It’s nearly 11 p.m. in Wiesbaden, Germany, by the time Abbas Kiarostami returns to his room. His movies have made him famous and have overshadowed his photography and poetry, but the 72-year-old has just spent the day promoting his photography exhibit Roads and Rain, which had just opened in Wiesbaden. Meanwhile, his latest film, Like Someone in Love, shot in Tokyo and entirely in Japanese, is making its way to cinemas around the world. Kiarostami is the standard-bearer of the traditional, modernist art movie, but as he reveals below, the burden may be growing tiresome. He spoke to The Globe through a translator.
I’ve read that this film started with something you saw in Japan many years ago.
Almost 20 years ago now. I was in Tokyo in Roppongi, a business area. There were plenty of businessmen in black suits and in the middle of this darkness there was one very young girl dressed in a white bridal gown. So I asked the person who was with me who this girl was, and why she was dressed like a bride, and she told me that she was a prostitute. And this was a kind of uniform for young students who earn their living as part-time prostitutes.
That is a striking image. And it stayed.
Yes. Something very graphic and visual that I kept in mind and built up a story around, this figure of a young girl among these men. But long after, when I went back to Japan and started thinking about how to reproduce this image, I realized things had changed, that the image was not valid any more. So the story remained but the original image that brought me to Japan disappeared.
The story of Like Someone in Love is about the relationship between an old professor and a young call girl who’s also a university student. It’s very specific to Tokyo, yet you describe your films as universal in their intent. What’s the connection between the specific and the universal?
I think both aspects, universal and specific, exist. For myself I wanted to be faithful to the origin of the story. So I told the Japanese story, but at the same time I feel that this old man who’s alone, or this young man in his late-20s who’s restless, or this young girl who’s a bit lost in the big city, can exist in any part of the world, not just in Japan.
You’re also a photographer and poet. What draws you back to filmmaking?
To be honest your question is very relevant these days because, as I try to approach many of the stories I have in my drawers, I find they are all rejecting me. I feel reluctant about all of them. This is quite a new phenomenon of my life, so if you had asked me the question at other stages of my career, I would have a different response. But now I would say nothing is drawing me back.
I really don’t know. I guess it’s a crisis. In the last six months I’ve gone back to six different screenplays and started working on them and I stopped. I dropped them. This is something quite unheard of for me, but no film for me is worth being made now.
That’s hard to imagine.
Maybe from the distance that we are one from the other, we don’t see each other and we don’t hear each other either, you find it hard to believe what I’m saying. So maybe you can’t imagine how sincere and how honest this answer is. But I can tell you, now, I’m just breathing. I feel better because I feel that for once somebody asked me this question, so there’s one person who I’ve talked to about the state that I’m going through these days. But it might be temporary. I hope it’s temporary.
So do I. It’d be a big loss if you decided to stop making films.
I haven’t made a firm decision. You asked me what pulls me back to filmmaking, and that’s the question I ask myself these days, and I can’t find an answer. There are easier ways of expressing myself, like photography and poetry. And filmmaking is hard. So what would pull me to this hardship? Why would I choose another film rather than expressing myself through my different practices? And given the fact that this is the period in which people retire, my career is behind me. So I should really reflect about that. I answered you as I would have answered to my psychoanalyst, as if I was on his couch. I’m just saying, I don’t know what pulls me back to filmmaking.
Yes. I’m not saying at all that I won’t make another film. All I mean is it’s getting harder and harder to choose a subject. When you’re young, the story’s different. You see it as a profession, as a stage that you have to go through, whereas now I wonder why I have to undergo this hardship, and how can I persuade myself that a film is worth being made. So far I haven’t found the answer.
This interview has been condensed and edited.