The Wind Will Carry Us : Renouncement as a Prior Experience to Learning to See. By Philippe Ragel

This text is the paper that I have presented at International Conference “Abbas Kiarostami : Image, Voice and Vision”

Iran Heritage Foundation & University of Maryland, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, May 1, 2005.



“SHOW the invisible wind in the water that fashions as it flows”[1]


  • A circular film on waiting

In the nineteen sixties, Jean-Luc Godard divided film-makers in two categories: those who make “linear films” and those who make “circular films”. Those in the first category, noted Godard, “write up their film in the utmost detail… The shooting of the film is just a matter of practical application, so as to obtain a final result that resembles the original concept as closely as possible”[2]. To wit the films of Eisenstein and Hitchcock noted Godard. As for those in the second category – and one can easily surmise that Godard included himself among them – they “do not really know what they are doing and so they go looking for it. And that’s the film. They know they’re going to get somewhere in the end, they have everything they need to get there – only where is that somewhere?”[3]

As Kiarostami himself explains, he made The Wind Will Carry Us without really having prepared a shooting script[4]. The result is a seeking, questing film that gives the impression of searching itself, of feeling its way forward tentatively, without any clearly defined diagetic aim other than that it is vaguely about television reporting. In many respects, therefore, The Wind Will Carry Us resembles one of those “circular films” Godard mentions. The purpose of the film remains uncertain and the narrative is sinuous, its sinuosity metaphorised from the opening shots by the winding track, which has been an emblematic image in Kiarostami’s films since Where is my Friend’s home?.

The winding road is a very ancient visual motif inspired from Persian miniatures; it is a place of passage, transition and transgression that, leading into a world of the mind, proposes a philosophy of life. One needs to take that road to free oneself of the world of adults and the law they represent, as Ahmad discovers in Where is my Friend’s home ? The winding track teaches freedom and acts as a signal in the landscape, inviting us to overcome obstacles and trespass boundaries, to take risks and enter unknown territory. Kiarostami’s track, with its « S » or inverted « Z » pattern, recalls to some extent what Pierre-André Boutang wrote in his preparatory notes on « Z » for Gilles Deleuze’s L’Abécédaire[5]. It is a sign of crossways, which one finds in the names of leading philosophers, from SpinoZa to LeibniZ, from NietZche to DeleuZe. Breaking with the Aristotelian model of peripeteia and linear narrative, as well as with monolithic dramatic constructions, the letter-sign “Z” signals a creative process of tangents and ruptures that one finds in Kiarostami’s films, with their great moments of crossways and alternatives. A fine example of this is the scene of the gigantic traffic-jam in Life and Nothing More when the father decides, in exasperation, to branch off onto a road that zigzags up the hill and diagonally cuts across the shot. The tangent thus offers an alternative to the linear, predictable, itinerary on the main road below, to the general flow and gregariousness, to the seemingly pre-established script (get to Koker as arranged and find the two children). Opting for tangency means accepting uncertainty, taking a risk on haphazardness, addressing thereby the recurrent issue of cinema’s relation to reality

In The Wind Will Carry Us, the sinuosity of the narrative model and the seeming absence of legibility proceeds from the same intentions: this journey/reporting proposes an experience that is both philosophical and filmic. A film of crossways and tangents, The Wind Will Carry Us refuses to yield to the temptation of efficacy or dramatic economy. This is already stated — and we shall be coming back to this — in the admirable opening shots, with the curves and arabesques of its landscapes, its road snaking through the hills which magnificently illustrates the sinuousness of uncertainty, the structure of postponed imperatives, the logic of delay and tangency that informs the very structure of the narrative, in the manner of Godard’s “circular films”.

Thus it is only about halfway through the film that the public understands, or guesses, that Behzâd and his friends are a television crew come from Tehran. Still later will the reason for their presence in this village in Iran’s Kurdistan become apparent: they have come to film a scarification ritual that takes place during funeral ceremonies. Hence, of course, as the viewer belatedly understands, Behzâd’s interest in the sick old lady from the very beginning of the film: it is her funeral that the crew has come to film. Finally, when the old lady does end up dying, the television man abandons his project and leaves the village – without the film ever providing any explanation, even though, in an interview, Kiarostami has said he considers that the film already gives away too much.

