Devika Girish on And Life Goes On
In the 1983 documentary Camera d’Afrique, an interviewer asks Ousmane Sembene if his films are understood in Europe. “Let’s be clear,” Sembene replies. “Europe is not my center. Europe is the outskirts.” I’m always struck by the filmmaker’s confident self-mapping: a mapping that states the obvious—Sembene made films in and about Senegal, thousands of miles from Europe—but feels radical in a world where the flows of colonialism and capitalism warp time and space. These are the same flows that shape our conceptions of “world cinema.” The term involves a decentering; it always refers to a world—and to a cinema—that is not mine, as though some places are always proximate and others eternally peripheral.
Growing up in India on a diet of mostly Bollywood, I never considered myself a consumer of world cinema, even though I was also watching Hollywood blockbusters in theaters and on TV as far back as I can remember. But Hollywood didn’t carry the charge of foreignness, of obscurity, that we associate with world cinema. American pop culture was all around me during my childhood, ushered in rapidly by the IMF-imposed liberalization of India’s economy in the ’90s, which positioned Western capitalism—with its malls, brands, media conglomerates, and so on—as the universal path to modernity.
Several years before I chanced upon that quote of Sembene’s, my coordinates of world cinema were confounded by Abbas Kiarostami. I was introduced to his films in a class on Iranian cinema in my second year of college in the U.S., and I encountered them—along with the works of Naderi, Mehrjui, Makhmalbaf, Panahi, and others—on a fulcrum of familiarity and difference. Iran was foreign to me: I’d never been there, I didn’t speak the language, and I’d learned little of the country’s history in school or otherwise. But I was taken by surprise at moments of recognition in these films. I could understand several words of Farsi—like nazdik in the original title of Close-Up (1990), or zendegi in And Life Goes On (1992)—that have made their way into Hindi and Urdu; and the spiritual and artistic traditions invoked in the films were instinctively legible to me, owing to the historical intertwinings of Indian and Persian culture. There were other, more cosmetic points of connection, too: the dark features; the bustling urban streets; the kurtas and veils—close-to-home images that felt particularly special because I encountered them so rarely in my undergraduate education.
This vague sense of affinity drew out something deeper during a class discussion on And Life Goes On, the second entry in Kiarostami’s Koker trilogy. In the film, a director (an unnamed but evident stand-in for Kiarostami) drives through the rural countryside days after the 1990 earthquake that left more than 30,000 Iranians dead. Accompanied by his young son Pouya, the filmmaker is looking for the two boys who years ago acted in Where Is the Friend’s House? (1987), the first film in the Koker trilogy. As he makes his way through the ravaged yet stunningly scenic landscape, encountering cracked-open roads and traffic jams, he makes passing conversation with locals about fate and mortality while inquiring for directions. “Everyone’s buried in the rubble . . . I’m desperate and miserable,” a woman says, breaking down when the protagonist asks her the way to Koker. Pouya fuels the journey with his own whims, insisting, at one point, on stopping at a wrecked roadside shop to ask for soft drinks. Sifting through rubble, the shop-owner replies, “What a thing to ask now!”
In class, my professor ascribed to the protagonist-filmmaker of And Life Goes On a quality often associated with Kiarostami’s characters: an unsentimental detachment from—perhaps even indifference toward—the lives of those around him. But I was puzzled by this assessment. I’d found the character’s interactions with the victims of the earthquake to be appropriately compassionate, particularly given the film’s frequent invocations of destiny (“It was God’s will”). A fatalistic view of life, and the matter-of-fact attitude it elicits toward tragedy and suffering, felt familiar to me; more so, in fact, than the effusive expressions of pity and sympathy that I had often encountered in America.
That was a formative moment in my cinephilia: I realized with sudden clarity that my vantage point as a spectator was distinct from the assumed default of the classroom—and that the vocabularies of looking contained in the predominantly European texts we read in school had been filtered through a thoroughly different experience of the world from mine. In the cartography of American academia, I was on the outskirts. But Iranian cinema felt like a part of my world, and to see it treated with the seriousness and reverence usually reserved for the Western canon affirmed me profoundly.
