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Abbas Kiarostami put Iran’s resurgent film culture on the international map when Taste Of Cherry won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1997. Before that, he’d won acclaim with Where Is the Friend’s House?, Life And Nothing More…, Through The Olive Trees, and Close-Up. The lattermost retold the story of Ali Sabzian, who ingratiated himself with a wealthy Tehran family by impersonating Kiarostami’s colleague Mohsen Makhmalbaf—a story whose collision between film and real life was made more pronounced by Kiarostami casting Sabzian and Makhmalbaf as themselves, and the use of real footage from Sabzian’s court trial. (Unfortunately, almost none of Kiarostami’s pre-Taste of Cherry work is commercially available in America, with the notable exception of Criterion’s recent Close-Up Blu-ray.) In the last decade, Kiarostami has been shooting almost exclusively on digital video, and his work has grown more abstract: 2008’s Shirin, shot in his basement in Tehran, is composed of shots of women watching an unseen film; 2003’s Five: Dedicated To Ozu is closer to video art, comprising five static long takes in which the rhythms of life take on a lyrical, sometimes comic significance.
Certified Copy is something else entirely. A film of firsts: Kiarostami’s first feature shot outside of Iran (in Tuscany) and his first to rest on the performance of a professional actor (a virtuosic turn by Juliette Binoche), as well as his first narrative in a decade. The exact nature of its plot remains a subject of debate even after multiple viewings, but in broad terms, the film hinges on an encounter between a single mother (Binoche) and a British cultural critic (opera singer William Shimell) who has written a book praising the place of copies in art history. Over the course of a single day and many long conversations, their relationship seems to shift with each passing moment, so that even as we are transfixed by their interactions, we remain uncertain how to interpret them. While re-introducing Kiarostami to cinema audiences who have not seen much of him of late, the film is of a piece with a career built on encouraging, and sometimes forcing, viewers to reconsider their relationship with the images in front of them, and what, if anything, they represent. Kiarostami spoke with The A.V. Club via a translator from his home in Tehran about his failed attempts to make Binoche less professional, the pleasures and drawbacks of shooting in high-definition, and why he fell asleep during Certified Copy’s Cannes première.
The A.V. Club: So much of the discussion around Certified Copy focuses on the precise nature of the relationship between Juliette Binoche and William Shimell’s characters. Do you intend for there to be an answer to that question?
Abbas Kiarostami: No, I really don’t intend to answer this question. I think this issue is a universal, absolute question for all of us. The only thing that I can do is hold a mirror in front of men and women, in front of the viewer in the theater, to reflect. There is nothing but reflection that I could intend to offer the viewer of the film.
AVC: There seems to be a connection with your last film, Shirin, which was composed of shots of women watching a movie that we never see, in the sense of how profoundly what we see and how others see us affects the way we exist in the world.
AK: In my experience as a director, I think there is obviously something of the way men—maybe that’s a common point with Shirin—the way men see women in the film, and the way these two characters see each other.
AVC: You’ve almost never worked with professional actors. In Close-Up, when Sabzian finally meets Mohsen Makhmalbaf, you removed the audio from the encounter, because you felt, even though Makhmalbaf is a director and not an actor, that the film professional had an unfair advantage. So what was different about the relationship between Juliette Binoche, who is a professional actor, and William Shimell, who isn’t?
AK: Well, I think the pattern you are drawing between these two couples is very interesting. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it’s a point that you are making. Maybe the difference is that in Close-Up, it was a true story that was going on between them, in real life. So I was a bit inhibited by my power as a director. I was wondering what I could allow myself to do or not. Whereas here, everything is written, so it was like a kind of invitation from me to Mr. Shimell to the professional world. I was taking him with me to the professional world.
AVC: Was it important that William Shimell, although not an actor, was a performer, someone who was used to being on stage in front of people?
AK: Not at all. I really didn’t choose him because he was a performer. I could have bumped into him in a bus or in a cafe, and I would have picked him, too. I think what it was about him was a kind of self-confidence that maybe you could relate to his profession, but that I could see only in the man himself. I think I would have noticed that aspect of his character, the self-confidence, whatever he did as a job.
