November 29, 2009

Thoughts on Seeing Abbas Kiarostami's "Five: Dedicated to Ozu"

I have seen several of the films of Abbas Kiarostami, an Iranian director; his work gives an insight into the daily life of Iranians––a thing we Westerners sorely need––while dealing with large questions of existence. In his film Ten from 2002, he moved away from narrative, showing the interactions between a woman driving around Iran and her ten different passengers. With Five he goes further, eschewing story completely, except for the narrative the viewer brings to the work. For both of these works, Kiarostami uses a digital camera which brings a sense of immediacy and reality to the images.

The film consists of five long takes, each with a stationery camera, each about 15 minutes long. We can think of Andy Warhol's films from the 1960s, Sleep and Empire, continuous takes of 5 and 8 hours respectively, as predecessors to Five, but as opposed to those, Five is very watchable. It demands patience and attentive looking; it rewards with a renewed sense of wonder at the visual and auditory world, of marvel in small things.

The first segment shows a cylindrical piece of driftwood at the edge of the sea, moved by waves out of and into the water. As I watched this tiny drama, it became a metaphor for fate, a literal "being buffeted by the waves". Another part had the camera focused on a boardwalk, with white horizontals of railing against the blue of sea and sky. As each character crossed the screen, whether animal or human, it created a new composition and a new tale; the "story" culminated in two pairs of men meeting, talking, and parting. Because of the utter simplicity of the set, our awareness of movement, of fullness and emptiness is vivid. I was struck by how I made a narrative out of the elements presented on this stage; a meeting that would ordinarily be unnoticed becomes a grand drama.

Another part of the film, which provided comic relief, showed many ducks walking across the screen from left to right. We see them one at a time, in groups, running or waddling; we hear the sound of the sea and the sound of the thwack thwack of their feet on sand. Each duck becomes an individual personality. And of course this is all ripe for metaphor as suddenly the ducks reverse course and toddle back quickly in the opposite direction.

In a fourth take, that also includes animals, we make out a few dogs across a wide beach as the light of day brightens; the light becomes the main character as it brightens so much (with the viewer not realizing at first) that sea, waves, and dogs become attenuated in the great wash of brilliance.

The final take is of the moon reflected on a pond, a seemingly simple image. But the sky is partly cloudy and the moon is obscured at times; a storm threatens, then arrives; we see nothing but black, then lightning illuminates raindrops. Throughout is a cacophony of frogs and toads, so loud that my cat woke up to try to find out what the fuss was about. I felt immersed in a sensual experience with each moment being different, each worthy of a heightened awareness. We are rewarded at the end with the coming of dawn, and feel enlarged and moved by the experience of the entire film.

I was also fascinated by the documentary Around Five: The Making of 5 in which Kiarostami describes his process in making this work, and his philosophical approach to art making. He considers Five "...a real experimental film...something between perhaps photography, poetry and cinema." He spoke about objects in a way that resonated strongly with me, and helped me to understand why I was so taken with his movie. He talked of having "met" the piece of driftwood, seeing it as a person, with its experiences visible on its body, and that it had "become a receptacle for memories". He continued:
We should set our imagination free about everything, and based on conjecture, bring back the value that something has had and has lost. With this in mind, I think we should extract the values that are hidden in objects and expose them by looking at objects, plants, animals and humans, everything.
This attentive looking at everything, holding each object in deep regard, adds grace to our world. Many of us pick up rocks and shells on our travels, investing each item with the memory of that trip. Among my prized souvenirs is a railroad spike picked up in central Australia, on a trip there over 20 years ago. There is an allure to old things, such as boxes or old toys, which comes from their history, the age and wear that tell a tale of time past. Each of these things is beautiful. But also beautiful are machines that tell me a story of working life now; and more obviously, things that are alive: human, plant, and animal. And things of art. As Kiarostami says, "everything". And about our lives he believes that
Even daily life should ultimately reach an essence that is akin to poetry.


  1. altoon, [sorry for no caps; i had hand surgery last week], i would like very much to see this & other films made in iran. can you recommend more?

  2. Kiarostami's most famous film is a must-see: Taste of Cherry. Another of his narratives that's very good is The Wind Will Carry Us. Then if you're ready for a more experimental tour of Tehran, try Ten. Then you can check Netflix, because I don't know of any other films to recommend.
    Best wishes for a speedy recovery, Susan

  3. ah! thank you very much. perhaps the downstairs video folks have some of these.
    i'll ask.

  4. Lovely visit here with you and the movie review. I always treat myself to an Iranian film at the GMFF...I will try to find Ten and Five. Sound special.
    Susan, hope your healing is going well.