Sleeping Through Kiarostami

Xueli Wang remembers the late filmmaking great Abbas Kiarostami.

By Xueli WangOctober 7, 2016

Sleeping Through Kiarostami

THE FIRST TIME that I watched a film by Abbas Kiarostami, I fell asleep. The film was Close-up (1990), a quasi-documentary that reenacts a real case of identity theft in Tehran. I woke up intermittently as the story progressed, caught pieces of dialogue, tried to distinguish between the documentary and fictional layers, dimly perceived the anguish of the imposter on trial in the eponymous close-up shot, before sinking back into sleep. Afterward, I could recall few specifics, but something of the film stuck with me — a lyrical ambiguity and a redemptive humanity that ached and glowed.

When I saw Taste of Cherry (1997) two years later, a similar thing happened. I didn’t quite fall asleep this time, but my immediate experience of the film was hazy. The story is slow, meandering, out of sync with the breakneck stimulation and gratification of our digital age. It takes place amid a bare and monochromatic landscape in the Iranian desert; brown earth and dust fills frame after frame. The middle-aged protagonist, Mr. Badii (Homayoun Ershadi), spends most of the film driving his car along winding paths in a fruitless search for the right person to bury him under a cherry tree. He has decided to end his life but does not want to explain why to the strangers that he picks up along the road. Nothing much happens from moment to moment: the narrative is sparse; the action is minimal; my attention strayed.

Again, I only felt the full force of the film afterward, over the course of months and years. Fragments of it sprang up — and still spring up — during moments of inattention: the vulnerable face of the protagonist as he lies waiting for death in the dirt; the halting silences that traverse between driver and passengers; the old man and his final passenger, who tells Mr. Badii the story of his own attempted suicide, in turn ardent and glib: he sets out one morning to hang himself, only to get distracted by school children, the sunrise, and the taste of mulberries …


As it turns out, Kiarostami, who died this summer at 76, might not have minded my sleeping, or daydreaming, through his films. In fact, he may have even been pleased. In a 1997 interview with film scholar Jamsheed Akrami, Kiarostami remarked in Persian:

I absolutely don't like the films in which the filmmakers take their viewers hostage and provoke them. I prefer the films that put their audience to sleep in the theater. I think those films are kind enough to allow you a nice nap […] Some films have made me doze off in the theater, but the same films have made me stay up at night, wake up thinking about them in the morning, and keep on thinking about them for weeks.

Here Kiarostami may as well be describing his own work. In fact, sleep is a subtle but persistent theme that runs curiously through his films, often eclipsed by more explicit preoccupations with the porousness between fiction and reality, art and life.

In Through the Olive Trees (1994), which in Kiarostami’s classic self-reflexive fashion peers behind the making of one of his own earlier films, a scene opens with an actor lying unceremoniously across an outdoor cot. Despite an assistant’s repeated calling, he remains in an immobile stupor. In Certified Copy (2010), a story about a day trip through Tuscany with a pair of strangers who act suspiciously like a married couple (or vice versa), there is a heated discussion between the stranger-spouses (Juliette Binoche and William Shimell), in which each berates the other for an instance when they fell asleep at some inopportune time, to the detriment of their family and their marriage. Kiarostami’s attention to sleep is most pronounced in his final feature Like Someone in Love (2012), which features two main characters — a college-age call girl (Rin Takanashi) and a white-haired professor (Tadashi Okuno) — who appear chronically drowsy, dozing off at various points, usually while driving around Tokyo, where the film takes place.

When characters sleep, the plot of the film comes to a standstill. All we can do is wait. That Kiarostami deliberately lingers over these moments of narrative vacancy reveals more than his aversion to Hollywood pacing. As he explained in the same 1997 interview: “Whenever I make a film, it's the content that determines the film's style.” And the content that makes up most of Kiarostami’s work is the granular moments of the everyday: a car ride, a walk, a boy trying to get his mother’s attention, an idle taxi driver waiting for his passenger to return, and, of course, sleep.

At the core of Kiarostami’s interest in apparently empty and useless moments is a broader sensitivity to a world that we are now less used to experiencing, a world in which everything comes slow — perception, emotion, revelation — and indelible impressions emerge out of the accumulation of small, near-imperceptible details. In this sense, Kiarostami’s work inhabits what Jonathan Crary has called “human time.”

