Learning by Making with Abbas Kiarostami

Photo by Kamil Saldun

Photo by Kamil Saldun

On the bottom of this page you will find the link to my friend, Cameron Bruce Nelson’s article about our workshop in Cuba published in Filmmaker Magazine. I devote this post to share the bulk of my original note which was sent to Cameron. Needless to say I loved and approved all the edits of the published version in the Filmmaker magazine as it was way more to the point and brief.

Here is my personal experience:

Although born and raised Armenian, going to school in Iran made me a bilingual from a very early stage. Something I wasn’t really happy about because the two languages I knew weren’t really internationally useful or global. Immigration to US improved my English and film school definitely added to my film language skills, but up until the workshop in Cuba with Abbas Kiarostami I never got the opportunity to use my film terminology knowledge of both Farsi and English in conversations. Due to high number of English speakers I ended up being appointed to help translate the lectures simultaneously from Farsi to English as Kiarostami would speak. Consequently after so many years of being away from Farsi it was a great pleasure to hear one of my all time favorite directors speaking a language I used to know so well. I had fallen in love with Farsi literature in school not only through poems of famous Persian poets such as Hafez, Ferdusi or Rumi but also reading the modern poetry of Nima, Shamloo and Sepehri,  however there was a huge gap between the elevated language of their work and what I would normally hear here and there in the streets among the ordinary people. The Iranian national television and their Los Angeles “counterparts” had degraded the wonderful language to the lowest possible level of superficiality. And naturally  connections between me and Farsi language eventually decreased as I spent more time away from Farsi media, reading in English and Armenian in later years, however these all suddenly shifted when Kiarostami started speaking for the first time in Cuba. I instantly noticed a very delicate balance of conversational Persian masterfully combined with allegories and expressions which I had only read in books and poems. It wasn’t only the choice of words but also the rhythm that he would speak that made his every statement so unique. Combine those with the cinematic Farsi terms mostly derived from French and the result was pure poeticism.

As I was translating his words, I grimly realized how far apart I’ve fallen from this fascinating language that I used to read on daily basis and how proud and lucky I was this time to have known it. Due to negative image of Iran in the western media, speaking the language or knowing that ancient culture had never seemed like an advantage in my manipulated mind for quite some time, but being confronted with a man who had come from that very same country with so much quality and positivity that could just as well be attributed to the Persian culture,  made me fall back in love with Persian all over again. I arrived to that workshop presenting myself as an Armenian from US and went back to my Los Angeles home as a proud Parskahay (Term signifying an Armenian with Persian roots) by reassuring myself that Iran is not what I see in the mainstream media but it reflects everything positive that I saw in Abbas, his films, his knowledgeable translator Ahmad and the two other Iranian participants, Saman and Sholeh who I was so lucky to have met.

In addition to this, learning about his clear knowledge of film and recalling his last few works made me realize that it would only take a bold risk taker to put aside one of their most staggering tools (Language) to experiment with cultures and languages that he couldn’t fully have control over. I admired the drive in him of trying something new and not being afraid to risk a successful career by jumping inside a pool where his most vital survival technique being the language is nonexistent. A move so many established filmmakers would even consider in their wildest dreams simply because the companies who fund them wouldn’t approve it. This clearly proves that he is one of the free-est filmmakers that live in a time where studios control most of the productions.

The Cuba workshop was short but it sure gave me lots of material to think about and know myself and life around me.


Did you know up until recently asking to share biographical information was some of kind of an invasion of privacy? Who changed that norm and why?

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