Special screening of Abbas Kiarostami’s THE TRAVELLER (1974)

The Traveller - 1

This Bank Holiday Monday, 29th May 2017, we have a real treat in Cambridge. The Arts Picturehouse cinema, in conjunction with ourscreen.com, is presenting a screening of THE TRAVELLER, the debut feature of the great Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. The event will take place at 9 pm and tickets are only £5.

Ehsan Khoshbakht, the film critic and curator, will be introducing the film. He says of THE TRAVELLER:

Kiarostami’s first feature film was made for Kanoon (The Centre for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults). It is a suspenseful, witty story of a young boy’s determination to travel from his small town to Tehran to attend a national football match, it combines realism with the economy and precision of a visual artist (the director’s first occupation before turning filmmaker). Featuring brilliant performances by a cast of non-actors, the film has one of the most gripping, unforgettable endings in film history.

In advance of this rare screening, Ehsan kindly agreed to answer some questions about the film and about Kiarostami’s cinema more generally.

Mike O’Brien: What led to Kiarostami making his feature film, The Traveller?

Ehsan Khoshbakht: I guess like any other filmmaker, from his very first short film (made 4 years earlier) he had dreamed of going feature-length. It’s sad that the short films don’t get the same amount of recognition and exposure as the features. And I also guess that he gained the confidence of the institution for which he was making his films (Kanoon), to the extent that they let him make a longer film. Let’s not forget that in between he had made mid-length films, one of which was aptly titled The Experience. So he had gathered that “experience” to embark on creating a more “professional” notion of cinema.

MO’B: Can we see in this early film any of the stylistic and thematic traits that became part of the mature Kiarostami cinema?

EK: Absolutely. It’s almost shocking to see from the very first film he is exactly the Abbas Kiarostami that we know today. All the classic Kiarostami propositions are there from the early 70s, including the journey/odyssey structure, the naturalistic dialogues which are carefully written (and NOT improvised), the real location shooting and the presence of non-actors. You can compare it to Jacques Tati whose early shorts defined his cinematic style and then his first feature, Jour de Fete, was the expansion and extension of those ideas, almost like a longer remake of a short he had made 2 years before Jour, a beautiful film called L’École des facteurs. In that sense, Bread and Alley was Kiarostami’s L’École and out of it The Traveller was born.

MO’B: How was the film received by audiences in pre-revolutionary Iran?

EK: The premiere was at the Tehran Film Festival, which was a prestigious affair and it won a prize there. But after that it probably had a limited release and most likely only in Kanoon centres, which were these beautifully designed art and culture houses for children and young adults. It probably had a wider exposure on TV, both before and after the revolution. I believe it was even shown at the Gijon Children Film Festival in Spain but went completely unnoticed.

MO’B: Did Kiarostami look back favourably in later life on his first feature?

EK: I think he did, even though there were certain things in it which he stopped doing, such as the use of music (the classic and jazz pieces for the last sequence of his films was a different matter), here beautifully composed by Kambiz Roshanravan. The simple fact that up until the late 1980s his films stayed faithful to the cinematic ideas he had explored in The Traveller shows that he must have been satisfied with this stunning debut.

MO’B: This is a very rare screening of The Traveller. A number of Kiarostami’s films are not easily available in the UK. Are there any plans to release these films on Blu-ray or DVD?

EK: Not that I’m aware of. I think it’s quite possible, though, because now there’s lots of interest in his cinema, probably more than ever.

MO’B: Kiarostami passed away last July at the age of 76. What do you think his legacy is to cinema and the arts more generally?

EK: Probably that the greatest pieces of cinema and art (let’s not forget that he was also a photographer, artist and poet) are created from nothing or very small, tiny things. That everything is drama and the smaller the event, the more likely it will resonate with the audience’s personal experiences and emotions. That cinema can be great without massive budgets and an army of technicians at hand. On a more personal note, I think he is the only Iranian filmmaker, with the exception of Sohrab Shahid-Saless, who has managed to fully capture the essence of Iranian life with all its glorious beauty, melancholy, and humour.

You can read Ehsan’s Kiarostami obituary, published by Sight and Sound, here.


When Beckett met Buster and they made Film (updated)

Update: 20 May 2017

Next Monday (22nd) finally sees the release on Blu-ray / DVD of FILM, the collaboration between Samuel Beckett and Buster Keaton. In addition, the BFI package comes with a new documentary, NOTFILM.

Pamela Hutchinson extolls the riches of this welcome new release in a Silent London post.