Over and beyond this elliptical construction full of those blind alleys that are so dear to Kiarostami, The Wind Will Carry Us owes its dramatic idiosyncrasy to the fact that most of the narrative is taken up with waiting – endlessly, it seems – for the old lady to die. That is to say that the narrative must submit, throughout the film, to a prerequesite that endangers it: waiting. And waiting, with its aimless comings and goings, its repetitiveness, is precisely an area of the imagination that the cinema dreads: this is suggested, not without irony, in the recurrent frames showing the four-wheel drive on the track leading up to the graveyard.


  • The Wind Will Carry Us: a process of its own renouncement

Hollywood tends to consider waiting unproductive; here, it is a richly significant experience when linked to the major issue of renouncement on which the film closes. For renouncement is what The Wind Will Carry Us is about: the perception of a television man who has, owing to his job, been reared in a culture of productivity, is here challenged by this waiting; by acting upon the way he sees the world and his job, this experience drives him to give up and leave without having carried out his project. Thus Behzâd, the television man from the capital, is symptomatically referred to as “the engineer” by the villagers; yet his knowledge tells him nothing about the village, which remains shrouded in its mystery. The film is also about renouncement insofar as the television project is merely a pretext, as things often are in Kiarostami’s films, to bring dramatic potentiality to a standstill and play us again the Mac Guffin trick that the film would undermine. That is why the crew’s arrival in the village is marked by its literally coming to a standstill, with its jeep breaking down because the engine has overheated. Young Farzad then proposes to Behzâd to reach the village by a path that cuts across the rocks. Barely has he arrived from Tehran than he must branch off, climb, take byways that impose the principle of sinuosity and provoke a change of sensations, including physical ones. Motoring gives way to walking and physical discomfort (Behzâd is constantly complaining as he walks) on a human scale. No unexpected developments here, no coup de théâtre, but an aesthetic outlook that gains in precision, an aesthetics of slowing-down and lulls, of duration and waiting, as opposed to the productivity and dramatic efficiency that the young television man is already learning to forgo.

The Wind Will Carry Us does not concentrate in any way on the filming of the funerary rite, but on everything that precedes it: waiting for someone to die and the effects of this on life, which is in fact the central subject of the film. The issue of renouncement thus superimposes itself onto the issue, dear to the film-maker, of narrative displacement, whereby the viewer is cheated of the folkloric theme (the funeral ceremony) that the film had led him to expect. Strikingly, this reframing, which postpones the apparent subject (the television project), reflects the story of the very making of the film, which was itself a process of renouncement. As Kiarostami explains, the script initially proposed by Mahmoud Aydin stipulated that, to quote him, “in order to make his documentary, the television reporter has to negotiate with the sick person (who seems to be in no hurry to oblige him by dying). She accepts…”, Mahmoud Aydin went on, “… to feign death so that the project can go ahead and the crew can make its documentary”[6].

After months of location hunting, Kiarostami opted for the one he finally chose, with its powerfully suggestive landscapes; he never considered entrusting the part other than to a genuinely dying old woman. So doing, he realized that the plot imagined by Aydin was not only morally reprehensible, it “clearly proved to be too complex to be practical”[7]. After two years of work, of painstaking observation and immersion in the daily life of the village, Kiarostami finally gave up the initial story line to make the film as we know it: that is to say, the story of the television man from Tehran, which tells us the story of Kiarostami the film-maker who comes to terms with his own renouncement. The film’s subterraneous dialogue with the process of its own making[8] is projected onto the screen in the frames that repeatedly show Behzâd going to the graveyard since that is where reception is best for his mobile phone. More specifically, he stands on the edge of the grave that is being dug by a man whose face we never see, in whom we can read an allegory of the film-maker as gravedigger of his own project.