The thing is, as a matter of fact, I chose him because he was non-professional, because he was not an actor. I thought that choosing a non-professional was a condition for me, because it would allow Juliette to have a less-professional way of acting. It would challenge her performance as a professional actress. But then when he started acting, he gave such a professional performance that I realized I had to adapt to new expectations.
AVC: Was that disappointing, that he didn’t end up being more unprofessional, in a sense? More authentic?
AK: Well, I wouldn’t say that I was disappointed, but to some extent, I was surprised. I was the one who was taken aback. I was hoping to have Juliette a bit disturbed in her way of acting. But then as he wasn’t that non-professional and he was giving a professional performance, I had to adapt to it more than Juliette had to.
AVC: In addition to working with an experienced professional in Juliette Binoche, you were also making a movie outside of your home country with a largely Italian crew, and working with a detailed script for the first time. How did that affect the process for you?
AK: If you want me to answer honestly, I have to tell you that it was nothing but pleasure. The fact of having this very new context, this unheard-of way of working, for me was very pleasant. I didn’t feel that I was working, that I had any kind of burden to wear, to carry. I really was very happy and very lighthearted during the whole process of making the film, of shooting it. I was much more relaxed and very pleasant during the whole process. But then as a result, when the film was in the Cannes Festival last year, I realized that the fact of having it shot in a different culture, in a different language, in a different setting, that wasn’t mine and that I didn’t belong to, gave me a totally different relationship to the film. When I was sitting in the audience during the official screening in Cannes, I didn’t feel that it was my film. It was a film that I knew, that I had seen, that I was familiar with, but I wasn’t anxious about it at any point during the screening. I snoozed twice, and this is something I couldn’t have imagined that I would feel detached, as I did with this film.
AVC: You’ve said in the past that you’re not offended if people sleep during your films, as long as they dream about them afterward.
AK: I’ve said that many times, and I’m not sure if it has been understood right, because very often they take that as a joke, whereas I mean it. I really think that I don’t mind people sleeping during my films, because I know that some very good films might prepare you for sleeping or falling asleep or snoozing. It’s not to be taken badly at all. This is something I really mean. But the kind of sleep that I had during my own film screening in Cannes is different. It’s not because of the specificity of the film. It was because of my relationship as an author to this film. Usually when I take my films to festivals, I feel incredibly anxious about them. I wonder how it will be received, how the audience will react. I feel deeply responsible for them. Whereas this time, I didn’t have that responsibility on my shoulders. I saw this French woman, this English man in Italy. It was a film I knew well, but I had already seen it, and I was familiar with it, and I had no feeling of anxiety or responsibility toward it.
AVC: With the exception of your segment in the anthology film Tickets, you’ve essentially given up film for shooting on digital video. But with Certified Copy, you used the RED camera, which has a look much closer to film. How did that affect the process for you?
AK: You’re referring to the last 10 years. I have received the digital camera as a blessing. It has really changed my life as a filmmaker, because I don’t use my camera anymore as a camera. I don’t feel it as a camera. I feel it as a friend, as something that doesn’t make an impression on people, that doesn’t make them feel uncomfortable, and that is completely forgotten in my way of approaching life and people and film. So the digital camera has given me total freedom and a different way of filming. This time, with the RED, I didn’t have this impression at all. I felt that it was as heavy as a film camera. Having this great crew, with the DP and his assistants, I found it making as much of an impression as a very big film camera. I didn’t relate to it as much. I remember avoiding it during the shooting rather than paying attention to it. It was there, I had to deal with it, but I didn’t create any kind of relation with it. I’m still very grateful to digital cameras in general, but I didn’t have this feeling with the RED one.
AVC: You are a filmmaker, and as such, you in a sense make copies of life. Do you believe, like Shimell’s character in the film, that a copy is as good as the original, or that it leads us back to the original?
AK: I would say that the way you are referring to copies gives very high expectations on what a copy can be. I think life is so difficult to catch, it’s so furtive, that a copy, a film, can in no way catch it and represent it. As I was mentioning with the digital camera, maybe this new fashion of filmmaking gives a closer look of what life may be like. But it’s still nothing but a copy. I think it was Godard who said that life is nothing but a bad copy of film, but then our ambition must be to make better films and better shapes of forms that are given in life.