by Nic Mills
The wonderful Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami died earlier this summer and I have been thinking about him ever since.
Back in 2005 I heard that Kiarostami would run a workshop in London, facilitated by Film4 and The London Film School. I applied by sending my most poetic short film and insisted on the application form that ‘This workshop will give me an opportunity to see with different eyes.’ I nearly fell over with surprise when I found out I won one of those precious places.
I arrived on the first morning feeling nervous and wondering what Abbas Kiarostami would be like in real life. My first impression of him was of a very serious man with a terrible toothache, wearing his trademark dark glasses, who surrounded himself by empty chairs – forming a bizarre wall between him and his students.
He told us immediately that he was not there to teach us, he was not a teacher. I stared at him and thought, ‘He’s up to something’.
He talked about digital filmmaking and how it would revolutionise and democratise film. How you no longer need a crew or money to make a film – all you need is a subject, a camera and the ability to edit. He told us about previous workshops he’d run, where the participants chose to follow the first person they met in a street – and so letting a random character become the subject of their short films. Kiarostami mused about how the first person he’d met that morning had been a woman in his hotel elevator and continued to explain how intriguing he found small spaces – segueing neatly into his film TEN. In the film the action is confined to one car and almost entirely shot using two digital cameras, fixed to the dashboard, trained on the driver and her passengers. It contains ten encounters over a 48hr period and it is utterly mesmerising. If you haven’t seen it, you need to see it.
After lunch Abbas announced that we had decided to make films in elevators. We all glanced at each other – when had we decided this? No one argued, not one person dared to point out that the decision to make films in elevators had been entirely his. We were told to return the next day with a small idea contained in no more than three sentences. That would be our script. He went on to explain that we would not leave that room until we’d presented an idea that he liked – he may have smiled playfully at this point. For the rest of the day we would scout for our location – an elevator, or – as we in England call them – a lift.
I wandered off with a Norwegian filmmaker and we looked at a few uninspiring lifts before retiring nervously to the local pub – minus a suitable lift, minus a story, definitely needing a drink.
My filmmaker brain had drawn a complete blank. Luckily while I slept that night, as it sometimes does, my brain got to work and woke me, very early, with an idea – The Greenwich Foot Tunnel. A tunnel that runs under the Thames and has two manned lifts, one on each side of the river.
On the second morning of the workshop cameras had been arranged on a large table. Abbas sat quietly behind his dark glasses, behind his growing army of empty chairs and stared at us. The room exuded an air of quiet terror. I tentatively put up my hand and he nodded for me to pitch. I said: ‘There’s a man who operates the lift for passengers who use Greenwich Foot Tunnel, which runs beneath the River Thames. Every day the man rides up and down, up and down, then he walks through the tunnel and gets into the opposite lift where he rides up and down until the end of his shift.’
He thought for approximately three seconds and said, ‘Okay, go’.
And that was it. My Norwegian friend and I grabbed a camera and strode out of that room triumphantly. As we walked, we grew less confident as now we actually had to find a way to make the sentences into a film.
We called the Greenwich Foot Tunnel and spoke to the lifts’ manager. We explained our position – we were students with no money who wanted to sit in a lift with an operator who must be prepared to be filmed for a whole day, or maybe two. The manager was enthusiastic and agreed to meet us to discuss further and show us around.
Once we arrived it became clear we had a problem. While he was happy for us to make our film, not one of his operators was willing to be in it. He was terribly apologetic and confessed that he had started out as a lift operator and would’ve been happy to help – so we suggested that he could be our operator. After a little persuasion he agreed to become our main character.
For two days we sat in one lift with our camera mostly trained on him. Up and down we rode. Passengers came and left, regulars began to show themselves, people chatted, and our main character began to forget that he was being filmed.
After our two days shooting we returned to the workshop where a few people were still held captive pitching to Abbas. We edited for our allotted afternoon, cut our three minute story and called it Up & Down. It was rough and imperfect and we had to take it back upstairs to screen to Abbas.
He watched it silently and then turned to us and said, ‘This is good.’
I will never forget that Abbas Kiarostami, one of my hero filmmakers, a master of cinema, liked our little film. More importantly however, I learned was that he was right – you don’t need a big story. You can go out and find a small one. All you need is a location, a camera, the ability to edit, and the confidence to look through your own eyes and witness how a character, and their story, reveal themselves.