Author: Mohammad Mehdi Kimiagari (Brown University)
How to Cite: Mehdi Kimiagari, M. (2022) “The Frames That Unframe: Abbas Kiarostami’s Method of Decreation in 24 Frames”, Film Criticism. 46(1). doi: https://doi.org/10.3998/fc.2713
Correction: In an earlier version of this essay, in the section "The Off-Screen Space and the Stasis of Frames", the sentence "Likewise, the process of concealment, for Kiarostami, is simultaneously an unconcealment, an unframing that one could trace in the concept of the Cloud in Islamic philosophy." was corrected to change the "c" in could to lowercase, and the "c" in Cloud to uppercase. In the same section, the sentence "Through an act of decentering, the off-screen space accents itself.” was corrected to remove the word "angles" after the comma.
“I’m not claiming or denying that I have done such a thing,
but I do believe in [Robert] Bresson’s method of creation through omission,
not through addition.”
In the aftermath of the Iranian revolution in 1979, the national cinema of Iran emerged in response to an Islamic injunction against the voyeuristic male gaze that generated a new cinematic syntax, which amounted “to a refusal of the scopophilic codes embedded in the Hollywood tradition, and result[ed] in the introduction of distancing elements that acknowledge the presence of the spectator.”1 Complying with this injunction, Abbas Kiarostami (1940–2016) shot his post-revolutionary films by a camera that had a modest look. Paradoxically, this conformity to regulations proved to be constructive for him. As Negar Mottahedeh observes in Displaced Allegories, “Kiarostami sees the restrictions on cinema as enabling, spurring the creative process; he incorporates, indeed he quotes, the laws proscribing vision in his shot constructions.”2 One could claim that in Kiarostami’s post-revolutionary body of work what we, as the audience, “see when we do not see is what we see with a modest and averted gaze.”3 By leaving certain elements incomplete, erased and invisible, Kiarostami’s interactive cinema consistently demands the imaginative participation of its audience. This article, addressing itself to his 24 Frames (2017), suggests that this mode of filmmaking that gives rise to what Kiarostami called “half-made films” relies on unlocked frames whose visible inside and invisible outside are mutually contingent.
Indeed, visual simplicity and self-reflexivity are typical of post-revolutionary Iranian cinema whose adjacency to the European tradition of realism is indisputable. Noting the parallels between the New Iranian Cinema, Italian Neo-realism and the French New Wave, Shohini Chaudhuri and Howard Finn have insightfully situated post-revolutionary Iranian cinema within the context of a concept that they call “the open image.” Alluding to the freeze-frames in a range of post-revolutionary films such as Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s A Moment of Innocence (1996), Kiarostami’s Close-Up (1990) and Through the Olive Trees (1994), Chaudhuri and Finn draw our attention to the ambiguity of static images that attempt to circumvent censorship and demonstrate “how a repressed political dimension returns within the ostensibly apolitical aesthetic form of the open image.”4 As we will see in this article, what Kiarostami famously described as his method of creation through omission, not addition, is aligned with the openness of the frame that the concept of the open image aptly summons.
Kiarostami’s mentioned method of filmmaking that culminated in an undiluted minimalism is perhaps most manifestly depicted in 24 Frames, a mesmeric film that opens with Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Hunters in the Snow, an oil-on-wood painting that portrays hunters and their hounds trudging back home in the snow. As its title suggests, 24 Frames is comprised of twenty-four short fragmented films that restore Bruegel’s painting and Kiarostami’s own still photographs to motion, accentuating a flow between the visible inside and invisible outside of the frames. What guides Kiarostami’s framing logic is Bruegel’s oil painting as the first frame that offers its viewers no firm point of orientation; an indeterminacy imbues Bruegel’s canvas. Examining the framing mechanism in Bruegel’s paintings in The Off-Screen, Eyal Peretz argues that “the figures occupying the Bruegelian canvas are always thought in relation to defacement; in a sense, they are always ghostly, masked, and communicating with the beyond that the frame activates.”5 Peretz further draws our attention to the ambiguity of the pictorial space in Bruegel’s works and his Landscape with the Fall of Icarus in particular: “it is not at all clear what the painting is about, what kind of meaning it is trying to convey or make visible. This lack of meaning and ‘aboutness’ arises because nothing in the painting seems to provide a stable point of orientation.”6 Here, the unavailability of any point of anchorage within the frame to direct our gaze or provide hints as to what is central and marginal in respect of hierarchy creates a vague sense of non-belonging.7 Within this context, Peretz explains that what he identifies as the “artistic frame” is not a “device separating what it contains from what is relegated to its outside [...] The artistic frame actually unframes: its borders do not create a sense of inclusion but rather, by cutting its content out of any given context, create a sense of non-belonging, of not being part of any given order.”8 In this article, I will argue that this unframing and activation of the beyond, the off-screen space, underpins Kiarostami’s method in 24 Frames that triggers the imaginative participation of its audience by reveling in what surpasses full visibility and knowability.
