I am waiting for Abbas Kiarostami to join me at our appointed rendezvous, a dusty villa in the Tehran suburbs set amid the lush foliage and crumbling grandeur of the diplomatic quarter. The director of over 40 films, the recipient of numerous prestigious cinema awards, the winner of a clutch of global polls declaring him the greatest film maker of the 1990s, the man who Bernado Bertolucci claimed was responsible for a new "birth in cinema", is running late.
But then there is a small hubbub at the doorway and Kiarostami finally lopes in, grumbling, a victim of Tehran's notorious traffic. At 68, he cuts an imposing figure. Fatigue is etched on his face, no doubt due in part to his recent traffic battle. Despite his trademark dark spectacles, he looks tired and immediately calls for coffee and ibuprofen pills. However, he is polite, gracious and during the subsequent interview unbends and relaxes as he warms to his themes. Kiarostami's status in his homeland reached iconic status long ago. For film buffs and Iran's intelligentsia, his first films from the early 1970s, made at the children's film co-operative Kanun, immediately pointed out an auteur with an artistic manifesto and a wilful manner who insisted on stylistically and intellectually subverting and confounding preconceived notions of filmmaking.
His range of subjects - children, the delicate threads of society, the absurdities and incongruities of everyday life - were laced with a strange mix of pessimism and idealism, filmed with a peculiar reserve, a sense of distance. His coruscating social documentary style features and shorts were merciless in their relentless dissection of a society in flux. Later films reveal a fascination with cars, roads and journeys, using car interiors as backdrops for emotional drama, metaphors for a sense of alienation and isolation.
From his first short in 1970, The Bread and Alley, a story of a boy encountering a fierce dog in an alleyway, through to masterpieces such as Close-Up, the Kokar trilogy, the prize-winning A Taste of Cherry, the socio-realist Ten and most recently, Shirin, he has continued to stubbornly plough his own furrow. By gradually eliminating all extraneous matter from his narratives, using digicams and untrained actors, his films seem to pursue a search of purity. There is, especially in his more recent works, a freedom from conventional narrative structures and a fascination with the stranger, more unpredictable corners of the human condition.
Kiarostami not only decided to stay in Iran following the 1979 revolution, but in doing so, became a vital force in pushing Iranian cinema out of the doldrums, creating a body of work that would become internationally acclaimed. Like Godard in France or the late Satyajit Ray in India, his films are at once entwined with his country's cultural fabric, yet transcend limitations to speak to audiences universally. In his poetry too - he has had a volume of recondite, haiku-style poetry published - his trademark emotional drive and solitary soul emerges from inspiration borne of centuries of Persian poetry and modern Iranian existence.
However, it is mainly his photography that has occasioned our encounter today. The Road exhibition at the Basement gallery sees 47 prints drawn from over 25 years of photography on the roads of Iran. The show was first seen as part of a multimedia retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York last year, alongside a number of films and his monochromatic Snow White series. "These images were taken over the past 20, 25 years," says Baharak Raoufi of the Basement Gallery. "The Road series is emotional for him, as he is deeply attached to the feelings expressed in this collection. When we invited him to show his work in Dubai, this is the series he chose. He chooses not to sell work in Iran any longer, so he will be selling here."
Since he began taking photographs of the Iranian landscape in the late 1970s, Kiarostami has generated hundreds of these deceptively simplistic pictures of roads, through rain-flecked windscreens, isolated trees, vast snow plains, and motionless tableaux, each suffused with a heavy emotional payload. Looking at the motives and reasons behind Road is as good a place as any to delve into a career that has spanned over 40 years in a relentless, methodical and occasionally haphazard pursuit of inner peace and creative satisfaction.
"My photographic career started as a matter of fact, when I went to buy a camera for a friend," he begins. "It was a 1,000-something dollars, and I thought, I want to buy one for myself too. It was the exact year of the revolution, 1979. That is when I started taking photographs. We had a lot of spare time because of the revolution. We couldn't make films and we were very depressed. So we took ourselves out of the town to deal with our depression. I had this camera, a Yashica, and started shooting. It was a cheap camera."
In these observations of the world, Kiarostami eschews the conventions of landscape photography and instead forges an emotional relationship with his surroundings, channelling himself from behind the lens. The documentary element of his work is there - echoing the style he favours for his films - but through repetition and subtle shifts in perspective, small fragments of detail emerge that differentiate and define the pieces. Again, this echoes his modus operandi with filmmaking.
