What is Kiarostami trying to tell me?

That’s the question I keep asking myself as I’ve been introduced to his films over the past few weeks at his TIFF Retrospective.

I’m told there’s a magic moment that comes to those going through Kiarostami’s work for the first time. For me, it was during his documentary, 10 on Ten, where the director drives around the hills of Tehran with a camcorder trained on himself as he shares ten lessons about cinema and the making of his film, Ten.

At the end, after all this knowledge he’s dropped on you – nuggets about his filmmaking philosophy, working with actors, and the purpose of film – he parks his car on a hilltop and gets out. The camera is still on and you’re sitting there, starting out at the greenery through the car window, left alone for a brief moment to ponder all the sage advice that’s been handed to you as Kiarostami steps out of frame.

And then you begin to hear what sounds like someone taking a piss in the bushes.

“What does this mean?” you begin to ask as your mouth slowly gapes open. Is this intentional? If so, what message is he telegraphing to the audience by doing this? Is he proverbially pissing on all the advice he’s just shared with us? You’re not quite sure if what you’re hearing is actually what you’re hearing, but you’re left thinking, “Does this man have an off switch?”

You’ll find yourself often asking what’s real when it comes to Kiarostami. His most famous work, Close-Up, is a shining example. It’s a film about an Iranian man impersonating a famous filmmaker and tricking a family into showing him hospitality as he pretends to use their house to shoot his next film. It sounds like a brilliant, slapstick conceit for a story, were it not for one important fact: all the characters in the film are the real people who were actually involved in the case. The family, the imposter, even the filmmaker whose identity is being stolen all play themselves in this film. But it isn’t a documentary. It’s presented and filmed for the most part as a fiction, like any other movie.

You have these people reenacting a bizarre, in some ways embarrassing situation they were a part of, and you’re left trying to pencil in the boundary between reality and fiction. How much of this story is real, how much of it is melodrama? Are the actors playing themselves, or are they playing reality? Hang on, they’re not even actors, they’re just people. You’ve just been a participant in some peculiar form of cinematic catharsis.

Experiments like these are how Kiarostami tests the dexterity of cinema. He pushes against the membrane of the medium to see just how far he can go – in what ways can he contort the boundaries of film. And you as the audience member are an important part of these experiments. Your perception, context, and beliefs are tested at every turn. Like a new drug, his films expand your consciousness, giving new insights into what’s possible. Kiarostami’s fascination with the medium is evident; He has a habit of drawing attention to his films as films. He wants you to know you’re watching a movie, or that you’re about to begin watching a movie, or that you’ve just spent the last two hours watching one.

He pulls this exact move with A Taste of Cherry. Throughout the film we follow a man driving around the hills of Tehran (driving is a big theme for Kiarostami). The main character spends the duration of the film trying to charter the help of lonely strangers to aid him – as we slowly realize – in committing suicide. We’re never offered insight into why he wants to do this. Instead, we’re simply engaged in this search, and the implicit idea that the act of killing oneself requires more than one person.

As our protagonist seems to be at the end of his journey, Kiarostami cuts away to documentary footage of his crew shooting the film. Forget breaking the fourth wall, this action shows us who’s building the wall. This last piece of footage is part of the framework of what he’s trying to say with this film. It’s not an addendum or a coda, it is the ending.

Kiarostami seems to be suggesting that we are complicit. This movie, and the act it depicts, cannot exist without us. He becomes a documentarian of the experience of fiction. Not a documentarian of life, or fiction as individual subjects, but rather the experience of fiction.

These ideas seem to most deftly come across in Shirin, a film that takes place in a cinema where we see over a hundred women watch a Persian epic love story on screen. We never see a single frame of what they’re seeing – you aren’t watching a movie so much as watching people watch a movie.

Some will no doubt gawk at the realization that this film is 90 minutes of silent faces, but in spite of its minimalism, it communicates mountains. Over an hour and a half, with nothing more than sound and dialogue, you’re watching this film play out across these women’s faces – their tears, their laughter, their fright. Whichever way you cut it, it is a profound artistic statement.

Why are we only shown the faces of women in the audience and never the men? What does Princess Shirin’s story say about these women and the way they react to it? What does this format say about the relationship between people and art? Is it a political statement on censorship in Iran? Or a love letter to the communal experience of cinema?

All of these questions yield many answers – and that is perhaps Kiarostami’s greatest lesson to us. When it comes to matters of spirit, an answer is almost never as important as the question. These are subjects to be grappled with, but never brought into submission. They are made to expand in your mind, not shrink.

That, is the magic of Kiarostami.

TIFF’s Kiarostami retrospective finishes next week; look out for screening of Shirin, 10 on 10, Certified Copy, The Experience, The Wedding Suit, The Traveler, Tickets, and Like Someone in Love over the next few days