Arts & Events

Avant-Garde Cinema, Then and Now: Kiarostami’s ‘Five’ At Pacific Film Archive

By Justin DeFreitas
Friday August 24, 2007

Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami has always toyed with a minimalist aesthetic, an approach he derived from the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu. It is a technique that calls for patience, both from the filmmaker and his audience, with long, meditative shots that allow characters and themes to gradually reveal themselves before the camera.  

With Five, Kiarostami’s most unabashedly experimental work, he takes the technique to its logical conclusion, and the result is a work that, for all its formal distance and stubborn simplicity, is surprisingly moving and profound. The film screened last night at Pacific Film Archive and will be repeated Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. 

Five consists of five long takes set alongside the Caspian Sea, each shot with an essentially motionless camera. The first watches as the waves toy with a piece of driftwood, pulling it tumbling toward the water, then pushing it back onto shore. The second shows people walking to and fro along a boardwalk with the crashing waves in the background. The third views the sea from a distance as indistinct shapes on the shore become animate, revealing themselves to be dogs lounging at dawn on the beach. The fourth again watches the waves as an army of ducks passes one-by-one before the camera. And the fifth, the only one to employ editing to achieve its effect, focuses on the moon as reflected in a pond while it vanishes and reappears from behind storm clouds, a flirtatious dance performed to the cacophonous soundtrack of toads, until the rain washes it all away. Each episode concludes with a gentle fadeout backed by an understated score that serves as a unifying thread. 

It is particularly noteworthy that the focus all the while is on the water. Wood and ducks and dogs and frogs and people are transitory figures that simply flutter past, ephemeral players that strut and fret across the frame as the timeless, relentless surf pounds away at the shore. 

But this is only one interpretation. As Kiarostami explains in Around Five, a documentary on Kino’s DVD release of the film, the approach starts with his belief that cinema has trained audiences to be mentally lazy, to expect a film to overtly state its meaning in simple terms. But Kiarostami does not believe in literary narrative. Life does not reveal its secrets so easily, why should cinema? Instead, like Ozu before him, he strives for a participatory cinema in which viewers bring their own interpretations to the work. Each episode lulls the viewer into a meditative state (Kiarostami himself stated that viewer should feel free to take a nap during the film), drawing us into the moment and creating a space for quiet reflection. And without the director imposing a pat interpretation on the film, we are free to bring our own experiences and perspectives to the work, infusing it with a wealth of ideas that far surpass any the director could have summoned on his own. 

The notion is that by simply opening up the lens and allowing life to unfold before it, the director immediately relinquishes control, embracing accident, fate, luck and serendipity in the creation of a work that contains more of the mystery, complexity and beauty of life as it really exists. 


Photograph; Driftwood caught in the surf in Abbas Kiarostami’s meditative Five.