Abbas Kiarostami at a press conference in the Walter Reade. Photo: Godlis

This interview was originally published in October 2012, during the 50th New York Film Festival. Like Someone in Love opens theatrically at Film Society of Lincoln Center on Friday, February 15.

Much like his films, the great director Abbas Kiarostami is generous and complex, empathetic and playful, sometimes even gently mischievous. His latest film, Like Someone in Love, tells the story of two people at opposite poles of life—Takashi (Tadashi Okuno), an 80-year-old retired professor and Akiko (Rin Takanashi), a 20-year-old university student who moonlights as a call girl—who over the course of 24 hours experience a curious set of events. Kiarostami got the idea for the film two decades ago on a trip to Japan, but did not make it until he felt he was old enough to understand the character of the retired professor.

Despite the language barrier, while shooting Like Someone in Love, Kiarostami would “talk to [Tadashi] very personally in Farsi. … It wasn't about words, but about feeling… about communicating something nonverbal between us. … But then the true relationship started, beyond words, understanding each other. … [Tadashi] had earned his living in film for 50 years, but had never uttered a line. He was a professional extra. I told him he had small role in the film [because] I knew he would not do it if he thought he was [playing] the lead role.” Kiarostami saw in Tadashi Okuno’s self-effacement the “wisdom of Buddha… who said 'a wise man does not shine.'”

Tadashi Okuno in Like Someone in Love

A self-described admirer of Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, Kiarostami told me that the “[Takashi] character could be related to Ozu's world,” but that Like Someone in Love was not meant to be an ode to Ozu. Kiarostami does not, he explains, “create his characters” and their lives: rather he “interferes” with them. This interference, he intimates, is best kept minimal, so that unplanned moments, such as one in Like Someone in Love in which a distracted woman and her children are almost hit by a car, can penetrate and vivify the mise-en-scène.

As Kiarostami has gotten older, he has come to “see storytelling more and more as an obstacle… to true cinema.” He sees himself doing more and more video art, and less feature filmmaking, going forward. Anyway, he says, if he were not constantly innovating, he “would become a bored technician.” A great fan of the digital camera, Kiarostami cites a 13th century Persian poem as his digital ars poetica. The poem tells of a polo player who strikes a ball with his mallet, thus inducing a reaction which defines the subsequent relationship between player and ball. The poem compares the player and his ball to lovers: “I give you the impulse,” Kiarostami summarized, “but you’re the one who moves forward. And I follow you.” The digital camera, he explained, allows the relationship between director and actor to be more fully like that between lovers, and the art born of this relationship of shared contingencies is for him the purest. 

Rin Takanashi in Like Someone in Love

Working in digital, Kiarostami told me, has changed the way he approaches cinematography. For instance, he now films from different angles than he did when shooting on film. When I asked about his use of the car window—and the windshield in particular—as a kind of second lens that not only refracts but reflects, he grew (almost) animated:
“It would be very interesting to compare! The evolution is not quite conscious, I'm sure of that. But, the angles are definitely different between Like Someone in Love, and Taste of Cherry [1997] and Through the Olive Trees [1994] (which were shot on film). … What I find interesting in reflections, is when shooting from the exterior of the car while focusing on the characters’ faces, for us not to see only the characters’ faces, but using the windshield to see what's going on around. It's an element of atmosphere, thanks to the reflections, rather than just using the [windshield] as an obstacle to the faces. It often depends on how my DPs react to the idea of reflection. Some of them really don't like it and will do anything to avoid it, by using a piece of fabric or whatever. I remember asking some who would do it, who would accept when asked, but who would be frustrated doing it, so I wouldn’t push too much if I felt it didn't come to them naturally as a way of working. And maybe this second lens that you're referring to may be a result of the new digital cameras. I should really go back and check on this myself. I'm not sure quite what the evolution has been, but there has been an evolution for sure.”

For his upcoming film, to be set in Italy, Kiarostami hopes to extend the arc of his evolution, to be “even bolder,” despite the sense of responsibility that accepting foreign funding introduces. Unlike films he makes in Iran (of which he has two already planned), which he pays for out of his own pocket, foreign films like Certified Copy (2010) and Like Someone in Love require a minimum return on investment, which presents a set of risks altogether extraneous to the production, and to which he is still getting accustomed.

Yet “risk,” Kiarostami told me through his interpreter, “is the essence of my work, or by definition, my work is risk.” When I asked him to name some films that took risks in ways that he enjoyed, Kiarostami responded, “I prefer not to quote names because I am afraid of skipping [over] someone and feeling guilty afterwards. But I will [cite] someone like Bresson… his way of seeing cinema, and the cinema he proposed, [because] his was a redefinition of cinema by essence. People like him or Tarkovsky, they reach another level of truth, which redefines the art form itself. And by that definition, whoever today makes films that are not just games, they are taking a big risk because what's at stake is the survival of their art.”

A careful essayer of risk, Kiarostami several times mentioned “the risk of misunderstanding,” which, in these charged times, one can hardly dissociate completely from the political misunderstandings that have defined the relationship between Washington and Tehran. When I asked him if there was anything to be made of the fact that Like Someone in Love is perhaps his most violent film to date, he demurred, explaining that Japanese film in general is violent (so violent in fact that it had almost ceased to appeal to him); Like Someone in Love was set in Japan, and so the characters spoke Japanese and engaged in violent behavior—this was a project-specific decision. Several days later, though, during his HBO Directors Dialogue at NYFF, Kiarostami characterized the US-Iran relationship as shot through with tragic misunderstandings.

Global politics are not Mr. Kiarostami’s preoccupation. Rather, he is most concerned with individual people and how they relate to one another. As our conversation wound down, Kiarostami switched to English, explaining, “[I have been] talking from 9AM ‘til now [4PM] non-stop and [my translator, Massoumeh Lahidji] has been doing double the work, from Farsi to English [and back], so sometimes I really worry about her.” Gently putting his hand on her back, he politely brought the interview to a close.