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Microcinema and Ten: Abbas Kiarostami's new digital wave



by Dave Riley

Abbas Kiarostami is a renowned Iranian film director -- a key figure in that country's New Wave. Having not seen his films before I picked up Ten on impulse and watched it because of the way it was shot -- on two small digital mini cameras inside the single location of a Tehran taxi cab.

Ten focuses on ten conversations between the female driver and her passengers.

This may seem a bit Andy Warholish as though Kiarostami is cutting edge avaunt garde and is dedicated to being very much underground cinema and obscure. But Ten isn't like that. It's not indulgent at all.

In the DVD release I watched, the "Extras" included a fascinating documentary -- 10 on Ten -- a segment of which is reproduced above. And in it, Kiarostami explains how he uses cinema and the technology of digital video.

His perspective challenges the present assumptions we tend to make about the movies we see.

His is an attempt to embrace a very simplistic and pure form of human interaction -- expunged of so much of the artificiality that sustains a capitalist aesthetic preference where it seems so much value added.

The capitalist novel

Marxists have for yonks logged the historical development of the novel and how that literary form matched an evolving bourgeois ethos. Cinema, especially talking cinema, has taken up the aesthetic cudgels and asserted a rich narrative fed by so many aesthetic tricks that try to draw you in emotionally and engage you from the protagonists' point of view.

Acting(especially "Method" acting), cinematography, script and the like are all so much engineering designed to take your emotions on a journey: sometimes roller coaster, sometimes maudlin, sometimes horrific. Indeed the genre labels at your local video stores say it all --in effect tell you what you can expect from the commodity before you decide to consume it.

There's nothing wrong with that of course-- that's just good storytelling -- but the technical skilling up is such that the measure of a film tend to be its level of engagement generates with you.


The Alienation effect

An alternative tradition was argued for in Germany between the wars and in theatre, music and cinema a new aesthetic perspective was advocated -- one that is usually associated with the work of the playwright Bertolt Brecht and the music of composer Kurt Weill.

But its genesis and theory is much broader and its adherents tweaked its viewpoint from the struggle and passion of the revolutionary cultural and political experience of Soviet and Germany between the 1917 Russian Revolution and the rise of Hitler in 1933.

This aesthetic which is variously called "epic" or "alienation effect" -- called Verfremdungseffekt in German by Brecht -- was marginalised and then actively suppressed when Socialist Realism took hold of the communist movement world wide under Stalin's Comintern. (Folk like Pablo Picaso managed to experiment unharmed despite his communist affiliations.)

While Verfremdungseffekt was dedicated to didacticism -- it wasn't proffered as propaganda. Essentially this outlook sought to treat its audience with respect. Verfremdungseffekt assumed that its audience also thinks rather than simply feel.

I think the cinema of Kiarostami's Ten aspires to do the same. Rather than hold the audience hostage to artifice his attempt to utilize a simple means of story telling, of exploring with insight, reminds me so much of the perspectives formatted for Verfremdungseffekt .

Brecht and his colleagues tried -- and Kiarostami aspires I think -- to deliver the goods plainly and simply so that we don't get distracted by all these layered add ons -- most of which could be categorised as "special effects" -- the way actor's act, the way the set is lit, the way the film is edited and the camera is angled... secretly and unbeknown to the viewer's consciousness.

The digital promise.

Kiarostami's exploration also offers a rich and exciting promise: that the new media -- especially digital video in mini dv format -- empowers the rest of us to create 'art' with the same ease we would use to write a story. This option, known more generally as Microcinema is a massive antidote to Hollywood-think.
The term Microcinema can have two meanings. It can describe low-budget or amateur films shot mostly on digital video, edited on a computer, and then distributed via videotape, disc or over the Internet. Or it can describe a mode of low-budget exhibition—a small theater or screening series operated in order to show small-gauge filmmaking, artists works, shorts, and repertory programming.

Microcinema is a flexible term that can cover anything - animated shorts, bizarrely impressionistic video manipulations, hard-hitting documentaries, and garage-born feature-length movies. A classic microcinema offering is a film that probably would not exist if new technology hadn't allowed its creators to cut costs or inspired them to try something different.

Kiarostami's major contribution is that he is such a skilled artist that he has taken the Microcinema to a new democratic possibility.

While Kiarostrami has apparently adjusted some of his views since Ten that cannot undermine the inkling he tries to share with us in a work such as Ten and the documentary that accompanies it.

Make sure you catch both.

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