According to Crary’s 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, one of the essential features of “human time” is the availability of temporally vacant stretches — gaps between useful activities, periods of waiting, dead hours — when one can retreat into unseen terrains of reverie, daydream, reflection, and contemplation. This withdrawal into the depth of the mind serves as a form of rest and regeneration. But explosions in global markets, networks, and digital communication technologies have created a perpetually illuminated “24/7 world” that eats away at these precious dark hours. Crary laments, “There are now very few significant interludes of human existence […] that have not been penetrated and taken over as work time, consumption time, or marketing time.” The result is a new experience of time as something that passes in an unceasing flow of instantaneity, maintained by a jolting stream of stimuli.

The problem with inhabiting this new time, Crary points out, is the inherent incompatibility of the endlessness of a “24/7 world” and the very real limits of human life. Sleep is still a daily necessity, and with the growing synchronization between human life and 24/7 operations, it is the only guaranteed pause, the last great stronghold of “human time.” In his filmmaking, Kiarostami intuits this intimate connection between sleep and “human time.” In fact, entering into the time of a Kiarostami film often feels akin to the experience of falling asleep, or even that of waiting for sleep to come. There is the lull after the electronic buzzing dies away; the mind quiets; the body slows down. There is the gradual submersion into a temporal space where attention ebbs and flows, and imagination roams freely in the open, wandering, meditating, dreaming, and reemerging, refreshed.


In her recent essay “Slow Wars,” Moira Weigel identifies Kiarostami as part of a “slow cinema” movement that gained international traction in the 1990s, whose roots she traces back to postwar filmmakers in the West from the Italian neorealists to Andy Warhol. Though Kiarostami undeniably embraced the long take like many of the “slow” auteurs Weigel names, it’s important to emphasize that exceptional slowness on its own does not constitute a cohesive aesthetic style. The effects of cinematic slowness can vary wildly from filmmaker to filmmaker. Kiarostami's “human time” should be distinguished for example from the temporal wastelands of Warhol’s “anti-film.”

The difference is stark to anyone who’s experienced both. As Weigel notes, Warhol abandoned the premiere of his own eight-hour long Empire (1964) out of boredom. The film consists of silent, static shots of the Empire State Building in slow motion. The slowness was unbearable for Warhol, and, in his typically playful style, he remarked that his “anti-film” was “better talked about than seen.” Meanwhile, Kiarostami’s slowness does not induce despairing ennui, but soothing sleep. Though some have drawn specific comparisons between Warhol’s films and Kiarostami’s abstract documentary Five (2003), which follows no narrative and consists of five long shots over a span of 74 minutes, the similarity is a superficial one. Unlike Warhol, Kiarostami intends for his film, with its exquisitely crafted scenes near the Caspian Sea, to be seen in its entirety. Though curiously, sleep can be a part of this seeing.

In an interview about Five, Kiarostami declared, “I can confidently say that you would not miss anything if you had a short nap. The important thing for me is how you feel once the film is finished, the relaxing feeling that you carry with you after the film ends.” Here, slowness constitutes a specific bodily experience that temporarily releases viewers from the demands of a “24/7 world.” The freedom to sleep is a part of this release. In this way, Kiarostami’s slowness is not punitive; it is redemptive. In terms of artistic lineage, then, Kiarostami may be less indebted to Warhol than he is to older filmmakers like Robert Bresson and Yasujirō Ozu. Ozu, in particular, was frequently cited by Kiarostami as a formative influence, especially in his early years, until the Iranian filmmaker became tired of the comparison and told a Telegraph reporter in 2002: “I still like Ozu, but I don’t want to talk about him any more.” Nevertheless, in 2003 Kiarostami paid homage to the Japanese master with Five, whose longer title is Five Dedications to Ozu.

Like Kiarostami, Ozu favored slow pacing, elliptical scripts, and static shots over rapid action and melodrama. The story lines of his films often sound prosaic — an elderly couple travels to visit their children; a father persuades his daughter to marry; a mother moves in with her son — but the magic of these works come from the way meaning builds slowly, imperceptibly, from ordinary scene to ordinary scene, until finally, significance descends all at once in transcendent cascades. The best Ozu films end on deceptively simple gestures that carry unspeakable emotional weight. Chishū Ryū’s apple peeling at the end of Late Spring (1949), for example, is perhaps the most devastating expression of sorrow in film history.