The Islamization of cinematic codes in post-revolutionary Iran was based on an assumption that voyeurism, which is an integral constituent of classical Hollywood cinema, is to be interdicted. In an Islamic context, the act of looking is considered tactile and is tantamount to a touching of skin. Considering the role of the Islamic veil, Mottahedeh writes that “The act of veiling operates as a shield against heterosexual desire […] A cinema that shows a female without the veil thus provokes ‘carnal thoughts.’”9 It was in accordance with this code of modesty against the desiring gaze that “a new narrative cinema emerged as a displaced allegory of the determining conditions of the post-Revolutionary film industry.”10 The term “displaced allegory” here intimates the fact that the film-making conditions can be traced on a formal level in films made subsequent to the 1979 revolution.11 Mottahedeh further notes that the self-reflexive allegorization of cinema in Iran is particularly concerned with stylistics and is “a second-level message that could certainly accompany the narrative but that would necessarily arise on the level of form rather than from the ideological ground of the film narrative’s content.”12 The pathway to circumventing the codes of censorship in post-revolutionary Iranian cinema is what Mottahedeh, echoing the feminist film theorists of the 1970s such as Laura Mulvey, terms a “negative aesthetics” that celebrates ambiguity while confronting the scopophilic modes of Western cinema. In this sense, for Mottahedeh, the post-revolutionary Iranian cinema can be recognized as a “woman’s cinema” that, by impeding the regimes of voyeurism, prevents the fetishization of a woman’s body.
While Kiarostami’s cinematic style employs minimal editing and cutting, in 24 Frames, each frame, modified by rudimentary computer-generated imagery (CGI) techniques, is assigned a number and lasts less than five minutes before it fades to black. In the majority of the frames, the absence of premediated meaning is underscored by the lack of any dialogue and the spontaneous movements of animals that play an indispensable role in animating the frames. Throughout the film, crows sporadically caw, cows pass by, horses prance, clouds move through the sky, wind howls, trees shake, snowflakes gracefully descend from outside the frames as we anticipate an impending tempest. A house window, a car window, apertures in rocks, etc. function as frames within the frame of Kiarostami’s camera. Aside from Bruegel’s painting, humans become visible within no more than two frames. In frames 15 and 24, with the exception of passersby and a guitarist, humans remain still with an averted gaze. Kiarostami’s 15th shot is suffused with a growing tension between the pensive stillness of the figures who have their backs to the camera, gazing at the Eiffel Tower as the daylight grows dim, and the purpose-driven pedestrians who move in and out of the frame (see fig. 2). The final frame, frame 24, depicts a film editor sleeping in front of the frame of a computer screen that in turn depicts a kissing scene from William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) (see fig. 3). What specifically ties the 15th frame to the 24th is the averted gaze of the human figures, which, in the case of the 24th shot, seems to act as a deterrence against heterosexual desire. One should admit that since we, the viewers, witness the kissing scene in a frame within a frame, the 24th frame, despite its portrayal of an averted and sleeping gaze, partly misses and deviates from the Islamic injunction against a voyeuristic gaze.
