Saturday, November 26, 2022

Close-Up (Nemaye Nazdik)


Writer/director Abbas Kiarostami

Mohsen Makhmalbaf (left) and Hossain Sabzian

Abbas Kiarostami















CLOSE-UP (Nemaye Nazdik)            A                                                                                         Iran  (100 mi)  1990  d: Abbas Kiarostami

When you go to a supermarket, everybody has a different purchasing power, so everyone shouldn’t come away with the same product.  In the same way, when you see a film, you should come away with your own personal interpretation, based on who you are.  The film should allow that to happen, make room for that interaction.                                                             —Abbas Kiarostami interview with Jonathan Rosenbaum, March 1998, Abbas Kiarostami: Expanded Second Edition - Google Books Result 

Among the superlative works of Kiarostami, perhaps his most radical while also his most personal work, listed at #37 in the BFI Sight and Sound Directors’ poll in 2022, and #42 in the Critics’ poll, Sight & Sound's greatest films of all time polls - BFI, also listed at #2 on Susan Sontag’s best films of the 90’s, Susan Sontag - Artforum International, though decidedly low-key, a form of contemplative cinema, with barely even a hint of action, becoming a fictionalized documentary, a moral parable on the nature of truth, questioning the intersection of art and reality by exposing a real-life event that is transformed onto the screen, re-enacting a story Kiarostami read in newspapers, challenging viewers to decipher what they’re seeing.  Redefining the possibilities of Iranian cinema, this film may be Kiarostami’s manifesto of his art, exhibiting many of the hallmarks of experimental cinema, his answer to Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963), both asking existential questions about the creative process, blending the personal into the technical, where part of the film’s strength lies in the perplexing way the director withholds valuable information, keeping the actual storyline elusive and out of reach of viewers, who have to sift through the assembled footage in its entirety before rendering judgment.  What is real and what is the truth are questions asked by viewers throughout this experience, learning more about the nature of cinema than we ever do about the central protagonist who dominates the screen time, with so much of the film left to the imagination.  Not really like any of his other films, described by Werner Herzog as “the greatest documentary on filmmaking I have ever seen,” yet it’s important not to let the superlatives play with one’s expectations, as this is understated to the core, infused with modesty and no grand ambitions, more of a reflective, intellectual experience, yet at heart, it contains the essence of the Iranian New Wave, a feeling of empathy, while Kiarostami’s skill at coaxing performances out of non-professional actors is unparalleled.  It was a 40-day shoot, using a minimalist, cinéma vérité style, popular with the French in the 1960’s, where the goal is to capture an objective reality, shot on location, given a naturalistic look with a strong presence of natural light and the lack of any set design, with no musical intrusion until the very end, revisiting a musical theme initially heard in THE TRAVELER (1974).  Encountering many difficulties, Kiarostami claimed he lost plenty of hair by the end from lack of sleep, becoming something of a complex meditation on filmmaking, questioning the morality of art, raising serious philosophical questions, while also having a comical edge.  Hossain Sabzian is an unemployed printer’s assistant, a member of the large Turkish-speaking minority in Iran, divorced just a few years earlier, and reveres the films of acclaimed Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, coming from the same working class background, as he brings a great sensitivity and appreciation for the poor, people like himself, speaking to him in ways no other director has.  Just a year earlier Makhmalbaf had produced two films of note, THE CYCLIST (1989) and MARRIAGE OF THE BLESSED (1989), both identified by Sabzian, claiming a close affinity.  The opening sequence, however, finds two heavily armed policemen accompanying the journalist who broke the story, Hossain Farazmand, working for the Tehran weekly magazine Sorush as they squeeze into a cab on their way to arrest Sabzian for fraud, as he’s been impersonating Makhmalbaf for a well-to-do Ahankhah family who are led to believe they will appear in his next film and that he will be filming scenes in their home.  When the journalist is allowed entry inside a locked gateway, Kiarostami’s cameras don’t go with him, suggesting there’s always more going on than the camera will allow us to witness, instead remaining with the cabdriver and the two policemen as they make small talk, identifying where each one is from, just killing some time as they wait.  Later, when the cabdriver is alone, he’s seen picking out flowers from a freshly raked trash pile, also kicking an aerosol can down the street in a memorable shot, as the camera closely follows the path of the can as it slowly winds its way down the street, demonstrating a will of its own, clanking loudly as it goes until it finally stops at a curb, an empty moment where nothing really happens, yet viewers inevitably follow the path in rapt attention, a moment clearly fictionalized by Kiarostami, while alerting us to pay attention to mundane details, as the policemen eventually haul out their prisoner and make their arrest.  After that scene the credits roll, which run over a background that shows the printing of a newspaper with the story Kiarostami is going to read on a day when he was actually going to meet Makhmalbaf.  After the credits, Kiarostami conducts a series of interviews, with the policemen who made the arrest, the family he was with at the time of the arrest, then with Sabzian in a prison visiting room, claiming he is not a fraud, but truly interested in art and film, asking the director to make a film about his suffering, and finally the judge, requesting permission to film the trial, while getting them all to agree to appear in the film.  What immediately stands out is that none of them are actors, as they are all playing themselves.       