The delicate minuteness of Ozu’s meaning-building mirrors the real pace of human perception, and reveals a profound sensitivity to the intimate ties between human life and the passage of time. As Kiarostami once observed, “Ozu’s cinema is a kindly cinema. He values interactions, natural relationships, the natural human in all his films. His long shots are everlasting and respectful.” Kiarostami’s apparent kinship to Ozu affirms the essence of his own cinematic slowness as a kindly slowness, one that humanizes rather than alienates. Not the unbearable slowness of watching paint dry, but the replenishing slowness of sleep.

Perhaps it is this creative generosity that enables Kiarostami to cross over into foreign cultures with ease, and to speak to us from deep within them with a miraculously organic hybrid voice. Though he once downplayed the likelihood of making films outside of his native Iran, comparing himself to a tree that would no longer bear fruit if uprooted, Kiarostami’s last two features turned out to be wondrous works of transnational cinema. For Certified Copy and Like Someone in Love, Kiarostami traveled far from his homeland, to Italy and Japan respectively, created non-Iranian protagonists, and built entire scripts out of French, English, Italian, and Japanese — languages that he did not speak.

In making these films, Kiarostami eschewed the exoticizing gaze of an “outsider looking in” and instead opted to speak from the inside. This doesn’t mean that he gained total mastery over foreign cultures. On the contrary, Kiarostami never claimed mastery over his subjects — not even in his Iranian films — and he never saw such mastery as a requirement of storytelling. In an interview with Indiewire last year, he went so far as to “confess” that “last month they dubbed Certified Copy into Persian, and I went to see it, and for the first time I realized what my actors were saying and what the film was about, until then I didn’t know.” Though obviously tongue-in-cheek, this remark nevertheless gestures toward Kiarostami’s openness to indeterminacy: rather than mold his characters after his own certainties, he simply lets them speak (or not speak).


From Like Someone in Love (2012)

In Poetics of Relation, Édouard Glissant asserts that a fruitful relation between different cultures requires precisely this comfort with not knowing, what Glissant calls a “respect for mutual forms of opacity.” Opacity for Glissant means “that which cannot be reduced” to the familiar or the known — the part of ourselves that eludes grasping. It is “the thing that would bring us together forever and make us permanently distinctive,” the thing that forms the basis of a shared, but nevertheless diverse, world. Put in the context of Crary’s 24/7, opacity is the part of us that we delve into during the vacant hours of “human time,” the shifting, dreaming selves that we all become in sleep.

And this shifting, dreaming opacity can be more than just a space of repose; it can also be the birthplace of hitherto unimagined transformations of waking life. In a world where neoliberal interests have relentlessly colonized previously inaccessible corners of the mind, there are fewer spaces and times in which alternatives to capitalism can be conceived. Near the end of his book, Crary suggests that within this system of 24/7 control, sleep can take on an emancipatory function, as “an interval into which glimpses of an unlived life, of a postponed life, can edge faintly into awareness.”

In Kiarostami’s filmmaking, sleep and cinema share the same emancipatory space. “What is the function of dreaming? Where did it come from?” He asked toward the end of the 1997 interview, “Why do we have the ability to dream, and why must we dream?” “It’s like being in a stuffy room and opening a window,” he finally concluded, “You let the air in and then you breathe. In my mind, dreams are windows in our lives, and the significance of cinema is in its similarity to this window.” To Kiarostami, sleep and cinema embody the same human freedom to imagine alternative realities despite external repression and control. Certified Copy and Like Someone in Love both end on shots of a window.


In a eulogy written shortly after Kiarostami’s death, Hamid Dabashi described his friend’s love of long takes, affectionately joking: “he places his camera somewhere he likes, gently says ‘Action’ under his breath, goes home, takes a nap, comes back and says, ‘Cut!’”

Kiarostami’s love for our abiding humanity, palpable across more than four decades of filmmaking, is inextricable from his attention to that radical and disappearing act of sleep. And now he’s gone for a nap again, while the “human time” of his cinematic universe rolls on.

Sleep well, Mr. Kiarostami —


Xueli Wang is a writer from Harlem, New York. She holds a BA in philosophy from Columbia University and an MA in history of art from the Courtauld.

LARB Contributor

Xueli Wang is a writer from New York City. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Art History and Film & Media Studies at Yale University.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!