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Last Updated: Friday, 29 April 2005, 09:06 GMT 10:06 UK
Iran's top director lauded in London
By Sarah Brown
BBC News

Abbas Kiarostami
Kiarostami has won praise for his challenging work
A major retrospective of Iranian film director Abbas Kiarostami's work has started in London, focusing attention on one of cinema's most unconventional filmmakers.

In addition to showing a series of Kiarostami's films, the month-long celebration will include an exhibition of his photographs, poetry readings, art installations and theatrical productions throughout the city.

It is a wealth of material for a director whose work, though beloved of international critics, is little known by mainstream audiences both in his home country and abroad.

However, Farhad Hakimzadeh, chief executive of the Iranian Heritage Foundation which has helped organise the festival, told the BBC News website it is the perfect time to celebrate a filmmaker whose work has universal appeal.

"He doesn't just address local issues, unlike many Iranian directors," he says.

"If he wants to talk about the way a woman deals with modernity in society he will examine the problems they encounter, regardless of whether they are Iranian or not.

"His films are never just about issues specific to Iran, which is why his work travels so well."

Censorship clashes

Born in Tehran in 1940, Kiarostami obtained a degree in fine arts and worked as a designer before joining a youth organisation called Kanun, establishing its film department and directing his first film, Bread and Alley, in 1970.

Photo of Iran by Kiarostami
The director's haunting photography is also being exhibited
After several productions which delighted international critics and infuriated Iranian censors, he won the prestigious Palm D'Or at Cannes for his 1997 film Taste of Cherry, the poignant tale of one man's attempts to press a stranger into helping him to commit suicide.

Unlike many Iranian filmmakers who fled following the 1979 Islamic revolution, Kiarostami has stayed in Iran, often saying he felt he made his best work in his native country.

But this has led to clashes with Iranian film censors. The director's work has not been shown officially in his native country for 10 years.

Despite increasing international acclaim, Mr Kiarostami also found himself an unwitting victim of tightened US immigration laws following the 11 September attacks, after he was denied a visa to attend a screening of his 2002 film Ten at the New York Film Festival.

"I feel this decision is somehow what I deserve," he said sardonically at the time.

Low budget creativity

Without access to big Hollywood budgets, Kiarostami has become a major proponent of digital video, arguing that its relative cheapness and flexibility allows him more creative control as a director.

He also uses mainly non-professional actors in his films, arguing they create "fiction more realistic than reality".

He deals with universal and simple questions we all have to cope with, but in a fresh way
NFT programmer Geoff Andrew
Ten, which follows the story of a female divorcee taxi driver in Tehran and her conversations with various fares, including her son, a prostitute and an elderly woman, is a classic example. Simply and starkly shot, in concentrates on the interaction between driver and passenger.

"I wanted to see if it was possible to make a whole film using just two points of view," he told the BBC shortly after the film's release.

Engaging the audience

Geoff Andrew, programmer for the UK's National Film Theatre and author of a book on the film Ten, argues that the director's low budget, no frills approach allows him to concentrate more on challenging the audience.

"Kiarostami works with ordinary people, with simple ideas about what it means just to be alive or happy," he told the BBC News website.

"He deals with universal and simple questions we all have to cope with, but in a fresh way."

Andrews acknowledges that audiences experiencing Kiarostami's work for the first time may find his work confusing, even frustrating, but he says people observing it at the exhibitions should put aside their expectations.

"He does divide people, because he makes such idiosyncratic and unconventional films," he says.

"But his films are not depressing or bleak or so intellectually challenging they are impenetrable, they deal with simple topics.

"He just encourages the audience to think."

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