Onto the picturesque mourning that Behzâd is waiting to report on is thus grafted the film’s mourning for its own initial being. Through the experience of its own making and the shooting of a subject initially rooted in mystification, The Wind Will Carry Us becomes an exploration of the ability of pictures to shake themselves free of a script in which the mystery of death would not have taken place in a life experience.


  • When life triumphs over the diktat of death

Since Life and Nothing More, we know that in Kiarostami’s work, the truth of life is experienced in the physical, almost tactile, trial of death (as in A Taste of Cherry). Without death, the French philosopher Régis Debray reminds us, there can be no picture, since pictures “spring from the grave, refusing nothingness and extending life”[9]. Perhaps that is how we should consider the cosmogonic cycle of the femur the gravedigger turns up, the way in which it springs out of darkness to literally come back to life, in an extraordinary close shot in which some critics have seen a reference to Kubrick[10], whereas it is in fact a tribute to Robert Bresson, more specifically to his “cinematograph” of irruption, springing forth and immediacy, his conviction that one must learn how to “wait” in order to “provoke the unexpected”[11].

Unsurprisingly, therefore, that bone travels throughout the film, from its frontline observation post on the dashboard of the jeep, where Kiarostami is careful to make us forget that Behzâd leaves it after retrieving it from the graveyard. It is only right at the end that Behzâd, suddenly noticing it, picks it up one last time before tossing it into the stream where it suddenly seems to become animated one last time as it bobs away. The French critic Alain Bergala sees in this final shot a metaphor for some kind of liberation, “a new look at the world freed of all impurity of intention and utilitarianism… accepting the mystery of otherness”[12]. Charles Tesson sees in it a man “shaking himself free of the last relics of death” and opting for life[13]. I believe that one can also read in this scene a powerful lesson in film-making and life, in learning to look in order to see life triumph over the intolerable diktat of death which “only the cinema can make acceptable”, notes Kiarostami[14]. On the threshold of this journey rich in ethical resonance, it is not just any bone floating away; it is a femur, which conjures up the hovering evocation of the unknown deceased who, thanks to that very femur, could walk and stand, free and alive, an ambulatory figure that is dear to Kiarostami since Where is my Friend’s home? Thus, those final frames give life a second chance: freed of all mortiferous symbolics, the femur rediscovers freedom of movement and the mobility it had been robbed of by death.

And  indeed, cinema as Kiarostami sees it does not lead one away from life, but back towards life. It does so by following a mental itinerary that crosses a metaphysical meditation whose poetical affleurement is perceptible throughout the film and recalls, in my opinion at least, the introspective poetry of Philippe Jaccottet’s Paysages et figures absentes: “a thought that wishes to remain secret and associates itself with death in order to endure all the better”[15]. The poetical vein Kiarostami taps here is more evidently the sensuous, elliptic and epicurean vein of Omar Khayyam’s poetry, which is a paean to life even though, the film-maker admits, it also “brings us face to face with death without sparing us… and incites us to take stock of our human condition”[16]. As Alberto Elena notes, writing about the presence of Khayyam’s epicurean philosophy in Taste of Cherry: “In Khayyam’s poetry there is an inescapable background of conscious desperation… It is true that acceptance of life, an understanding of its fleeting nature and a better willingness to live each moment vividly alleviate this profound despair”[17].

Hence the tribute to the author of the Rubayat towards the end of the film, in that luminous sequence in which we see Behzâd moving off among the cornfields (uniquely filmed by Kiarostami, who shares this talent for filming cornfields with Maurice Pialat and Akira Kurosawa[18]): Behzâd is led by the old doctor on a motorcycle who praises the joys of life which only death can deprive us of. In several interviews he gave when the film came out, Kiarostami liked to recall this line from Omar Khayyam: “there’s only a breath between life and death” – a line which echoes Forough Farrokhzad’s poem, which inspired Kiarostami’s choice of title for his film.


  • Haphazardness out of controlled chance

It is as if, in Kiarostami’s world, cinema reaches its maximum vitality when, powerless to re-establish the order of a screen play that tenuously runs through the film like a watermark, the characters give the impression of taking things as they come, letting themselves be sidetracked by unsuspected encounters and yielding to unexpected pleasures. Thus, since Life and Nothing More, the convivial, hospitable and centripetal use of the car, which encourages confidence without excluding the presence of moral violence that comes from close confrontation (as in Ten).

