Inspired by true events, Waiting for Kiarostami tells the story of a medical student (played by Dorsa Sinaki) who is forced to choose between her father’s plans for her future and her dream to become an actress when she is asked to star in a movie slated to be shot in China by Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. As writer-director Hossein Khandan explains, the project was envisioned as a tribute to Kiarostami, who died in 2016.
“Most people haven’t watched Kiarostami’s movies,” Khandan admits. “But, in watching this film, I hope I’ve created some curiosity for them to go and watch his movies and see how he represented respect for human beings and caring and love for one another.”
For those unfamiliar with Kiarostami’s work, the director established a reputation for combining both documentary and fictional approaches as well as for his use of untrained actors in leading roles in his films. He is also regarded as one of the leading figures of the Iranian New Wave and was instrumental in drawing worldwide attention to the country’s national cinema in the 1990s and 2000s.
In the West, Kiarostami first came to prominence for his work on the 1990 feature Close-Up. The film—which Sight & Sound has counted amongst the 50 greatest movies of all time—was based on a real-life episode in which a man attempted to impersonate Kiarostami’s compatriot and fellow director Mohsen Makhmalbaf.
Despite the praise Close-Up received, Kiarostami’s biggest breakthrough didn’t come until a few years later with the release of Taste of Cherry. The film featured a then-unknown Homayoun Ershadi as a man in search of someone to bury his body after he commits suicide. The picture also elevated Kiarostami squarely into the international spotlight when it was awarded the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1997.
Coincidentally, Khandan’s first encounter with Kiarostami actually came at Cannes three years earlier while he was there covering the festival as a journalist and the two were briefly housed together at the same hotel.
“After the festival, I was going back to Iran,” Khandan says. “When I went to the airport, [Kiarostami] was on the same flight. We sat together with another actor. The three of us—we’d been at Cannes together and now we were going back to the same country together—that created a connection.”
Nevertheless, despite intermittent contact over the years, it would be fully two decades before their paths would cross again in the context of filmmaking—this time in China.
In 2015, Khandan was living in Ningbo, in Zhejiang Province, about three hours south of Shanghai and an hour-and-a-half outside the provincial capital of Hangzhou. During the intervening years, he had emigrated to Chicago, met and married an American public school teacher, and together they had started a family. Wanting to give their children the opportunity to grow up in a different cultural system, they’d relocated to China where Khandan was now teaching film and photography at Ningbo Polytechnic University.
But, by that summer, coming up on almost eight years on the mainland, Khandan and his wife were already considering a move back to the United States. It was also around this time that he received an email with a request for help on behalf of an old acquaintance.
Kiarostami was planning to come to China and—amongst other things—he was looking for an actress to play a role in a film he was going to make. For the part, Khandan suggested an Iranian medical student by the name of Dorsa Sinaki with whom he was already planning to shoot a short film of his own. In addition to attending school in China, Sinaki had experience as a singer and a stage performer and was fluent in English, Persian, and Mandarin.
The plan was to shoot the film in October. So, with the start of the school year fast approaching, Khandan and his wife decided that she would return home with their children, while he would stay on for a few more weeks to assist with the production before joining them in Chicago.
He gave me his camera and said, ‘Shoot anything you want. Just try to be as fresh as if you first came to China.’
But, delays meant that another eight months went by before Kiarostami was able to make the trip to China. During that time, numerous changes resulted in Sinaki’s role being written out of the story and Khandan’s own part in the project being further thrown into doubt. As a result, in the first week of May 2016, when he received a call from Kiarostami’s assistant asking him to come to Hangzhou to meet with the director, he didn’t really know what to expect.
“[Kiarostami] said, ‘Do you know why I wanted you to come here?’,” recounts Khandan. “I joked that maybe it was because he missed me. He said, ‘No, I want you to play a role [in my film].’ And, I said, ‘Me? I’m not an actor.’”
Essentially, Kiarostami wanted Khandan to play himself—an Iranian filmmaker making a documentary about Buddhism in China. He would even get to use his own name. Furthermore, as part of the film’s opening, Kiarostami wanted to use original footage Khandan would shoot himself.
“He gave me his camera and said, ‘Shoot anything you want. Just try to be as fresh as if you first came to China,’” Khandan says. “And that’s how the movie was going to start—with different parts of the footage I’d shot.”
After two days of filming, Khandan’s work on the project was completed. They parted ways and Kiarostami promised to return to China in five or six months with a full crew ready to shoot the remainder of the movie. In the meantime, Khandan went back to the United States.