A highly charged tension between the stationary and the moving binds all the frames in Kiarostami’s film together. By infusing the static with liveness and restoring archival images to motion, 24 Frames gives prominence to the beyond or the off-screen space, a matrix from which animals and humans emerge. In her reflections on the links between theatrical reenactment and tableau vivant in Performing Remains, Rebecca Schneider destabilizes the motion/stillness dichotomy to help us comprehend a perspective of static images as live and dynamic:
Troubling the habitual line of binary opposition between ‘the live’ and the ‘archival remain’ might provoke us, even if momentarily, to look differently at the photos we pass by every day, whether hung in museums, plastered on billboards, scrunched in frames, glossed on the covers of magazines, packed away in drawers, embedded in archives, or lolling about like sirens waiting for surfers on the Web. This is an invitation, in other words, to go in search of ‘photographs’ in the live space of temporal lag – in the processionals of the middle ages, for example.13
The direction of averted looks towards the outside, angles of the frames, the movements of animals from the inside to the outside and vice versa are the crucial components to be heedful of in considering a continuity between the on- and off-screen space in 24 Frames. Through an act of decentering, the off-screen space accents itself. To quote Pascal Bonitzer, “Off-Screen space displaces a scene’s center of gravity. Thus an off-screen ‘presence’ can only exist (only ‘consist’) in accordance with (of) a certain displacement.”14 This decentering, operating in Bruegel’s painting and Kiarostami’s photographs, is a telling component of the frames that first appear as frozen shots, but soon begin to come to life as birds fly and animals shift position in 24 separate-yet-connected frames. In 24 Frames, except for one frame, the camera remains fully immobile to call the spectators’ attention to the off-screen space, to what is not seen. According to Bonitzer, “Off-screen space is, first, the metonymic region of screen space, of which it is the extension and the imaginary support.”15 On a similar note, referring to Andre Bazin, Libby Saxton writes that “the images unfolding on the screen only become meaningful in relation to the unlimited space that escapes our view. Bazin’s analogy between screen and mask prioritizes the hidden dimensions of the medium, suggesting that cinematic revelation may be predicated upon a process of concealment.”16 Comparably, in 24 Frames, the off-screen space does not represent a lack, a dearth. I will, nonetheless, recognize and theorize it in the light of what in Islamic Shi’ism and its indigenous dramatic form of ta’ziyeh is called mazlumiyat— a negativity that constitutes a positive agency. In this light, I would suggest that the notion of mazlumiyat, which I will unpack shortly, offers us an avenue to understand the off-screen space as a negative space that amounts to the activation of imagination.
Mazlumiyat is an Islamic concept that came to light from a rift between Shia and Sunni Islam, a paradoxical concept that needs to be contextualized within the history of this conflict. Subsequent to Prophet Muhammed’s death in 632 CE, Muslims were divided into the mentioned sects. Shi’ites believed that the Prophet had designated his cousin and son-in-law, Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib, as his successor, while Sunnis were of the opinion that the Prophet’s inheritor was to be appointed pursuant to the Arabian tribal rules. This friction built up to a battle between the grandson of the Prophet, Imam Hussein, and the Caliph of the time, Yazid, in 680 CE. After ten days of resistance with no access to water, Imam Hussein and his seventy-two companions were all martyred by the swords of Yazid’s forces in the arid desert of Karbala. As a Shi’ite and Iranian form of religious drama whose influence on Iranian cinema has been discussed by film scholars such as Michelle Langford and Mottahedeh, ta’ziyeh (mourning), is a belated reenactment of this traumatizing battle that occasioned the martyrdom of Imam Hussein and his followers. As an aside, it is worth mentioning that in July 2003 in Rome, Kiarostami directed a rather experimental ta’ziyeh. He created a show within a show by placing six wide screens around the stage to display “the faces of ta’ziyeh spectators in Iran, a black-and-white documentary filmed by Kiarostami himself.”17
In “Ta’ziyeh as Theater of Protest,” Hamid Dabashi identifies mazlumiyat as the major theme that shapes ta’ziyeh’s narrative:
Hussein’s epithet is ‘Mazlum’; he is called ‘Hussein-e Mazlum,’ or ‘the Hussein who was wronged.’ But the trilateral Arabic root of mazlumiyyat, ZLM, means ‘tyranny’ and ‘injustice’ at one and the same time […] Thus two paradoxical principles are instantaneously summoned and metaphorically collapsed in the assumption of mazlumiyyat […] [mazlumiyat] is a weakness that constitutes power, a passivity that entails active agency.18