Looking back, I am surprised by the essentially Orientalist worldview through which I interpreted my identification with And Life Goes On. It had, I suspect, as much to do with the historical connections between India and Iran as with the awareness that the two cultures, along with the rest of the “East,” are often perceived as undifferentiated by the West. The film had impelled me to define its place (and my own) in the world, and I had reached for the binaried terms immediately available to me.
But in surveying the reception of Kiarostami’s films in the years since, I’ve found that And Life Goes On, and the director’s oeuvre in general, has often provoked similar cartographic befuddlement among cinephiles. Critics encounter Kiarostami’s work as both uniquely intimate and singularly elliptical—as if it were “a lost, no-longer-to-be-hoped-for object of desire,” per Laura Mulvey—but struggle to fix this close-yet-distantness within cultural coordinates. The result is an effusion of references: Italian neorealism, French postmodernism, Persian poetry, Sufist philosophy. Godfrey Cheshire’s 2000 article for Cineaste sums it up well. Titled “How to Read Kiarostami,” it collates these various references into two distinct hermeneutic modes: the “Eastern Mirror'' and the “Western Mirror.”
And Life Goes On, which was Kiarostami’s international breakout, seems to touch a particular cultural nerve. As is the director’s trademark, the film beguilingly combines not just documentary and fiction, but also autobiography and ethnography. Many of the protagonist’s conversations with passersby are confections of movie magic: they splice together footage from Kiarostami’s encounters with locals during a location-scouting trip with reverse shots of his actor (a sociologist) filmed months later. Kiarostami’s own gaze at his subjects is thus on display in the film, and while its humanism was lauded in Europe, winning him the Rossellini Prize at Cannes and raves in Cahiers du cinéma, And Life Goes On garnered Kiarostami some of the worst reviews of his career in Iran.
One critic excoriated the film’s “Western humanist vision” as the “‘neutral’—indeed bloodless, from-behind-the-closed-eyes, from-behind-sunglasses—vision of foreigners” who “after watching a few minutes of news on television feel a little guilty.” Another criticized the film’s use of Vivaldi and the French poster of Where Is the Friend’s House? as instances of pandering to the West, and described the protagonist-filmmaker as a man with a “European" and “emotionless look” who “looks at life not face to face and eyeball to eyeball but from above.” Even in Stateside critical appreciations, the seeming distanciation in Kiarostami’s gaze has provoked some ambivalence. In their Criterion commentary for And Life Goes On, Jonathan Rosenbaum and Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa acknowledge the touristic detachment of the lead, but Rosenbaum also remarks that the trust seen between strangers in the film is unusual from an American perspective.
These reactions grapple with Kiarostami’s and his characters’ modes of looking, but they all also implicate the critic’s own vantage point. They hinge on the same questions that I, as a novitiate, had confronted years ago in class: When I watch And Life Goes On, where am I seeing from? Whose eyes am I seeing through? And whom am I being seen by?
To a great extent, And Life Goes On critiques the very notion of seeing as a meaningful way of engaging with oneself and the world. Kiarostami has said that for him, the starting point of the film was “someone who only knows how to look.” Ensconced in his car, whose windows often literally map onto the frame of Kiarostami’s camera, the protagonist-filmmaker traverses through the earthquake-struck region with the sole aim of looking—meaning both “observing” and “searching” in the film—while all those around him are engaged in doing: building, rebuilding, carrying, salvaging. Early in the film, as the characters drive toward the countryside, a voice on the car radio says of the victims, “We watch their suffering from afar and share in their great sorrow.” That’s the great ruse: watching as a means of sharing, of knowing; and cinema as a bridge between disparate worlds of experience. It’s a philosophy of film whose brunt is often borne by those forced (in Sembene’s words) to the “outskirts,” who must suffer questions like “Are your films understood in Europe?”
