Abbas Kiarostami’s Posthumous Poem

A Strange Trick of Perspective

Capturing life’s fragments, from Abbas Kiarostami’s 24 Frames to Ziad Doueiri’s The Insult.


Quiet, non-narrative films like Abbas Kiarostami’s posthumous 24 Frames are often tagged as “poetic,” the default term for anything that has neglected to squeeze itself into a commercially viable genre. Good enough. Let’s start with a few lines from a poem, Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man”:

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice…

…and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind….

And here is the first of the 24 framed images that compose Kiarostami’s film: a full-screen reproduction of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting The Hunters in the Snow. Three men returning from their labors, their backs turned to you, trudge toward a vast, frigid valley, dogs following their sunken tracks, ravens perched in the bare branches above, the peaked, snow-thatched roofs of little houses dropping away below. You contemplate the utter stillness. You feel time has stopped.

Then a plume of smoke begins to rise from a chimney in the painting. A fresh flurry of snow drifts down, accompanied by the whistle of wind. Crackling and cawing break onto the soundtrack—from the fire being tended near the inn at the picture’s left, from a bird swooping across the center of a mottled, overcast sky—and a real dog (I mean, the filmed image of one) wanders in, just to nose around. Then the dog trots out of the painting, the snow lets up, the wind dies down. Having given you a few moments of “life,” Kiarostami returns you to the painting and to silence—to a time that’s frozen. Like the “listener” in “The Snow Man,” who has learned to become “nothing himself,” you now behold “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” Fade to black.

It’s not hard to imagine Kiarostami himself fading to black, very slowly, during his time making 24 Frames. He puttered over the film in his basement in Tehran for three years, assisted by the digital animator Ali Kamali, who used a video program to layer movement and sound onto The Hunters in the Snow and dozens of scans of Kiarostami’s nature photographs. It must have been an absorbing process, which continued even after Kiarostami was hospitalized with cancer. By the time of his death, he had created more than enough computer-animated photographs to make up the 24 he wanted for a film—24 being the number of frames that ordinarily translate into one second of movie time. Each of his “frames,” though, lasts four and a half minutes. Kiarostami had figured out a new way to stretch time, but he couldn’t defeat it. After he died in July 2016, his son Ahmad completed the work.

Given this history, skeptics might wonder if 24 Frames conforms to Kiarostami’s final intentions, or if he’d even had time to formulate them. Some naysayers might also think the primary materials for 24 Frames—Kiarostami’s still photographs—are too slight to support 114 minutes of cinematic meditation. For the moment, let’s just say there’s an overwhelming consistency of imagery, process, and mood in 24 Frames, which makes the film feel very much like the considered work of a single artist—and not just any work, but the last testament.

Bruegel’s painting makes all the difference, establishing motifs that run through the next 23 animations of Kiarostami’s photographs. It’s winter in these images more often than not, with snow deep on the ground and trees shaking under gray skies. Dogs and birds show up frequently. (Crows might be the stars of the movie, given how often they hop and croak through the scenes.) Hunters make themselves felt in Kiarostami’s frames, too, though only off-screen, through the sound of their guns. The difference from Bruegel’s painting is that, with a few notable exceptions, a human presence is implied but unseen. Fences run across the unpopulated landscapes in some of the frames; in others, the landscape is glimpsed, or obscured, through the windows of uninhabited rooms.

There’s also transient, invisible evidence of humanity in the music that’s matched to some of the frames: an old tango by Francisco Canaro, Maria Callas performing “Un Bel di Vedremo,” Janet Baker singing the Schubert “Ave Maria,” or an instrumental number by the Naqsh Duo, two young Iranian women whose compositions sound like traditional Persian music crossed with Quartet for the End of Time.

Do these occasional patches of music violate the principle of Stevens’s “The Snow Man,” introducing the something of human desire into the fundamental nothing of the natural world? I’d rather say they set up a push-and-pull. Sometimes you feel dissolved into the scenes that Kiarostami has created, as if snow and wind were one with the birds and animals—as much inside them as outside—and one with you, too. (The land, Stevens writes, is full of the “same wind” that blows “in the same bare place / For the listener.”) At other times, you sit back and wonder at how much emotion you’re pouring into a scene with which you have only the most tenuous connection. This generally happens in the episodes in which you’re separated from the landscape, seeing it from inside a house (or, in one case, a car) while hearing the recorded music that someone has chosen to play. But who? Nobody’s in the room. The listener, too, has dissolved.

Whether the episodes are underscored by music or only by “natural” sound effects, they can be pitiless in their simplicity, as when two horses spar in a blizzard, or a prowling cat snatches a bird out of a burrow in the snow, which is immediately filled by another bird. The frames can be quizzical as well, or droll. A herd of cattle strolls in threes and fours across a deserted beach, with the cows looking for all the world as if they belong there. (Later, the same computer-animated herd walks through a clearing in a forest, just as improbably, and just as convincingly.) Or: A puppy on the beach runs up yapping to a seagull and scares it away. A moment later, the puppy re-enters to yap at the empty space where the seagull used to stand.