Taking my cue from this conceptualization, I would venture to argue that the logic of mazlumiyat as a passivity that assumes an active agency shapes Kiarostami’s (un)framing method on the level of form. Taking off from the paradox of mazlumiyat in ta’ziyeh, I argue that the stasis of frames in 24 Frames constitutes a movement. It is through a failure, through not moving, that the frames succeed in moving, in unframing through a triggering of the off-screen space and therefore the imaginative involvement of the audience. In such manner, the inside and outside of the frames find themselves mutually interdependent. Given this codependence, the frames become a ground for (in)visibility, a ground where the visible meets the invisible. This is how the cinematic space is realized for Kiarostami, who, interestingly, always thought his films to be “half-made,” incomplete. Indeed, this incompletion, concealment and constant delay is the matter of what falls outside of the frames and thus displaced. As the frames resist movement in 24 Frames, a realm beyond them is called upon, a space that evades the screen, a space that remains veiled similar to the sun behind clouds. Yet, this space unveils itself to emerge through the imaginative engagement of an audience.
Clouds appear frequently in Kiarostami’s compilation. 24 Frames opens with Bruegel’s cloudy painting and also ends on a highly overcast shot. The static frames are haunted by the (in)visibility of the sun behind clouds as well. After all, while the sun remains hidden behind the clouds, its light can be discerned. Likewise, the process of concealment, for Kiarostami, is simultaneously an unconcealment, an unframing that one could trace in the concept of the Cloud in Islamic philosophy. Cloud is a term in esoteric Islamic philosophy that addresses an intermediary space as the first locus of emergence and creation. Inspired by Kiarostami’s cinema, Joan Copjec draws on the French philosopher and Islamicist Henry Corbin to argue that “Cloud is neither being nor non-being, but ‘being in suspense’; it suspends or limits absolute power and maximizes tension.”19 Even so, this suspension is not a sign of hesitancy as in agnosticism. Cloud, in fact, is a gnostic notion that “contributes to the theorization of a kind of knowing that takes the form of non-knowing.”20 The (non-)knowing here speaks to the way that the invisible and unknowable outside of the frames are activated through an imaginative knowing of an audience. The frames and the long takes of Kiarostami’s 24 Frames activate the cloudy realm of the “off” that escapes and evades the screen as what remains on the screen orients itself to and communicates with the off-screen.
Kiarostami sets the stage for his 24 Frames by showcasing an inquisitiveness about remembrance and anticipation. The film opens with this quote from Kiarostami that, in short, brings to mind what Aby Warburg, the German art historian, termed nachleben, the survival or after-life of images: “[In each frame] I included four and a half minutes of what I imagined might have taken place before or after each image that I had captured.” The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, discussing the origins and precursors to cinema, refers to Warburg’s nachleben to elucidate the tenacity of the impression cast on the retina of the human eye by an image. Agamben reminds us that “it has been now experimentally proven that the image received by the mind [...] persists for about one eighth of a second after the image has been removed.”21 Exploring Walter Benjamin’s concept of the “dialectical image” which speaks to a tension between stasis and motion, Agamben further writes, “Every instant, every image virtually anticipates its future development and remembers its former gestures.”22
By drawing an analogy between the mythical figure of the nymph and the concept of image, Agamben contends that nymphs belong neither to the realm of humans nor that of animals. Their existence, as he explicates, lies in an oscillation between spirit and human. They only become alive as human when they experience a sexual intercourse with a human and give birth to a child. Much the same as nymphs, “images are not static but charged with time and motion. Theirs is a historical being that requires a subject to unite with in order to become alive. Herein lies their potency: they furnish the site at which the imagination may become active.”23 Taking note of this analogy, Agamben concludes that images are always-already charged with time and unremittingly resist immobility. For Agamben, “the life of images consists neither of simple immobility nor of the subsequent return to motion but of a pause highly charged with tension between the two.”24 Although they are prone to rigidify, images are already alive, “but because they are made of time and memory their life is always-already Nachleben, after-life; it is always-already threatened and in the process of taking on a spectral form.”25 The messianic task of a director here is to restore images to life as Kiarostami does in 24 Frames. The unmoving frames of 24 Frames, which evoke Sohrab Shahid Saless’s nearly motionless cinema, are actively world-creative in their unassertive immobility.
