Looking at Ta’ziyè
a project by Abbas Kiarostami
The only form of representation tolerated by Islam, the Shiite rite of mourning - the epic Ta’ziyè - commemorates the death of the son of Ali, a warrior imam, in the battle of Kerbala. Abbas Kiarostami filmed the villagers taking part in the procession, giving them the leading role as the drama unfolds and is played out and exalted in their expressions.
In June 2003, the Iranian film-maker Abbas Kiarostami made his debut as theatre director when Ta’ziyé opened in a world premiere in the open spaces of Teatro India in Rome. The drama derives from an ancient form of sacred folk theatre which recounts events in the history of Islam and episodes from the lives of the martyrs. It roots are to be found in the religious processions where the faithful chanted lamentations and practised self-flagellation as a means of sharing in the suffering of the martyrs. Today, it is a traditional form of theatre staged by itinerant groups of non-professional actors. The roles are handed down from one generation to the next, and for centuries the tradition has been preserved via oral transmission. The events narrated are considered part of the national heritage and the involvement of the public, rooted in a deep religious instinct, borders on psychodrama. Kiarostami went back to the original form for his production, which also benefited from film-making techniques: the actors were surrounded on stage by cinema screens which reproduced images of crowd participation. These were filmed when the processions were last held in Iran. During the months of February and March 2004, Kiarostami travelled through Iran shooting footage of the huge crowds which take part in the traditional Ta’ziyé. In May, a visual installation opened in Brussels entitled Looking at Ta’ziyé. The only actors in this drama are the Iranian spectators, filmed in black and white and in the grip of a ritual ecstasy induced by the narration of a tightly codified myth. They are watched by a Western audience which remains quite extraneous to the emotional and spiritual significance the event assumes in Iranian culture. With lucid detachment between the sacred and the profane, Kiarostami reproduces a virtual encounter between cultures which are clearly poles apart. This work, ostensibly concerned with the interface between distant worlds, poses strikingly clear questions about the real sense of proximity when distances are shortened by technology and economics. What is left are twilight zones we cannot even begin to comprehend.