The uncertain nature of such situations is never lost and, in spite of their evidently being plotted, they oblige the viewer to construct their signification which is not dictated to him (or does not seem to be) and which he alone can bring to the fore. The film’s apparent passivity demands active diegesis, to fecundate what is not explicitly said or shown[19]. This impression is strengthened by the recurrent, almost systematic, use of narrative figures such as ellipses and blind alleys. Ellipses, which are analogous to narrative “holes”, work as it were under the surface of the film, by some kind of underground diegesis, rather like the pit that is being dug in the graveyard and will receive the aerial. And by a play on a love metaphor, we later learn that this pit in fact communicates with another cavernous, equally dark, locus of the film, that of the stable belonging to the gravedigger’s girlfriend, where Behzâd finally gets some milk. That is when he recites Forough Farrokhzad. The place is not innocent, nor is the way in which it is filmed (the girl’s face is kept in the dark). Understanding human beings and their relationships involves taking indirect paths and opting for circuitousness, none of which is perceptible on the surface. Ellipses are like subterraneous scripts whose erotic and poetic function instil an invisible proximity between people and objects and free the viewer from the predictability of continuity.

The image of the blind alley, a teasing figure of delusion and dissimulation, is more playful and decidedly Hitchcockian, and it contributes to the feeling of freedom and open-endedness that the film’s narrative creates. One blind alley is the treasure-hunt, a fine metaphor behind which Behzâd suggests hiding the project of his documentary right at the beginning of the film. Ellipses and blind alleys do not make for a readily legible film and imply close attention – which is why the director has compared his film to a puzzle[20]. Kiarostami’s film-making does not trap the viewer in his narrative; he leaves him areas of shadow, empty holes, allows him to question the meaning that continuity would de facto impose. By opting for such an approach, which obliges us to reconstruct the dramatic logic of his film from scattered elements, from words left unsaid, from protracted imperatives, Kiarostami pursues an idea that is dear to him, namely that his role is not so much to hinder our reading of the film as to let us advance, allowing us freedom of choice and interpretation, an open-ended range of possibilities and potentialities. This is masterfully illustrated by the chequered trajectory of the apple that slips out of Behzâd’s fingers and was intended for another member of the crew: it rolls along the uneven surface of the terrace, slips down a fall-pipe and finally ends at the feet of the child, Farzad, the only who deserves it. This seemingly anecdotal incident took a whole day’s shooting, as we learn from Yuji Mohar’s documentary A Week with Kiarostami: the surface of the terrace had to be reworked to design the trajectory Kiarostami wanted the apple to take. This painstaking approach illustrates the subtlety of his style: art here consists in creating reality out of illusion, in suggesting haphazardness out of controlled chance.

Rather than opt for a cinema of audiovisual efficacy, Kiarostami prefers this cinematographic approach which no doubt explains much of his success and indeed evokes the theme of our conference : it sets out precisely to liberate our gaze, to open it (an opening up that Jean-Luc Nancy has aptly written about[21]) and favour an aptitude, an inclination to see and hear that is propitious to feeding the imaginary. And in fact, nothing is missing, everything is there, on the screen, in evidence, that “evidence that strikes the viewer and thereby opens up an opportunity of meaning”[22], evidence of sounds, colours, matter and movement.


  • Learning to see

The opening sequence, in which Charles Tesson sees “the first sign of deep and lasting dysfunctioning”[23], offers a good instance of that “evidence” on which Kiarostami plays. Divided in two segments of 5 and 6 shots, this incipit opens, in the strongest sense, on a golden landscape which conquers us totally with its aesthetics in ochres and delicate curves. In the distance, down below, a jeep follows a road that winds up the hill. This is familiar territory, where we recognise an attitude that was already present in the previous film, Taste of Cherry, first sign of recognition that pursues the Russian doll process that characterises the film-maker’s progress from film to film. Everything is going well, or so it seems; and yet there is something wrong. Sounds reach us, voices, we strain to hear better and situate ourselves. We are in a subjective listening position, strangely enough, in the closed intimacy of a car, with its occupants, in a position from which what we see on the screen seemed to exclude us, with its seemingly objective viewpoint dominating the overall scene.