Throughout 24 Frames, Kiarostami is keen on what might, or might not, happen, what happened, and what may have, or may not have, happened. His frames, as well, unframe in the spirit of contingencies and possibilities that each frame, withstanding full visibility and knowability, anticipates and remembers. For the remainder of this section, let us turn to the notion of contingency, which, according to Agamben, addresses beings that can both be and not be and needs to be understood vis-à-vis the philosophical matter of potentiality. In “The Fate of the Image in Church History and the Modern State,” Copjec, drawing upon the works of the falasifa (the Peripatetic followers of Aristotle and Avicenna in Islamic philosophy) to delineate the philosophical ambitions in Kiarostami’s “half-making” of his films, writes that “Kiarostami aspires not to put his sovereign will on film but to demonstrate that creation arises neither from will nor ex nihilo, but out of potentiality.”26 In considering Copjec’s statement, it is vital to note that every potentiality is at the same time an impotentiality. In a detailed passage in his Potentialities, Agamben, alluding to Aristotle’s Metaphysics, clarifies this:
In its originary structure, dynamis, potentiality, maintains itself in relation to its own privation, its own sterēsis, its own non-Being. This relation constitutes the essence of potentiality. To be potential means: to be own’s own lack, to be in relation to one’s own incapacity. Beings that exist in the mode of potentiality are capable of their own impotentiality; and only in this way do they become potential. They can be because they are in relation to their own non-Being.27
For Agamben, in the passage to actuality, impotentiality suspends and turns back on itself. That is not to say that it cancels and destroys itself; it, however, makes actuality “not just the realisation and fulfillment of the potentiality-to-be (i.e. being), but also the privative negation (and fulfillment) of the potentiality-to-not-be: the potentiality not to not be (i.e. not not-being).”28 Given this philosophical formulation, if potentiality were not at the same time an impotentiality, there would be no such thing as contingency, and every potentiality would turn impetuously into actuality. In other words, impotentiality prevents the blind drive of potentiality into actuality.
Contingency (imkan) is what the falasifa resorted to in their arguments about the necessary being of God. Seddiqin argument (the argument of the righteous), which is one of the most favored arguments in Shia Islam, places contingency at its core. According to this argument, if we consider anything in its existence, it is either necessary or contingent. God’s being, which is necessary, cannot not exist, while what is not necessary is contingent and hence in want of a preternatural cause. In Three Muslim Sages, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a contemporary Islamic philosopher, reminds us that for Avicenna, “The being of the whole Universe has no higher status than that of contingency and depends for every moment of its existence upon the Necessary Being that keeps all things in existence by the continued effusion of the light of its Being upon them.”29 Furthermore, Avicenna, as Copjec explicates, “taught [the falasifa] that the soul expresses itself in an aspiration toward the still unrealized […] For the falasifa, therefore, the uncreated […] had to be returned to repeatedly and ceaselessly created.”30
The perpetuity of creation here is to be juxtaposed with the notion of contingency that Avicenna forcefully upheld. He even once sarcastically suggested that those who question contingency should be tortured until they confess to the fact that they could also not have been tortured. Given that contingency is essential in a ceaseless creation, it is viable to claim that an interminable creation is also what Agamben, drawing on Simone Weil, calls decreation, a concept defined in relation to a zone of indistinction between the two poles of contingency, to be and to not be:
The creation that is […] fulfilled is neither a re-creation nor an eternal repetition; it is, rather, a decreation in which what happened and what did not happen are returned to their originary unity in the mind of God, while what could have not been but was becomes indistinguishable from what could have been but was not.31
This is to say that potentiality and impotentiality merge at a point of indiscernibility in the act of decreation.32 After all, every potentiality, as Agamben, turning to Aristotle and the falasifa, claims, is also an impotentiality that resists the passage to actuality. I would reiterate here that if this were not true, one could never speak of potentiality as such, and contingency would have no role in our world.
