When he was dying in spring last year, Abbas Kiarostami knew he was leaving behind not only his family and friends, but also his final work, unfinished.
Iran’s most celebrated filmmaker and noted polymath was three years into the self-financed project when he died aged 76.
Preview footage had enjoyed a small screening at the 2015 Marrakech Film Festival. But eight months later Kiarostami was gone, and it fell to his son Ahmad to finish his work.
On May 23, “24 Frames” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in France – the scene of Kiarostami’s greatest triumph, winning the Palme d’Or in 1997 for “Taste of Cherry.”
Comprised of 24 vignettes, each four-and-a-half minutes long, the film shows the director at his intersectional best, animating a series of still images – largely his own photographs, taken over 40 years. Minimalist, often bleak, but always beautiful, it’s a startling memento mori.
CNN sat down with Ahmad Kiarostami in Cannes to discuss the difficult task of finishing his father’s work and his mission to preserve his father’s legacy.
CNN: What inspired your father to animate still images?
Ahmad Kiarostami: He started with paintings. He said: “These painters, they painted one scene. But that’s only one shot. I wonder what happens before and after?”
He started by animating “The Hunters in the Snow” by Pieter Bruegel … Then he moved on to do (animations) with the photos he had (taken). In the end, he … had elements coming from different pictures, but he assembled the whole scene.
He made more than 40 frames. He didn’t finish all of them; wasn’t happy with some of them … But the selection that you see here are his originals.
How were these vignettes created?
There was one guy who did the whole project (with Abbas), Ali Kamali – he assembled the whole thing. He did all of them at home with a computer … They did everything at home. I don’t think they did anything in a studio, they just (had) a green screen (at home).
Was it hard to take on this project?
It was a very difficult process for many reasons. Emotionally, it’s not easy – that’s a given. Fortunately, I had a very good friend who lives in Toronto and works in post-production. So he helped me manage the technical side of things and beyond that, just the fact that the person who was working on it was an old friend of mine, who knew my father, knew all his work, was very helpful.
The most challenging thing, for me, was trying to think how my father would decide things. Because this wasn’t a fully-finished project … I constantly had to remind myself that I’m not the one who’s making decisions – I’m making decisions on his behalf.
Photography vs film – how did your father feel?
He always said: “I don’t like to tell stories.” He didn’t think he was a filmmaker. He said: “I’m an artist, I have different mediums (through which) to say things. Film is just one of them.”
In recent years he said he enjoyed photography more than making films, because he didn’t have to deal with budgets, with a big team and all that. He self-financed this. He only had two people working with him.
I was talking to Ali, he said he would literally work 10, 12, sometimes 14 hours a day … He’d work for six hours, looking at the same scene for hours and hours. He would watch for six hours, and then my father would say: “That’s enough, we’re tired. Now let’s work on the photos.”
For him, taking a break was switching to photos.
There’s no dialogue, and barely any humans. Is there a story behind the vignettes?
There’s something happening in each frame – take the one with the bird getting shot. My father had a friend, she was like a daughter to my father. She was killed in a car accident about a year-and-a-half or two years ago. He made that one for her.
As you can see, at first everything is quiet, and then they mourn, but then birds come back and start flying again.
What is humanity’s role in “24 Frames”? We seem to have a destructive presence…
He never complained about humans. I don’t think he had anything against humans. But he loved nature. He “cleaned his eyes with nature” – he used that expression. He had to go into nature. His ideal trip was to go alone, or with one friend, just driving in the mountains and taking pictures.
He’d go to all the film festivals with all this excitement in these happening places, but that was his favorite place to be.
Your father never had the audience in Iran that he did in Europe or the US. Why was that?
We’ve had different situations in Iran in the past 30 years, and with each government, with each president, things change. At times there is more sensitivity around some topics. When I was growing up you couldn’t walk on the street with a girl next to you. Now it’s a completely different situation.
Part of it is, generally speaking, my father’s work is not the norm – it’s not entertaining. It’s more art than entertaining. Especially given the years that we’ve had (in Iran), sometimes entertainment played a more important role in balancing things out.
Do you think your father’s work will undergo a reappraisal? And will Iranians have more access to your father’s films in the future?
I hope so. I know that several institutes around the world want to have tributes or full retrospectives (to him). I’ve been working with (production company) MK2 for the past few months … We’re going to restore all the films and we’re going to have them in 4K, from the original prints and, hopefully, the negatives, also.
A lot of people have been writing about his work and reviewing his work since he passed away. But even prior to that, the tributes started maybe a year before. So things opened up, even when he was alive, which was a great thing.
You established the Kiarostami Foundation – what do you have planned for it?
We want to show this film at museums, and … we’re at some advanced stage talks with Centre George Pompidou (in Paris) and MoMA (in New York). I hope that we’re going to have a deal with them soon.
We also have a couple of photography series (lined up). One series is very different to what you’ve seen by him. Another series is very different from anything you’ve seen, period.
The first is called “Regardement,” which is about the interaction between people and artwork. The reason I say it’s different … is this is the only series that has people in it. All the other photo exhibitions (he did) were only about nature.
The second one, he has combined paintings of Monet with his own photography. It’s an amazing mix, it’s called “Monet and Me”.
Do you have plans to show “24 Frames” in Iran?
Yes, actually. I’d love to show the film in Tehran at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. We haven’t started conversations yet, but we want to because Iran was very important to my father and his films.
He wasn’t officially banned (in Iran), but they didn’t show his films there for 20 years. After they finally did, he said to me: “I go to all these festivals, but things that happen at home, they feel different.” He was quite pleased.