While it is a joy to see Film on film, with the whirring projector providing the only soundtrack, it’s a boon to have this work available digitally too, on DVD and Blu, for the enjoyment of connoisseurs, and no doubt film and theatre students also. Film has been restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, and let me tell you, every crease in Keaton’s fabulously craggy face is as deep and sharp as you could wish…

This Film and Notfilm dual-format release from the BFI goes one better than pairing the movie and the documentary. There are outtakes here, including an opening scene thought lost for decades. There’s the haunting British colour remake from 1979, starring Max Wall, interviews, featurettes, photo galleries, and a really very illuminating set of booklet essays by Michael Brooke, Ross Lipman and Vic Pratt (who writes in loving detail about the 1979 version). There’s even the option to download Mihály Vig’s really rather wonderful music from the Notfilm soundtrack.

I especially enjoyed an audio recording of Beckett, cinematographer Boris Kaufman and director Alan Schneider, thrashing out the story…

What a treat!

Original post: 10 March 2012

Samuel Beckett and Buster Keaton. At first it sounds like the strangest of collaborations; but quickly begins to feel like the most natural of pairings. In 1964 they made Film, a 20 minute cinematic curiosity.

Tin House recently re-posted a Barney Rosset piece on Film:-

Evergreen Theater were me, Richard Seaver, Fred Jordan (all of us with Grove), and Alan Schneider a seasoned director of Samuel Beckett’s work in North America… We established Evergreen Theater and made up a list of authors we thought would make great film writers.

With Beckett’s Film (a very Beckettian, though confusing, title) we were luckier than with all the other scripts. Samuel Beckett came from Paris to New York for his one and only trip to the United States.

The production staff was a talented one. I prevailed upon an old acquaintance, Sydney Myers, not only a fine director but also a master of film editing, to be our editor. He and Sam quickly became friends. For cinematographer I chose Boris Kauffman, because of his work with Jean Vigo on two feature films, Zero for Conduct and L’Atalante. Though I did not know it then, Kauffman had become a famous cinematographer in this country, for his Oscar-winning work in On the Waterfront and many other big Hollywood films. Even stranger to me was the discovery that Boris’s brother was Dziga Vertov, one of the great filmmakers during the Soviet Union’s creative heyday.

But how was Keaton chosen for the lead?

The first person Beckett wanted for the only major role in Film was the Irish actor Jack McGowran. He was unavailable, as was Charlie Chaplin and also Zero Mostel, Alan’s choice. Finally, Alan suggested Buster Keaton. Sam liked the idea, so Alan flew out to Hollywood to try and sign Buster up. There he found Buster living in extremely modern circumstances. On arrival he had to wait in a separate room while Keaton finished up an imaginary poker game with, among others, the legendary (but long-dead) Hollywood mogul Irving Thalberg. Keaton took the job. During an interview, Beckett told Kevin Brownlow (a Keaton scholar) that “Buster Keaton was inaccessible. He had a poker mind as well as a poker face… He had great endurance, he was very tough, and, yes, reliable. And when you saw that face at the end… Ah. At last.”

And working with Beckett?:-

In his book, Entrances, Alan Schneider discusses working with Beckett: “Sam was incredible. People always assume him to be unyielding, but when the chips are down, on specifics, here as well as in all his stage productions, he is completely understanding, flexible, and pragmatic. Far from blaming anything on the limitations and mistakes of those around him, he blamed his own material and himself.”

In this article Kevin Brownlow decribes Beckett talking about working with Buster:-

I asked if Keaton ever enquired what the Film was about?
Beckett laughed. ‘No. He wasn’t interested.’
‘Did you ever tell him?’
‘I never did, no. I had very little to do with him. He sat in his dressing room, playing cards – patience or something, until he was needed. The only time he came alive was when he described what happened when they were making films in the old days. That was very enjoyable. I remember him saying that they started with a beginning and an end and improvised the rest as they went along. Of course, he tried to suggest gags of his own.’
‘Did you use any of them.’
‘No,’ he laughed. ‘We were depriving him of his trump card – his face.’

What did Buster make of it? In the the same article, James Karen is reported to say:-

‘Buster didn’t understand it. Who understood it? I didn’t understand it I mean, I didn’t find it very great drama, and yet it is an exciting picture to see and a lot of people think very highly of it. Buster did not.’

Whatever the merits of Film (it’s certainly no masterpiece), the image of the cloaked and hatted Buster scuttling along that wall is one that always seems to resonate, though I’m not sure why.


I can’t end without including one of the most remarkable clips on Youtube: a short extract of the notoriously camera-shy Beckett being interviewed in his hotel room:-