Whether you chuckle or brood, you think all the while of how the apparent motion in these photographs is an illusion—like the fictitious evidence that Kiarostami invented of an ongoing world outside the frame; like the impression of time unspooling naturally in scenes whose duration was arbitrarily decided and artificially fixed. In other words, you keep thinking about the essence of filmmaking. In his great fictions—and, even more, in the quasi-documentary fictions—Kiarostami pulled off the magical trick of keeping you aware of the movieness of the movie without ever distancing you from his characters. He was, in that sense, an anti-Brecht, who refused to alienate anybody. 24 Frames, though, has almost no characters except for the birds and animals—and they don’t do the two things that most interested Kiarostami about human beings, which are that we care for one another and we lie. So I wouldn’t argue with a moviegoer who finds 24 Frames too contemplative an experience. And yet there’s the departure of the final frame, inhabited by Kiarostami himself—or rather, this being a grand lie, by someone who implicitly represents him.

The setting is a room at night. A figure, seen from behind, lies face-down on a desk, dozing. Next to the figure, a computer monitor displays a freeze-frame of an old English-language movie. Maybe we’re looking at the film this person had been watching before falling asleep. Or maybe we’re seeing the person’s dream, projected onto the little screen nearby. Either way, the picture gradually jerks into motion. The movie’s scene continues; the actress and actor slowly kiss.

As a filmmaker subject to the laws of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Kiarostami was never permitted to show people kissing. But at the close of his life, using 24 Frames, he finally got to do just that. The music he chose to accompany this great moment is lushly sentimental. The image on the monitor is grainy and pixelated, and the person who would presumably be most interested in watching it is left fast asleep. No matter. As a warm filmmaker with a mind of winter, Kiarostami had learned that absurdities and impediments are as much a part of the world, and himself, as snow and wind. Everything was frozen, and the body was dying of cancer—and yet the kiss could happen.

The figure sleeps. The screen on the desk says: “The End.”

Through a strange trick of perspective, images of Palestinians and Israelis are coming closer to us in the movies just as the vision of a modus vivendi between the two peoples fades into the distance. We’ve recently seen the US debut of a documentary by Amos Gitai, West of the Jordan River, which in some ways continues his invaluable 1982 Field Diary, and the festival premiere of Julia Bacha’s documentary Naila and the Uprising, produced by the nonprofit Just Vision. (Disclosure: I have a personal connection to that organization.) Witness also two films longlisted for this year’s foreign-language Oscar: Samuel Maoz’s Foxtrot and Ziad Doueiri’s The Insult. Of the four, only Doueiri’s film holds out anything I could describe as hope, and it’s a strangely confected one at that.

To date, Doueiri is best known for the excellent debut feature West Beirut (1998), about teenagers in the midst of civil war, and the psychological thriller The Attack (2012), which was subject to a ban because its scenes of Tel Aviv were actually filmed there. (Lebanese citizens are proscribed from visiting Israel.) The Insult is a fable about an angry exchange of words in present-day Beirut. On one side is a Christian garage owner (Adel Karam) who is mostly concerned with his business and his pregnant wife, but who also happens to be a Phalangist nursing old grievances. On the other side is a Palestinian construction foreman (Kamel El Basha) who is mostly concerned with doing his job and supporting his family, but who also happens to be a former militant who fled Jordan after Black September. All it takes between these two is the wrong tone of voice: Words eventually escalate into clumsy physical violence, and then into a widely publicized lawsuit that threatens to set off a new civil war.

The dialogue in The Insult is punchy, the editing brisk, and the performances kept just a notch below swaggering exaggeration, as you might expect from a writer-director who has worked with Tarantino. But the real question isn’t whether the movie pops (which it does); it’s whether Doueiri achieves any justice by turning The Insult into a courtroom drama. What does he ultimately put on trial? Nothing less than the status of Palestinians as a particularly victimized people deserving of particular consideration.

In raising this issue for cinematic litigation, Doueiri shows himself to be an exemplary moderate, trying to have things both ways. He uses the courtroom setting to document the PLO’s massacre of Christian civilians in the village of Damour in 1976, weighting the film’s visual evidence and its screen time toward the position that Palestinians, too, have the blood of innocents on their hands. But the Phalangist lawyer who makes this case is played by Camille Salameh (think of Ian Holm as old Bilbo Baggins), while the pro-Palestinian attorney is Diamand Bou Abboud (think Jennifer Lawrence). That’s Doueiri’s formula for “turning the page,” as his characters say: Acknowledge the wrongs suffered by one side, but maintain the perceived glamour of the other.

Move south with the documentaries by Bacha and Gitai, though, and the facts on the ground don’t look very glamorous. In the somewhat slapdash West of the Jordan River, Gitai grabs on-the-scene interviews with Palestinians in Gaza and Hebron and learns that the only thing they want the Israelis to do is disappear. Meanwhile, in the studio-shot interviews with Israeli political leaders and journalists—who mostly run the gamut from Haaretz to Haaretz—he learns that Israel’s remaining leftists believe that the only thing likely to disappear is the last tatter of their democracy.

Bacha seems to come to a similarly bleak assessment in Naila and the Uprising. An admiring portrait of Naila Ayesh, a longtime activist in the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the 75-minute film is also an act of historical recovery, bringing to light the leadership of women in the first intifada, as well as the argument that the PLO undercut the best hopes of a grassroots movement by signing the Oslo Accords. Uprising is a vigorous film, but it sees hopes for change only when it looks back to when they were foreclosed.

It’s left to Samuel Maoz to put this sense of dreadful stasis into strong dramatic form in Foxtrot. A film about the terrible cost of the occupation for both peoples, and about the corrosive, self-defeating norms of Israeli manhood, Foxtrot is as impressive a movie as I’ve seen in months. Before it enters general release in March, I must inform the cultural boycotters that if they pass it up, they’ll miss an ingeniously structured, impeccably directed film that knows how to toy with you—and even raise a bitter smile—while it goes about breaking your heart.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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