Thus, from the very beginning, we do not hear from where we see, we do not see from where we hear. This is confirmed immediately after the debate over the tree that serves as a landmark, which the occupants of the car see before it appears on the screen, and which a panoramic shot reveals precisely as the occupants of the car state that it has moved out of their sight (a statement that it is impossible for the viewer to check). This conflicting use of picture and sound – which inspires Charles Tesson, in his fine analysis, to note that “for the viewer, witness and passenger who is at odds, his presence as relating to objects, to the isolated tree, is not on the same mode… nor the same rhythm as the characters”[24] (an attitude that is valid for the rest of the film) – is further doubled by a fruitful audiovisual disjunction. Whereas the soundtrack, taken up mainly with dialogues in the foreground, relentlessly pursues its course (something Michel Chion is apt to regret), the action on the screen, at least in the first five shots, progresses by leaps and bounds in space and time: none of the shots takes up the car at the place where the previous one had left it[25]. Homogeneousness of the visual ensemble is ensured by the road, the car’s progress as it moves in and out of sight and the coppery atmosphere of the mountains.

This editing of shots, as inserted here, covers a visual space that is much greater than might be assumed by its fragmentation, whereas the time sequence occupied by the soundtrack is perceived as perfectly homogeneously, without any cuts. The way picture and sound are associated here is not new, but it differs somewhat from usual editing practices. Classical film fictions frequently resort in such cases to music that Michel Chion would readily describe as empathetic. Television documentaries, which love that kind of construction, resort to the all-powerful commentator’s “voice on”. This subtle weaving together of sound and picture gains all its strength from the fact that neither is allowed to predominate over the other: the editing does not cramp the spatial dimension, as one might have feared since the soundtrack is doing its job, dilating it, oxygenating it, raising it to the level of a beauty that is all the more impressive since the source of the sounds is kept out of our reach, paradoxically pushed into the distance and beyond by the picture. Audio-vision reigns here, “distance, far from being cruel, is exciting and fulfilling”[26], cinema inhabits space, offering us an opportunity to explore unexpected and even unhoped-for territories. We are not driving “aimlessly”, as Behzâd, the as-yet hidden driver of this strange journey, fears he is doing. For those who feared they were lost and deprived of landmarks, Kiarostami opens up a breach onto a world where cinema reigns and the eye searches, responding to the invitation of the tree posted on the mountain as a vigil, what Gaston Bachelard, in his magnificent pages on L’Arbre aérien, calls a “potentiality of flight”[27].

This is a cinema of location shots, of which one cannot sufficiently stress its telluric, solar nature, which is so immediately engagé and engages us. Speaking to Ali who, in the car, asserts that “there is nothing near the tree”, Behzâd replies that he is wrong: “near the tree there is a tree-planted alley that is greener than God’s dream”, quoting Sohrab Sepehri who, back in 1987, already inspired Kiarostami’s founding work, Where is my Friend’s home ? The tree signals to us, orienting our gaze. It indicates a “visionary land” in which Mojdeh Famili sees a reminiscence of the “garden of paradise which appears with the Mazdean cosmology, the religion of Zaratustra”[28], even before Islam recycled this archetype. At the end of the track that is an existential progress and that the film implicitly suggests, there is unknown, as yet virgin, territory, like a shot that has been widened to enhance our hearing and seeing, which is also a way of thinking about film-making.

In The Wind Will Carry Us, Kiarostami tells us about cinema as a space that opens up the magnificent depth of time, of cinema as “an invitation to what hides, murmurs and captivates [29], a poetic space that Behzâd, with his mocking attitude, is nowhere near suspecting. Siah Dareh, that “Black Valley” which Behzâd is heading for, with all the confident assurance and certainties of his engineer’s training and planned documentary, will take care to murmur the mystery of it all to him or, like the wind in the title, to blow him the secret.