Released a year after the death of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini when the film opened in Iran, it received nearly entirely negative reviews and was passed over by film festivals, including Cannes and even New York, only drawing acclaim when it was released abroad, particularly in France where it was instantly heralded as a new era of modernism by taking neo-realism to the extreme, shattering the boundaries between reality and fiction, yet took nearly a decade before it had a theatrical run in the United States, finally released in New York on December 31, 1999, (New York City 1999 Commercial Releases - Panix).  Over time it has only increased in reputation, as Kiarostami cleverly finds new avenues of achieving truth in his depiction of events, where he is not averse to recreating or staging scenes, inventing dialogue, manufacturing situations, or inserting himself as a participant of the story, literally transforming the documentary film by using actual participants as performers, having an influential effect on Makhmalbaf’s MOMENT OF INNOCENCE (1996), a semi-autobiographical account of an earlier incident in the director’s life.  When presenting Sabzian’s story, Kiarostami deftly uses flashbacks, recreating events that happened prior to the trial, as Sabzian passes himself off as movie director Mohsen Makhmalbaf to a woman he meets on a bus as she inquires about the book he’s reading, a copy of Makhmalbaf’s The Cyclist, claiming he wrote it himself, gifting her the book, even autographing it for her, heard earlier confessing to the director in prison that Makhmalbaf’s film “is a part of me.”  She turns out to be the wife of Mr. Ahankhah, a retired colonel in the army, informing him her sons in particular are interested in his work, while the entire family has seen the film, all admirers of his work, ultimately opening up their home for his next film, but grew suspicious when Sabzian was completely unaware the director had recently won an international award, an event reported in Iran’s news media.  What’s unique to this approach is that by giving credence to Sabzian’s story the director is able to transform his lie into an exposé on the truth, originating with the headline Bogus Makhmalbaf Arrested, as both journalist Farazmand and director Kiarostami provide competing narratives on the life of Sabzian, who lacks both the privilege and means of telling his own story, putting him in a precarious situation, denied a voice, finding an alternative path through the power of cinema.  Using a 35mm camera for the outdoor sequences, including a variety of prolonged shots, but two 16mm cameras for all courtroom sequences, one aimed directly at Sabzian, another providing a wider look at the courtroom, providing a grainy look, resembling vintage newspaper reports.  All of the characters see Sabzian differently, as Farazmand thinks writing his story may help bring him fame, pursuing a “sensationalist story, the kind that boosts sales,” the family sees him as a con artist who may intend to rob them, and the legal system sees him as a criminal, while Kiarostami takes particular pleasure in viewing him as simply someone interested in cinema, blending all those viewpoints together in creating the film.  When Kiarostami meets Sabzian in prison, he does not believe he had committed fraud, yet is fully aware that “what I did looks like fraud from the outside.”  In a curious choice of editing, the actual arrest of Sabzian is shown much later in the film, where the organization of events are clearly constructed by the director.  Kiarostami complicates traditional conceptions of both reality and the role of the director in documentaries, as the audience is given the impression of watching events as they occurred, but Kiarostami includes aesthetic elements that expose how the film is actually reconstructing the reality of the story.  For instance, Kiarostami orchestrated the entirety of the courtroom proceedings, including questions asked of Sabzian by the judge, using the voice of Kiarostami himself, and even scripted most of Sabzian’s testimony, who speaks without the intervention of a lawyer, as the judge essentially turned the case over to Kiarostami, using long close-ups in the courtroom for which the film is aptly named, while essentially making a pseudo-documentary that blurs the divide between documentary and fiction filmmaking.  The distinction between a recreation, an after-the-fact interview, or footage captured as it happened becomes ambiguous to the point that what is real and what is constructed is indistinguishable.  In this way the film resembles Orson Welles’ F for Fake (1973), a film that challenges assumptions of originality and authenticity in various artworks, while also self-consciously becoming an interrogation of art.  For instance, Elmyr de Hory, a renowned art forger, makes the film’s central premise by declaring, “If my work hangs in a museum long enough, it becomes real.”  Kiarostami again explores this exact same theme in his later film CERTIFIED COPY (2010), an examination of what is real and what is fake and whether it makes a whit of difference.