On the fourth of July, Khandan was with his family, celebrating the US Independence Day as well as the birthday of his eldest son. While they were out, he received a text from a friend offering her condolences. Unable to make sense of the message and unable to get a WiFi connection to find out what was going on, Khandan waited until they returned home that evening to hop on social media. Only then did he learn what had happened—Kiarostami had died.
“There’s a poem in Persian that says, ‘I don’t believe in the loss of a beloved one because they are always around.’ And, that’s how I felt,” Khandan recalls. “I was like, ‘No, they’re joking. This is impossible,’ because he was supposed to be coming [back to China] to make a movie and he had all these unfinished plans.”
In the days immediately following Kiarostami’s death, Khandan was asked to speak at a memorial service held in Chicago by members of the local community. After sharing his experience with people at the event, something began nagging him inside. It was at this point that he decided to turn his story into a film. But, the real question was, how? He had a family to support, no money to shoot a film (let alone a feature film), and China was now half a world away.
It was with this on his mind—while surfing the internet from home—that Khandan happened to come across an online post from Mohsen Makhmalbaf. The two had run in some of the same circles in the film community back in Iran and although they hadn’t spoken in a number of years, Khandan decided to get in touch. No sooner had he sent Makhmalbaf an email then the phone rang.
He was the first person who listened and really said, ‘Go and do it—no matter what’.
They talked for over an hour—Khandan in Chicago and Makhmalbaf from London where he maintains an office—during which Khandan recounted his time with Kiarostami in China and his idea to make a film. In an odd way, the story paralleled Makhmalbaf’s recollection of his own experience in the lead up to the making of Close-Up and it prompted a definitive piece of advice from the other end of the line.
“I really want to thank Mohsen Makhmalbaf for his support,” Khandan says. “Because he was the first person who listened and really said, ‘Go and do it—no matter what’.”
Still, there were some serious practical obstacles standing between Khandan and making the film—not the least of which was the question of how he was going to finance it. So, he decided to turn to Randy Williams—a long-time China resident, owner of Ningbo Focus magazine, and someone he knew from his time living there. As he soon found out, when it came to convincing Williams to come on board to produce the film, there was just one problem. Williams didn’t know who Kiarostami was and he hadn’t seen any Iranian films. But, he did believe.
As Khandan tells it, Williams’ response to his request for funding was, “I don’t have as much money as you may think I do. But, I can’t say, ‘No,’ to you because of all the passion I’ve seen in you for filmmaking.” And, with that, Williams agreed to join the project.
“Financially, he supported everything,” Khandan states. “But, he never ever interfered with me and my writing. It’s so rare. I’m so thankful because without his involvement, this project never would have happened.”
Rather than attempt to both star and direct, Khandan wanted Dorsa Sinaki—the medical student he had originally recruited to work with Kiarostami back in 2015—as the film’s protagonist. When Khandan reached out to Sinaki’s family, they agreed she would do the film, but on one condition. Shooting would have to wrap prior to the start of the fall semester (when Sinaki would go back to school) in mid-September. It was now the beginning of August. The clock was ticking.
For the role of Dorsa’s mother, Khandan initially hoped to find and recruit an established film actress currently working in Iran. But, it soon became clear that this would complicate matters significantly. The director’s commitment to realism on the project meant presenting a truthful version of Iranian family and home life—right down to the way in which the characters in the film looked and dressed. Iranian law, however, required actresses to wear headscarves on-screen, even in scenes depicted inside the family home (a place where women would not be required to do so in real life). Hence, on one hand, asking an actress to cover her head would mean compromising the authenticity of the work. On the other hand, although the project would be shot in China, failing to do so could mean potential complications for the actress’ career back in Iran following the film’s release.
In the end, Khandan decided he would have to look elsewhere. And, through a series of connections, his search finally led him to San Francisco, to an Iranian-American actress by the name of Ana Bayat. What Bayat ultimately brought to the project was a strong on-camera presence and more than thirty years of stage and film experience spanning her time in Iran, England and the US. Furthermore, not only did she speak English and Persian, but she looked enough like Sinaki to establish a convincing familial resemblance.
In the fictionalized version of the events imagined in Khandan’s script, much of the drama comes from the opposition Dorsa faces from her father over her decision to appear in Kiarostami’s film. In order to bring that out on screen Khandan knew he would need an actor capable of playing a formidable parental figure. It was at this point that he decided to seek out the one person he knew would be able to play the role—Homayoun Ershadi.
