Iranian Film Director Abbas Kiarostami

Belly laughs and breast-beating
The films of Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami are banned in his home country. But why do they want to show his latest work? Angelique Chrisafis finds out

Angelique Chrisafis, The Guardian, August 11 2008

As he walks down the half-lit stairwell of a Paris cafe where Picasso and Modigliani used to hang out, Abbas Kiarostami takes out his camera and snatches a shot of a painted frieze. "Very nice," he smiles, with the wonderment of a man abroad.

Kiarostami - the godfather of Iranian cinema, a director who has won so many international awards that he long ago stopped accepting them - still seems very much the outsider in the western cities that celebrate him as one of the greatest film-makers of all time. Unlike other Iranian directors who fled abroad, he still lives in Tehran, despite a regime that has not permitted his films to be shown there for the past 10 years. Yet Kiarostami does not overtly preach politics, saying the regime does its thing, he does his - his thing being to capture Iranians' everyday lives with a tenderness and gentle humour that makes western audiences melt.

European and US arts supremos have long schemed to get him to direct in the west, for the stage and for screen, hoping he'll bring with him the poetic, intensely human touch of films such as Taste of Cherry, in which a sad-eyed man about to commit suicide on a hillside tries to convince various strangers to come and bury him afterwards. But Kiarostami, 68, chooses foreign projects with care, wary of stepping outside his own Iranian arena. He has just finished directing his first opera, Mozart's Così Fan Tutte, at the Aix-en-Provence festival in France. "The most moving thing anyone said to me," he says, "was that it was the kindest, friendliest, most human version they had ever seen."

Meanwhile, his Looking at Tazieh - a remarkable new multimedia installation about an ancient epic that whips Iranian villagers into a frenzy - opens in Edinburgh this week. When the French actor Juliette Binoche saw it, she bawled her eyes out all the way through, and ever since has buried herself in books on Shiism and Islam, to "understand why these people were crying like that".

Tazieh is a traditional form of passion play that recounts epic sagas in memory of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein. One minute it's getting belly-laughs, the next distraught sobbing and breast-beating; audiences lose themselves in a kind of ritual mourning and group outpouring of grief. So rapt are the enthralled audience of Tazieh that no amount of hamming or artifice can put them off. Kiarostami remembers watching a performance as a child: an actor dressed as a lion took out a cigarette for a quick smoke without remotely putting the audience off. "The guy who came over to light his cigarette was crying - he was swept away by the rest of the performance."

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