Of particular interest to viewers, and the director himself, is the lingering question that asks what kind of man is Sabzian?  While the court takes an interest in unraveling the facts and circumstances of the case, largely articulated through the eyes of youngest son Mehrdad Ahankhah, who initially suspected robbery may have been his motive due to the way he was inspecting every room, but Sabzian’s testimony subverts all expectations, as what may have begun as play acting with the family takes a significant turn when he discovers people are paying attention to him in ways they never did before, mired in a life of poverty, where no one ever paid him any mind.  One of the few ways that the lower class can get the upper class to listen to them, the film suggests, is to present themselves as artists, assuming a role the upper classes respect.  His sudden importance in stature feels somewhat intoxicating to him, a feeling he didn’t want to let go, even as he suspected the Ahankhah family was on to him.  Nonetheless, they treat him graciously and with respect, offering him a room with home-cooked meals, but the two sons who initially expressed such exhilarated interest in working with him become more aloof and detached.  Another flashback sequence reveals another view of the arrest, this time from inside the household, precipitated by a visit from the journalist who verified to the household that this was not Makhmalbaf, but an imposter, prompting a visit from the police, all viewed out the window by a hapless Sabzian, who offers no resistance.  The eloquence of his revelations are eye-opening, a heartrendering expression of how poverty leaves him feeling utterly humiliated by his position in society, a poor man having a difficult time supporting his family, relegated to feeling inadequate and ashamed, like living an invisible life that simply doesn’t matter to those who are better off, symptomatic of wider injustices prevalent in a post-revolution Iran, when unemployment was rampant as a result of both the revolution and the 8-year war with Iraq.  By projecting a fantasy about being a well-respected film director, Sabzian hopes to overcome his feelings of social inequity, which perhaps best explains the motive behind his charade, an attempt to make life bearable, as he simply wanted to feel important.  Mehrdad Ahankhah has a similar fantasy about wanting to become important through the film industry, yet these two fantasies clash, one completely powerless, while the other has family money and the power of law to support his dashed dreams of wish-fulfillment.  Instead of elevating his artistic stature, Mehrdad has instead exposed the gullibility of his family, which is publicly using the trial and the criminalization of Sabzian to restore their blemished family honor.  By the end of the trial, Sabzian movingly asks for forgiveness, while Mehrdad, initially ruthless in his accusations, acquiesces to the request in behalf of his family, attributing his rash actions to unemployment, which really suggests he’s heard nothing from Sabzian’s testimony.  Cinema acts as a mediator in this instance, actually superseding the power of the law and likely altering the outcome, as Sabzian may not have been so easily forgiven without Kiarostami’s cameras, which help bring about a more humane courtroom reconciliation between the accused and the accusers, who willingly agree to drop all charges, exonerating Sabzian who is released from custody, free to return back to being insignificant.  His worst suspicions are confirmed by the end of the film, standing at the gate of the Ahankhah home, announcing himself on the intercom, generating no response whatsoever, as he’s returned to the shadows of a life he wanted to escape, to that anonymous existence in the eyes of this well-off family where he may as well be invisible, having once again lost his narrative privilege.  But a strange thing occurs, as the real movie director Mohsen Makhmalbaf awaits Sabzian after his release from prison, causing him to burst into tears, exposing his guilt and shame, totally humbled by the moment, unaware they were filming, yet instead of close-ups used in the courtroom, this scene is viewed on the street through a telephoto lens, as if spied on from a distance, where even the sound of their conversation keeps cutting off, as we hear the voice of Kiarostami and his production crew comment on a supposed “technical failure,” which is a ruse, as this was purely an aesthetic choice made by the director, intended to disorient and frustrate viewers, accentuating the intrusive nature of the camera as it imposes itself into the lives of real-life people, while also reminding viewers that this is a constructed version of reality.  The two of them hop on a motorcycle together, stopping for Sabzian to pick up a potted bouquet of flowers, a sign of forgiveness to be offered with an apology to the Ahankhah family, who refuse to recognize him, only answering when Makhmalbaf announces himself, creating something of an abstract mosaic for the final frame, frozen on a beautifully sunlit image of Sabzian framed by pink flowers, leaving open a certain ambiguity about any final resolution. 


Sabzian seen standing at the Ahankhah gate, unable to gain entrance, harkens back to Kafka’s absurdist parable “Before the Law,” Before the Law by Franz Kafka, the opening sequence in Orson Welles’ THE TRIAL (1962), where a man stands alone before an ominous doorway entrance to the law, unable to enter, despite being taught that the law should be accessible to every man, Orson Welles- The Trial: Before The Law - Prologue - YouTube (2:52).