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Abbas Kiarostami’s Digital Turn

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I 

A scene from the late Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s last film, 24 Frames, feels like a visual incarnation of a line from Virginia Woolf: “the waves fell; withdrew and fell again, like the thud of a great beast stamping.” Along a shore, water laps and returns. That movement finds its echo in the image of a cow, lying on its side, slowly breathing in and out. A set of cowbells ringing off screen augurs the arrival of a small herd of cows that tumbles left to right across the screen, paying no attention to the prone figure. As we wonder whether the creature is injured, sleeping or dying, several minutes elapse before it abruptly rises and drags itself off-stage through the waves.

Except that when Abbas Kiarostami was putting together this bucolic scene, there were no beasts stamping the sand, no speckled cow conveniently napping within frame. Instead, Kiarostami found stock footage of a cow on its side and animated it by stretching and contracting the still image on top of the beach. The bovine figure’s heavy respiration turns out to be a digital trick, and that freewheeling, demiurgic sense of composition is the premise behind 24 Frames. Using digital techniques to animate photographs, Kiarostami’s final project asks what happens just before and after a still is taken, what surrounds a photographic epiphany on either side of an instant.

The genesis of the project was Kiarostami’s desire to animate several paintings that had influenced him, such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Hunters in the Snow, but soon evolved to include photographs from his own collection as well as collages of stock video and found images. Each frame begins with a still image, which then begins to move, a technique reminiscent of how the Lumière brothers presented the beginnings of their first films. It was only after the still photograph was displayed that, as Tom Gunning notes, “the projector began cranking and the image moved.” In 24 Frames, the “framing” is also frequently literal. Many sequences are shot through screens: a car door in winter, an open window looking out on a swaying tree, the silhouette of a bird behind a drawn shade in a study. The end result is a  psychic bricolage: a series of twenty-four dream-like animated “images,” each lasting four and a half minutes.

In some scenes, Kiarostami’s digital manipulation is difficult to discern, while in others, he attempts to cover obvious glitches with meteorological phenomena, such as snow effects. He is not after a Hollywood-level of technical perfection and often seems to revel in the artificiality of his scenes. For example, in the fifteenth frame, which is based on an actual photograph Kiarostami had once taken in Paris, six figures, ostensibly visiting from Iran, look at the Eiffel Tower with their backs turned to us. They remain absolutely still, even as the photograph begins to shimmer with the movements and sounds of interpolated passersby. Their preternatural stasis betrays the hybridity of Kiarostami’s idiosyncratic form of animated photography. In this frame, he is reconstructing a past memory; in others, the scenario is fabricated from scratch. In one of the early frames, for example, a black car window is slowly lowered to reveal a pure, snowy landscape. Two black stallions jump playfully among a stand of trees as snow falls. This monochromatic scene is simultaneously real and unreal: its perfectly posed animal protagonists gracefully jumping and flicking their tails on a loop within the quadrant of the car window’s de facto stage. Yet, the fact that this is digital pastiche does not lessen the beauty of the sequence.

While 24 Frames is unlike any of Kiarostami’s previous work, it pays the same careful attention to form that long fascinated the Iranian director. From Close-Up (1990) to And Life Goes On (1992) and Ten (2002), Kiarostami has often been interested in film as a self-consciously constructed work of art. The director sometimes contrasted that quality of filmmaking with photography, a field he was equally familiar with. In a 2002 interview with Youssef Ishaghpour, Kiarostami noted that “je suis le spectateur d’une photographie dans laquelle je ne suis pas intervenu. Je n’ai pas construit la nature, l’appareil a été fabriqué par quelqu’un d’autre. Je n’ai fait qu’appuyer instantanément sur le bouton” [“I am the spectator of a photograph in which I did not intervene. I did not build the nature, the device was fabricated by someone else. I just pressed the button instantly.”] Kiarostami suggests that photography requires less direction from him, unlike film. In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes famously correlates that reduced degree of intervention in photography with its certainty: “One day I received from a photographer a picture of myself which I could not remember being taken, for all my efforts; I inspected the tie, the sweater, to discover in what circumstances I had worn them; to no avail. And yet, because it was a photograph I could not deny that I had been there (even if I did not know where).”

As Kiarostami would no doubt have agreed, Barthes’s distinction—that a photograph always communicates thereness, and therefore, certaintyno longer rings true in our post-analog world. Photographs are just as stageable or subject to manipulation as films are, as 24 Frames so carefully shows us . Indeed, the film pushes the boundary between photography and film to its limit, breaking down the distinction between moment and duration, a feat that would not have been possible without Kiarostami’s openness to digital techniques. Tracing Kiarostami’s passage from analog to digital cameras, Scott Kryzch has commented that some of Kiarostami’s later work depends on the use of digital cameras, even if some of the recurring qualities of his filmsan interest in constant movement,  sequences shot through windows, characters placed in front car seatshave stayed the same. Of Kiarostami’s Ten, he writes: “[A]s we follow Mania through the streets of Tehran and spy on the conversations with her various passengers, our position as spectators becomes comparable to that of the director, who, like us, was absent from the actual recording. In 10 on 10 [sic] Kiarostami describes this free mobility as producing a form of spontaneity never before achieved by actors in his earlier films.”

After our journey across beaches and through forests, among crows, lions, horses, cows and sheep, through landscapes devoid of dialogue and people, the final frame returns us to how 24 Frames itself was conceived: in front of a computer in Kiarostami’s study. A young woman with dreadlocks gently sleeps with her head on a desk in a room surrounded by six windows. The computer screen in front of her shows video editing software, and within that border of menus and controls, a scene of a couple looking into each other’s eyes from William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) advances slowly frame by frame. For all the quiet of this scene, an Andrew Lloyd Webber song blares incongruously in the background. Yet, what strikes us the most is the tempo of this sequence. The frame rate of the couple has been technologically slowed down, to a rate much slower than the actual scene we are watching. The two figures from the old Hollywood film are slowly colliding, coming together in a kiss.

There are almost too many exquisite things happening here to mention: the wry nod by an auteur to American cinema, the human physicality so absent from the rest of the project and the sense of finality by an artist aware that this is his final work. Although Kiarostami’s son Ahmad helped posthumously edit the final project down to twenty-four sequences, he did not alter the overall order of the film. There is something faintly elegiac about this frame, but also refreshingly open to cinema’s technological possibilities, to its persistence into the future. If, as Barthes had remarked, the figures in a photograph are “anesthetized and fastened down, like butterflies,” Kiarostami shows us, in his conjuring of digital slowness, how these figures can still tremble, shiver and shake.

Ayten Tartici is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Comparative Literature at Yale University. Her essays have appeared in The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Michigan Quarterly Review and MAKE Literary Magazine.