Philippe Ragel

Maître de conférences (Cinéma)

Université Toulouse II – Le Mirail

LARA – EA 4154

[1]TRADUIRE le vent invisible par l’eau qu’il sculpte en passant”, Robert Bresson, Notes sur le cinématographe, Paris, Gallimard, 1988, p. 77.

[2] « Les Cahiers rencontrent Godard après ses quatre premiers films », Cahiers du cinéma, n°138, déc. 1962. Also in Jean-Luc Godard par Jean-Luc Godard, Tome 1, Paris, éd. de l’Etoile, 1985, p. 222.

[3] Ibid., p. 222.

[4] Preface to the script of The Wind Will Carry Us, established by Mojdeh Famili and Désiré Zamo, Paris, Petite bibliothèque des Cahiers du cinéma, 2002, p. 5-10.

[5] « Les coups de fouet de la pensée », Claire Parnet, Marseille, Vertigo, n°25, 2004, p. 95.

[6] Preface to the script of The Wind Will Carry Us, op. cit., p. 5.

[7] Ibid., p. 8.

[8] As an example of this process, which seeks to record traces of invisible work, one may cite the picture the film gives of the technical crew which, as Kiarostami has explained, reflects the attitude of his crew. For all his partiality for coppery daybreaks, Kiarostami could never get his directory of photography to shoot before two o’clock in the afternoon. Thus The Wind will Carry us is also as it were a documentary about its own shooting as well as its scripting. Cf. « Les yeux du cœur », interviewed by Stéphane Goudet, Positif, n°446, déc. 1999, p. 9.

[9] Vie et mort de l’image, Paris, Gallimard, coll. «Folio/Essais », 1997, p. 24.

[10] 2001 : a Space Odyssey, of course !

[11] Notes sur le cinématographe, op. cit.,  p. 103.

[12] « L’os et le pare-brise », Cahiers du cinéma, n°541, déc. 1999, p. 36.

[13] « Le secret magnifique », Cahiers du cinéma, n°541, déc. 1999, p. 29.

[14] « Une approche existentialiste de la vie », interviewed by Michel Ciment and Stéphane Goudet, Positif, n°442, déc. 1997, p. 83.

[15] « une pensée qui veut se garder secrète, et s’adjoindre la mort pour mieux durer », Philippe Jaccottet, Paysages et figures absentes, Paris, Gallimard, coll. « Poésie », 1976, p. 13

[16] « Une approche existentialiste de la vie », art. op. cit., p.84.

[17] The Cinema of Abbas Kiarostami, Londres, SAQI/Iran Heritage Foundation, 2005, p. 131.

[18] I am naturally thinking of Van Gogh and Dreams !

[19] As regards the gravedigger, Kiarostami observes: “Why show artificially what is not visible?  The fact we do not see him does not prevent our knowing he is there nor exchanging with him. That, in my view, is one of the main themes of the film: one may understand without seeing.” « Les yeux du cœur », art. op. cit., p. 12.

[20] “Un film n’a pas de passeport”, interviewed by Thierry Jousse and Serge Toubiana, Cahiers du cinéma, n°541, déc. 1999, p. 30.

[21] L’Evidence du film, Bruxelles, éd . Yves Gevaert, 2001, p. 17.

[22] Ibid., p. 43.

[23] “Le secret magnifique”, art. op. cit. , p. 27.

[24] Ibid., p. 27.

[25] This is easily checked:  the trees lining the left side of the road at the beginning of shot 2 do not appear in the axis of end shot 1 which should have included them.

[26] Philippe Jaccottet, op. cit., p. 74.

[27] L’Air et les songes, Paris, éd. Corti, 1972, p. 243.

[28] “Le jardin du paradis dans la miniature persane et l’arbre dans le cinéma de Kiarostami”, L’arbre dans le paysage, Jean Mottet, Seyssel, éd. Champ Vallon, coll.  « Pays / Paysages », 2002, p. 157.

[29] Philippe Jaccottet, op. cit., p. 13 et p. 31.

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