Abbas Kiarostami is one of my all-time favorite film directors, the creator of Where is the Friend’s House, The Willow Tree, Life and Nothing More, Taste of Cherry. Slow and meditative, the films are steeped patiently in the local hilly landscape surrounding Tehran that frames the narrow winding gravel roads through which the films’ protagonists seek passage. I always figured that there was some religious or spiritual or mystical dimension to these films, but I was never able to identify it as such, and I never got around to reading the critical and scholarly literature about his work.
By happy happenstance, I had the opportunity to begin putting the pieces together last spring semester (2014). Kiorastami was visiting at Syracuse University, where he led a workshop with film students organized by Owen Shapiro at the Department of Transmedia in the College of Visual Performing Arts. Gail Hamner, my friend and colleague in the Department of Religion, got wind of Kiorastami’s stay with us and organized department support for the event. Gail’s efforts secured us access to and with the filmmaker, namely a screening and discussion and a dinner with faculty colleagues. The visit stands out as one of the highlights of my time at the university.
The short film screened was Roads of Abbas Kiorastami. He then took questions from the largely Religion and English & Textual Studies faculty and graduate students. Prompted by a question about landscape, the passage through space, and the problem of communication, Kiorastami immediately began to talk about God and Nature. To put it more precisely, he began to talk about the communication with God who appears as Nature. At the end of Roads, the photographic paper on which the landscapes now appears suddenly burns up. The resulting blackness allows you to see how the world acts like material support or screen upon which the God appears under the attributes of infinite extension, infinite mind. Communication, he implied, is less blocked when, as Gail said it, one removes the obstacle by minimizing human presence. Kiorastami’s is a vision of acosmic presence saturating landscape in the world of space and time, in which mercy stands out as the most important divine and human attribute.
Touching upon religion, film, and literature, much of his response that Thursday afternoon, and then with us at dinner, was framed around the Persian poetic-philosophical tradition. Kiorastami mentioned explicitly Rumi and Farid ud-Din Attar, the author of The Conference of the Birds. As I remember reading The Conference of the Birds out west on the road in the Grand Tetons on my way to graduate school many years ago, the poem has as its subject the systematic annihilation of the self in Nature, in God. What Kiorastami’s mention of this poem and Rumi brought sharply into focus was the impulse of the Shia and Sufi aesthetic-mystical-philosophical tradition towards nature at work in his films.
I don’t think any of our discussion with the director was planned or premeditated. He himself confessed that, frankly, preparing for dinner, he had no idea what to expect from this meeting with a bunch of strangers. From our side of things, I don’t think any of us could have been so gauche as to instigate in any direct way a conversations with Kiorastami about something so touchy as religion. But that’s what ended up happening. More to the point, Kiorastami seemed more than pleased to talk with us about it. The biggest surprise for me from the visit was when Kiorastami was asked if he felt isolated as a religious or spiritual person among his peers in the world of cinema. In response, Owen told us, perfectly serious, that there was just about nothing else about which filmmakers and film students want to talk. Surprised and incredulous, I blurted out, “Are you kidding?!” Apparently not. Scholars of religion need to start talking with film-people.
This is what God looks like in film: large and engorged, hard and capacious, bright and dark, stable and enfolding. In the larger body of Kiorastami’s work, God appears in nature and nature in God. A smooth place, God looks like baked mountainous landscapes through which the small human subject seeks passage, driving slowly and deliberately in a car over zig-zagging gravel roads in search of contact, communication, and relief. By religion, Kiorastami meant something more like spirituality, something free and undogmatic, individually idiosyncratic and skeptical, not political theology, but formed and shaped, for all that, by the poetry of local place, local religion, local custom, local tradition, local life and death.
Abbas Kiorastami was kind and gracious with us. The conversation was open, warm, and intimate. About religion and film I can only speculate. Maybe it’s the case that something happens to you when you place yourself behind a technological apparatus in order to look slowly and deeply into and out onto the world. These kinds of religious or spiritual or mystical perspectives become more and more pronounced with a video and digital cinema, easier to simulate, because digital media allow you to play around with the natural order of an appearance, to illuminate them as large, bright, dark. My bet is that we’ll see more of these kinds of imaginings in the future, not fewer, as film begins to play at its medium.