At least on the surface, the endorsement of contingency, being able to do and not do, by the falasifa seems to contradict the role of God as the hidden agent of our acts and the verse in the Quran that reads: “It is not you who killed them, but God did so. You did not throw what you threw (sand into the eyes of the enemy at [the battle of] Badr), but God […].”33 Raising the same issue, Copjec reminds us that the falasifa believed in an unknown secret— God assumes a secret agency— that exists behind our acts in the sublunary or sensible realm. To this secret, however, there is another secret to be found in the relation between God and human beings:
Neither God in sovereign isolation from us, nor we in our self-enclosed isolation from Him (or from others) are capable of any real change. God, alone, is necessary, but alone he is also without capacity, without potentiality; potentiality emerges then only as a bi-lateral or joint affair; potentiality is being which is suspended in the relation between Divine and human existence, between one being and another.34
In this manner, potentiality moves by way of a reciprocity that marks its unrealized being. While the foregoing discussion of potentiality and contingency in relation to decreation may seem dense and rigorous, it does merit reflection as it sheds light on Kiarostami’s highly philosophical motivations.
In 24 Frames, the images with static frames, frames that do not move, call up a beyond from which the next image emerges. What could have not been but was and what could have been but was not, potentiality and impotentiality, reality and fiction, motion and stillness cannot be told apart in Kiarostami’s cinema of decreation. As expected, we are unable to know what has been added to each frame and what has been left unchanged, what was and what was not. When we follow the mentioned resonant spheres of indistinguishability, Kiarostami’s frames that activate the imagination of their audience can be perceived as capable, moving and operational in their stasis and incapability, resonating with the Shi’ite notion of mazlumiyat, a passivity that entails an active agency. As the visible encounters the ground for the invisible in the off-screen space, each frame, becoming tied to its contingent being, unframes itself to, through not-showing, show, through not-moving, move.
Throughout his life, Kiarostami repeatedly reminded his audience that it is up to them to make countless films of their own in their minds: “I make one film as a filmmaker, but the audience, based on that film, makes a hundred movies in their minds. Every audience member can make his own movie […] My movie has only functioned as a base for them to make their movies.”35 As noted earlier, Kiarostami’s cinema achieves this primarily through its reliance on the off-screen space, which functions as the guarantor of the participation of an audience through creative imagination, bringing the act of looking at his films close to an act of reading. Kiarostami’s frames can be read/watched by an audience whose imaginative participation is premised on the off-screen space. My argument in this article aligns with Kiarostami’s own desire to invite his audience to borrow an additional pair of eyes when they watch his films. As he incisively puts it:
I want to tap the hidden information that’s within yourself and that you probably didn’t even know existed inside you. We have a saying in Persian, when somebody is looking at something with real intensity: ‘He had two eyes and he borrowed two more.’ Those borrowed eyes are what I want to capture – the eyes that will be borrowed by the viewer to see what’s outside the scene he’s looking at.36
24 Frames, by adhering to this model, leaves us to see films that were never made. In speaking of creation through omission, motion through stillness, Kiarostami found his cinematic career. He once claimed that every director makes merely a single film in their life, and they release that one film in installments. It is perhaps too large of a claim to argue that all the films directed by Kiarostami are one, but suffice to say, they all have frames that unframe.
My deepest gratitude is owed to Rebecca Schneider, Joan Copjec, Julia Jarcho, Leon Hilton, and Stephanie Polsky for their insightful comments on the earlier drafts of this article. I am especially thankful to the anonymous referee and the editors of Film Criticism for their words of encouragement.
Mohammad Mehdi Kimiagari is a PhD student in Theatre Arts and Performance Studies at Brown University, from which he also holds an MA degree in Middle Eastern Studies. His interdisciplinary research gravitates towards the intersection of performance studies, film and media studies, affect theory, and philosophy. His writing has appeared in TDR/The Drama Review, Critical Inquiry, and Textual Practice.