In his best-known series of images, the Snow White collection, in which he repeatedly shoots high contrast black and white images of smooth, undulating snow-laden terrain occasionally broken by the stark blackness of a tree or road, the sense of cold isolation is complete. Yet in their frozen silence these pictures resonate with a deep humanity and a fundamental engagement with nature. Since Kiarostami began his photographic career with no intention of publishing the work, it came as a mild surprise when a decade or so later, a friend asked him to collect a series of images for an exhibition. Interest in what the maverick filmmaker had produced was strong, and critical consensus overwhelmingly positive. Now, he is a veteran of over 30 major photography exhibitions worldwide, all of them based on the quantities of images he repeatedly shot in and around Tehran - the roads, the trees, the empty desolate landscapes. His work is in a number of key museum permanent collections, including the V&A in London.
"Two topics have been always inviting for my photography - trees and roads," reflects Kiarostami. "You should know that the external revolution, the Islamic revolution which was going on at that time, was hardened by an internal revolution going on in my personal life, with my home and family (Kiarostami's marriage was breaking down during this time). With the Road photographs, that was my way of thinking, my emotions at that moment made them this way. When you look at them now, your own emotion is coming in and influencing it. For instance, if you know nothing about the experience of loneliness, then you wouldn't understand these photographs. But with an experience of loneliness, it will help you to understand my loneliness through these roads."
The minimalism he emphasises in his images, the natural purity, is also the dominant driving force in his film career. Since gaining international acclaim from directors ranging from Tarantino to Scorsese for the semi-documentary Close-Up in 1990, to winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes for A Taste of Cherry in 1997, he has been balancing an increasing global profile with continued artistic experimentation, refining his practise, honing his technique down to the bare essentials. Experiments with digital cameras, a non-professional cast, improvisation and reliance on chance have paid off. However, despite success, he is frequently irritated with critics and audiences who, in his view, lazily fail to grasp his vision.
"Why are we always trying to define cinema separately from photography and music?" he argues. "They are connected, they mingle and are interwoven. Why do we like to have something very specific and defined? If that was the case, then the person who likes cinema shouldn't go to the gallery or vice versa. We have to have them all together." Still, as with the case of his latest film, Shirin, Kiarostami's uncompromising vision can cause mass confusion. Shirin is a series of close-ups of 117 women's faces as they watch a play. We hear the play happening off screen and see the natural responses - laughter, sadness, suspense, relief - on the features of these faces. At Venice, where it was screened this summer, there was pandemonium in the auditorium, with confused viewers storming out and slating the film bitterly. Kiarostami has a spirited defence.
"The reaction in Venice was very predictable, actually. What was not predictable was the bad quality of the projection and organisation. The film for the media screening was actually projected with English subtitles, which were going on and off all the time and, at one point, for about 10 minutes, there was a total absence of subtitles. In spite of that, glory to the audience, because they were very patient! Shirin is a very difficult film which needs a lot of patience. So Venice was really a mess, an uncontrollable mess."
Nevertheless, Kiarostami remains driven, determined. Describing Shirin as the end of a cycle that began back in 1970 with The Bread and Alley, he is currently working on an undefined new project. At this stage, he isn't sure what the end result will be, but he is hoping he can eliminate as much narrative as possible, leaving most of it to be inferred by the viewer. Scraps of ideas are discussed - one scene he describes, sees a shy couple on the day of their wedding, reluctant to be photographed, left alone in a room with a camera with the plan that they will take their own portrait. Their off-screen conversation and inability to control the camera makes up the action. It is typically Kiarostami - wry, bittersweet, visually perplexing, yet quite rational.
Returning to the topic of Shirin, he delivers a final reflection. "Taking a picture is just freezing a moment, taking it out. That's why I like photography, I don't have to tell stories. In cinema, I am putting the storytelling outside the main frame of what is really happening and what you can see is your own story, being seen on the face of the person you are looking at. Therefore, you have so many different stories, so many complicated stories, that you know the story but yet you don't know it. It leaves a lot of space, for you the viewer to look at it. I am not telling you the exact story, but it is there for you to find out about. That is my idea of the art of cinematography."
Road, Basement Gallery, Dubai. @email:www.basementdubai.com Until Nov 5.