“I always wonder to what extent the artist aims to depict the reality of a scene.”
When Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami died in Paris in 2016, he left behind one of the greatest bodies of work of modern cinema. Works such as “Taste of Cherry”, “The Wind Will Carry Us” or “Close-Up” have made an undeniable impression on the works of many filmmakers and defined how the world perceives Iranian cinema.
In the last years of his life he dedicated most of his time to a project which would ultimately be “24 Frames”. Even though authors such as Bilge Ebiri state how the director turned to minimalism late in his life, many of his films show signs of this search for new ways of cinematic expression. “Taste of Cherry” (1997) is based on a very minimalist premise, which takes place mostly in the car of the protagonist. The ending, which breaks the fourth wall, transcends the action depicted before highlighting the universal nature of the themes of the film. Similarly, as Ebiri points out, “Ten” (2002) crossed the border between documentary and fiction as well as questioned the role of the director as the author of the work.
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However, “24 Frames” takes this development in Kiarostami’s body of work even further. Beginning with the idea of how much an artist constitutes reality in order to capture a perfect moment, Kiarostami uses paintings and his own photography to re-imagine what has happened before and after the moment portrayed within the frame. Through the use of digital effects, sound and music, the final film features 24 frames, which slowly come to life while capturing the dimensions of a certain moment and occasionally even telling short, dramatic stories.
Although he would work on the film until his final days, Kiarostami was unable to finish the project, which had become his passion in the last five years. In the end, it fell upon his son Ahmad to complete the film, which screened at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. Regarded as an art installation by himself, many critics convinced the director’s son to leave the film as it is.
Indeed, every viewer will understand some of the more negative or cautious responses to “24 Frames”. The first frame, for example, shows the familiar scene of Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s “Hunters in the Snow” eventually brought to life via added smoke from chimneys, crows flying around and even a dog shyly crossing the path of the hunters. Even though this is the only time the film takes on a painting – the remaining frames are based on photographs and re-imaginations of Kiarostami’s fantasies – these opening four minutes define the gist of the whole film. Those looking for a fleshed out narrative will most certainly not find it here, but instead will have to look closer or will just have to let go of any traditional expectations towards the medium.
Perhaps one of the best ways to experience and appreciate “24 Frames” lies within the realization of the intuitive qualities of each image. In many ways, “24” Frames” may just be the logical next step from films like “Shirin” as it consists of a simple premise, but taps into the emotional intellect of the viewer. One of the frames, for example, shows a group of sheep standing underneath a tree on a snowy landscape while a dog watches close by. Meanwhile, the sound of wolves howling predicts a sense of danger, an urgent need to seek shelter amidst the large herd. The simplicity of the images, the sparse movement and the careful use of sound creates a feeling of unease, but also makes one appreciate the depiction of company, of protection and a sense of being cared for. While one could analyze the various layers of the image, the simplicity of the image is rather inviting a viewer to contemplate on the scene, the nature of the actions and, most importantly of all, the concept of time.
While some of the images still have the visual poetry which defines the works of Kiarostami, the true art lies within the radical reduction of cinema. Coming back to the origins of the medium, cinema has always been about expression and capturing time, even from its early years, if the famous first films about trains arriving at stations by the Lumiere brothers are any indicators. As the image is manipulated, or extended through the use of digital effects, the addition of actors and actresses as well as sound and music, so does time become a different entity. A still image of a group of people watching the Eiffel Tower is expanded through other people passing them by, among them a musician. The frozen time of the photography, the uniqueness of the moment, as well as the personal layer to it becomes a shared space for the viewer to join. Cinema, in the hands of Kiarostami, makes you re-live time, understand the emotions, the idea and the essence of a brief moment captured eternally on film, but with the added layers the medium has at its disposal.
In the end, “24 Frames” is a wonderful viewing experience, an open invitation to its audience to meditate on the nature of time, of images and the world they capture. By returning to a simple kind of cinema, Kiarostami has also opened a door towards the core of the medium itself, resulting in film as a mode of pure expression, of capturing a moment and making it come to life again. This is the true magic behind each of these frames. And it is also Abbas Kiarostami’s final gift to the world.
Ebiri, Bilge (2018) The World Made Visible
An interview with Ahmad Kiarostami, Abbas Kiarostami’s son (included in the recent release of “24 Frames” by Criterion)