Realism as Ethics: with an example from Abbas Kiarostami

Scope | Sudha K F

from Close-Up (Abbas Kiarostami, 1990)

One of the pioneers of Film Theory, Andre Bazin has written about the indexical property of the photographic image where an image is formed almost entirely mechanically without the intervention of a human being, though it might contain subjective traces of human personality. (Bazin 13) .  Abbas Kiarostami is one director who foregrounds the indexical image in his films.

Abbas Kiarostami’s films are known precisely for this quality of cinema in which his form gives an impression of the fictional narrative rolling over to real events or life in general. In fact lots of his films rely on the actual presence of people and places especially in rural Iran, which are then interwoven into the narrative of the film, like in his And Life Goes On (1992,  also known as Life and Nothing More), the film that is often said to be the second in his Koker trilogy. And Life Goes On is a film that is made on the premise of a man from the city going to the Koker region where Kiarostami’s previous film Where is my Friend’s Home (1987) is shot, which in this film has been hit by an earthquake and the protagonist is going there in search of the small boys, mainly the main lead child actor, who were the actors of Where is my Friend’s Home. This film in particular directly deals with the idea of cinema existing outside of the frame; this film centres around the fact that cinema exists outside of the screen, as a reality. There is a scene in the film where the protagonist has a poster of Where is my Friend’s Home and is asking the people in the village for the boy who acted as Ahmedpour in Where is my Friend’s Home. The film that is shot mostly as a car journey and scenes from inside and outside only with reference to the car is a journey which is propelled forward by the very existence of another film, the mindfulness of that film have been shot in these locations which in this film has been significantly altered and destroyed following an earthquake.

The film avoids and does not ever rely on the action-reaction shot convention. Rather the film, like many of Kiarostami’s later ones, draws upon voices that come from outside the car, but we do not see the faces of these voices. There is always the invocation of the presence of something beyond the cinematic screen that the spectator is constantly made aware of in this film that largely deals with shots of the car window in this journey of the protagonist. The protagonist’s journey in search for the boy who was an actor leads him to search for a boy with a gas stove. We see shots of the car climbing up an arid region towards the end of the film. This yellow car crawling up in a long shot-long take towards the end of the film. We see that he is exhausted in search and does not find the boy though he crosses a boy carrying a gas stove whom he stops to ask directions to. All this happens with a long shot accompanied by Western classical music, we see the car coming back to pick the boy up who gave the protagonist the instructions. The long shot effectively conveys a sense of observation. It allows an open-endedness in the scene which a close-up or mid shot cannot and again tells us that Kiarostami then seeks a gaze that is mindful of a world where cinema already exists; again what he seeks to foreground is the presence of life and thus the image.

His gaze is not just a modernist cinephiliac attempt that is self-referential; rather this search is one that is mindful of cinema as real and the real as cinema. His interweaving is not necessarily the real with cinema but let us say cinema with the real? It is these boundaries that are blurred in his films in an unconventional sense. If Godard’s Breathless (1960) took off as a homage to Humphrey Bogart and Hollywood simultaneously playing with its conventionalities politically too, Kiarostami’s is not a reference to cinema; rather it is an aesthetics that stitches together images as much as the presence of the ‘real’ in it.

Moinak Biswas in his essay written after the demise of Kiarostami “The Many Absences of Abbas Kiarostami” draws attention to this feature of Kiarostami’s cinema:

One of Kiarostami’s real innovations is to partake of the omnipresence of cinema without the reflexive attitude. He does not cite, let alone make spoofs. The acknowledgement of filming is not meant to reveal some deeper truth; it is part of a seamless reality his films affirm. It is an opening, like the car windows creating frames within frames in his signature shots.

This mixing of cinema with things outside of itself seems to be an aspiration for a truth, the seeking of a gaze that invites spectators to be part of it and hence this becomes a project in search of an “ethics” in its very “mixed” (with externalities like literature) aesthetics. Lucia Nagib in her book World Cinema and the Ethics of Realism talks about a different set of “realist” films and perhaps aesthetics, but nevertheless goes on to define “realist modes of production and address typical of new waves and new cinemas, as an ‘ethics’.” (P 10) Nagib writes:

Along the same lines, I would say that to choose reality instead of simulation is a moral question, but one which concerns casts and crews alone in their drive to merge with the phenomenological real, and this is why the stress on modes of production and address is here of the essence.

I think this reformulation of the “realist” aesthetics is key when thinking about cinema in general. By that, I don’t mean one has to completely disregard the questions raised by Cultural theory on the epistemological dominance of truth(s) of the “realist” project, and the locations it came from in different countries that embody the power dynamics in those enunciations. But such a reformulation, I think also draws attention to the sometimes radical project of having an investment in “truth” in the aesthetics that ventures away from the image to the real and the real to the image, to evidence a presence of both cinema and life in refreshingly new ways.

Works Cited

Bazin, André. 1967. “The Ontology of the Photographic Image.” What Is Cinema? Trans. Hugh Gray. Berkeley: U of California, 9-16.

Biswas, Moinak. 2016. “The Many Absences of Abbas Kiarostami.” The Wire. N.p., 07 July  Web.

Nagib, Lúcia. 2011. “Introduction”. World Cinema and the Ethics of Realism. New York, NY: Continuum International Pub. Group, 1-15.


About the Writer

Sudha K F is a 27-year-old filmmaker and is a postgraduate student in Film from the University of Reading, UK. She is a recipient of the Felix scholarship for 2016-2017.