Since starring in Taste of Cherry, Ershadi had gone on to become arguably the most recognizable Iranian actor in the world. In addition to his work with Kiarostami, he has appeared in numerous international productions, including The Kite Runner, Zero Dark Thirty, and A Most Wanted Man. But, it is for his work with the late Iranian filmmaker that he is most often cited and in the minds of many cinephiles their careers are inseparably bound.
Almost as soon as Ershadi had signed up to take part in Khandan’s film, however, he began to waver. The situation was difficult, the actor eventually confessed, and he needed more time to make a decision. Inside Iran, many in the film community were calling for a period of mourning and saying that now was a time to pay silent respect. Khandan, of course, was headed in a different direction.
If we make a film to pay tribute, this is our way of doing it. It’s how we celebrate his life.
“If we do something wrong, let me know,” Khandan told those around him. “But, if we make a film to pay tribute, this is our way of doing it. It’s how we celebrate his life.”
Only months later would Khandan learn about the discussions that had taken place. Out of respect, Ershadi had contacted Kiarostami’s son to ask for the family’s permission to participate in project. They consented and Ershadi agreed to be in the film. It was a decision that changed everything.
By the second week of August 2016, Khandan was back in Ningbo getting ready to shoot the film. With a modest budget in place, Sinaki secured as the lead, and Bayat and Ershadi now involved, word was starting to get out and people were beginning to take the project seriously. Together with Williams, Khandan now went about assembling the rest of the crew from a mix of people who’d worked with Kiarostami in the past and those from around the independent film community in China.
Still, a number of unanticipated obstacles threatened to derail the project. On the fifteenth of August, just two days before they were scheduled to commence principal photography, Hangzhou was in the process of finalizing preparations to host the G20 summit. Amongst other things, heightened security along the entire corridor from Shanghai to Ningbo meant one of the overseas crew members was turned back at Pudong Airport. So, while Khandan was busy shooting everything he could on his own, Williams scrambled to fill in the gaps.
Nevertheless, on the seventeenth of August, filming went ahead as planned. During the nearly four-week shoot, every moment the team spent with the camera rolling counted. Finally, on the thirteenth of September, they wrapped production, the crew said goodbye, and Khandan departed for the United States.
With all of the footage he needed now shot, Khandan turned his attention to the task of editing the film. But, it wasn’t going to be easy. Editing is frequently the point in the filmmaking process where some of the most important decisions—the ones which can truly make or break a picture—are made. Consequently, it is something that is very rarely done successfully in complete isolation. With this in mind, Khandan wanted another set of experienced eyes on the process. So, once again he contacted Makhmalbaf, this time to ask for a favor.
As Khandan makes clear, Makhmalbaf wanted to help, but the timing just wasn’t right. He had recently come into possession of footage of his own he was planning to edit for one of his films and he was now wanted for numerous engagements all around Europe. “If you wait for me,” he told Khandan, “It’ll be another year. You should do it yourself.”
Rather than view the response as a defeat, Khandan resolved to step up to the challenge and handle the editing himself. Besides, as Makhmalbaf pointed out to him, he had largely been forced to work on the fly, improvising scenes as he went along—all without the help of a script supervisor or an AD. As a result, the lack of documentation meant it could take weeks (if not months) to get an editor up to speed just sorting through the footage the team had shot in China. The time to finish the film was now.
As of February 2017, Khandan’s story is still incomplete. He is currently putting the final touches on post-production and is already turning his attention to getting in touch with festivals and other venues interested in screening the film. But, the process has also helped bring some closure to his experience in China and has given him time to reflect on the impact Kiarostami’s work has had on world cinema.
“I think his legacy is going to be bringing poetry to cinema again,” Khandan says. “And, for paying attention to the details of real life and real people.”
In addition, Khandan’s experience relays a message that is just as important for other filmmakers to hear as it is for his own children.
“Go for your dream. If you have something nagging you. You shouldn’t be the first person saying, ‘Don’t do it’,” he says. “Even though all the facts say, ‘No, it’s impossible,’ just go for it.”
Listening to Khandan talk, it is clear he has an immense amount of gratitude towards his family, the crew who worked on the film, and everyone else who provided support along the way. Ultimately, his words speak to the ability of those in the film community to magnify and bring to reality the idea of just one individual.
“Despite all of the obstacles, you still make something that’s a victory,” Khandan concludes. “What’s most important is that I listened to my inner voice and I did it and I’m proud I did.”
Watch the trailer for Waiting for Kiarostami below (VPN required) or find out more about the project, production details, and release dates at the film’s website here.
Finally, a big thank you to Joshua Linder up in Beijing for helping to make this article possible.