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.