This grandiose idea of cinema as a vehicle for understanding is constantly parodied in Kiarostami’s work. In Abbas Kiarostami: Truths and Dreams—a 1994 French TV documentary filmed as a road trip through the very region traversed in And Life Goes On and its follow-up, Through the Olive Trees—there’s a moment in which the director is being interviewed inside a bus stuck in a traffic jam. The people on the street, noticing the presence of the camera (or perhaps Kiarostami himself?), knock on the windows and jump up to try and be filmed. One man even lifts his son onto his shoulders so he’s in the camera’s line of sight. Kiarostami remarks at people’s eagerness for their image to be recorded despite not knowing what the footage is for or if they’ll ever see it. He riffs on Descartes to describe the camera’s powerful sway on people: “There’s an image of me, therefore I am.”
Through the Olive Trees opens with a startling illustration of this desire to be seen—and thus recognized—on film: a swarm of schoolgirls are gathered in a field, hoping for the chance to be in a movie, the camera (and the director) scanning their faces in search of the right one. In Close-Up, whose premise hinges on the access filmmakers in Iran have to people’s intimate lives, the characters are willing not just to be filmed but even to re-enact traumatic incidents that paint them in a poor light. But there is also a sense in all these films that people’s faith in the validating powers of the image is inflated, and that the filmmaker’s powers might be deceptive. Think of the boy in The Traveler (1974) who cons his friends, charging them for portraits he takes with an empty camera. Or the scheme Pouya and his father consider at the start of And Life Goes On, when they are advised that only rescue missions are being allowed into the earthquake-struck region. Pouya suggests that they show the authorities pictures of the two boys from Where Is the Friend’s House? and claim that they’re bringing help.
Images may be ruses, but in Kiarostami’s films, they’re also their own kinds of facts. (Or, as a character says in And Life Goes On, “Film is its own truth.”) How they’re created and by whom tells us a lot about the world. It’s no accident, for instance, that Pouya and his father are bourgeois Tehranis who arrive in the countryside in a Renault, brandishing a French film poster, or that Pouya is surprised to learn at the start of the film that the houses in the villages are not made of cement. They are both figures of industrial modernity, which, as Gilberto Perez has observed, the film itself epitomizes: “The filmmaker comes in his car to rural villages as he comes with his camera.” The camera (or the car, or the window frame) maps the gaze across differentials of capital, power, and culture. But these differentials are not simple binaries, like rich/poor, city/village, East/West. Rather than bridging two distinct lifeworlds, the camera enters an a priori world teeming with difference on all sides.
To watch And Life Goes On—no matter from which vantage point—is to encounter the plenitude of what lies beyond the material limits of the camera. The protagonists’ point-of-view is too ephemeral to accommodate the textures of the lives they glimpse in passing through the windows of their car; the scope of Kiarostami’s signature long shots is too wide—too remote—to distinguish the human from the landscape. Many shots in the film employ a multiperspectival composition often seen in Indo-Persian miniature painting. Lacking a Renaissance focus, i.e., an “ideal” and representational viewing position, these shots spread their foci laterally across their surface, so that the eye may wander anywhere and pick up on any detail. One such shot frames a crumbling multi-story house that has several men digging and hacking away on different levels. The protagonist drives in along the narrow road in front of the house, only to reverse and exit the scene when he realizes he’s on the wrong path. But the men continue working throughout, hardly noticing him. Life goes on—not just in spite of the earthquake, but also in spite of the camera.
To whom might a viewer relate in And Life Goes On? When I first saw the film in college, I identified with the protagonist, not just for how he seemed to perceive others in the film, which felt familiar from my own cultural and class experiences, but also because I imagined he and I were perceived similarly by a Western viewer. The Iranian critics who panned the film might have seen themselves in the locals that the protagonist, with his European accoutrements, observes as he drives through the region; an American viewer might align herself with the remove of Kiarostami’s long shot, encountering only Otherness in varying degrees. But none of these are stable or complete positions offered by the film. In Kiarostami’s work, the sands of identification shift constantly under your feet.
Years ago, when my terms were too impoverished to account for the dialectical richness of And Life Goes On, I concluded that the film had made me feel “seen.” But over time, what the film has taught me is to question my investment in cinema’s capacity to make me visible to myself and others, and to delineate what is mine and what isn’t. It has taught me to center myself—with humility—in my experience of moving images, and to discover that the world’s irreducibility is inseparable from my own.