower of the naturalist Iranian poet Sohrab Sepehri, devoted considerable attention to the beauty of nature and his reverence for nature and its animals, such as dogs featured in some of his movies, forms another unique aspect of his films, particularly those that were made in the countryside and depict the simplicity of rural life. It may well be said that Kiarostami was an artistic populist who romanticized the rural over the urban and even in the urban context constantly searched for the (often lost) humanist element, e.g., in the movie Close Up’s main character the hidden reservoir of suppressed human goodness is brought to the fore.
In retrospect, Kiarostami’s contribution to cinema may be summed up as restorative, restoring the once upon a time logic of filmmaking that was not insatiably wedded to profit-making but rather to truth and understanding in tune with a filmmic culture of peace, conceived as the antidote for the cinematic-induced alienation of contemporary man.