If I had to be honest, I believe this was the film that was my excuse for doing the Blindspot Series. I purposefully scheduled it as the March entry, as March is my birth month, and magically the date for posted happens to fall on my birthday. This just seems like too much. Some would say that a date like today would warrant a much more personal entry into the blog — that may come too — but somehow I’m okay with this being the primary posting for the day.
Abbas Kiarostami is a filmmaker that’s been constantly in my head for the last couple of years. My introduction to him through his recent films (Certified Copy and Like Someone in Love) has had me pining to dive into his previous works, and where else is there to start than with the film which is considered to be his greatest — Close-Up.
Using the word documentary feels almost dismissive of what Kiarostami is able to accomplish with this film. Where elements are filmed as happens and others re-enacted (for the sake of narrative) it never feels completely directed or forced in any way. Even scenes, like the trial, gives an uncertain feeling as to whether we’re watching the real thing or a re-enactment. This is to the film’s benefit as it ties in further into the filmmaking idea of how this drive and passion that pushed Sabzian to lie about being Makhmalbaf out of a love for cinema even more apparent.
Kiarostami was able to enlist the support of not only Hossain Sabzian, who wanted his suffering to be told, but also the Ahankhah family — the family that Sabzian pretended to be Makhmalbaf for — as well as Hossain Farazmand. All parties involved in the original incident made themselves available for not only interviews to discuss the case but also to be apart of their own re-enactments of days prior to the arrest and trial of Sabzian. Not only does this allow for a much more engaging narrative than any run of the mill ‘talking heads’ documentary but it helps ring the final note of hope that the film leaves us with as being more sincere. You can imagine that if this confrontation had ended in any way other than how it did no party involved (or at least some) would not be willing to act in a film about the very incident.
While the crime being discussed in the film is one that I doubt many of us would be willing to easily dismiss or take part in there is an element of it all that makes us empathetic to Sabzian, partly thanks to Kiarostami’s constant focus on Sabzian’s remorse and justification — no matter how unwilling you are to buy it as a true excuse. Sabzian does this because of his love for cinema. Not all of us truly want to be a part of cinema, meaning that if the camera was put in our hands we would actually create something, but most of us fantasize constantly about it. Even in the reviews (like this one) where we discuss films we now and then place criticisms in the form of claiming a scene to be unnecessary or a character not having enough time on the screen or even asking for a reworking of the direction that the film presents itself.
In an early encounter where Kiarostami is first interviewing Abolfazi Ahankhah we hear him talking about his desire to film this story and how he is very interested in it for the tie ins to cinema but all we get in return is Abolfazi’s reluctance. He even goes so far as to compare Kiarostami to Farazmand (the journalist who wrote the originating story) claiming that all he wanted was to get Sabzian out of his home and have him prosecuted now we have this big media rhetoric around the case which (none of the participating parties know yet) ends up painting Sabzian in this empathetic manner. We become witness at this time to how Kiarostami begins to lean the characters, as well as us the audience, into rethinking their perspective of the entire tale. Another moment that shows the power of Kiarostami’s camera is where he first appears trying to find out more about the case (including the address of the plaintiffs) interviewing the police officer, and you notice not so subtly in the background we see the entire company of men shift themselves into frame because they now have the opportunity to be in a movie.
Close-Up’s true strength is not in how it creates a narrative around a factual event or even how it presents reality in the middle of what is obvious fictional recreation, but rather how Kiarostami blurs that line so much that we as an audience are unable to truly determine where fact ends and fiction begins. Even in the court room scene — which is documented as the actual trial — when it begins with the actual clapper noting that it’s Scene 1 Shot 1 of the court room it attempts to paint the reality as fake. Kiarostami purposefully leaves that moment in the cut of the film so that he can seed the thought of doubt into the audience’s mind in order to make us more invested in the story as a film as opposed to trying to be outraged by Sabzian’s ludicrous crime in reality.
While these moments of intrusion that Kiarostami places all throughout the film helps it become more of a character journey for us as an audience it also places a heavy burden on the director himself, who we see and hear occasionally in the film. We begin to focus on him and become aware of how he’s pushing us in and out of the story of Sabzian. We think back to the opening scene — a recreation — where we are privy to a conversation between Farazmand and his cab driver as he takes two police officers to eventually arrest Sabzian. When we reach the home Kiarostami refuses to take us inside to see what this whole story is about but rather leaves us outside with the cab driver and the two police officers where they have a relatively unimportant conversation. Moments like this (which is also present in his other films Like Someone in Love) Kiarostami does on purpose in order for the audience to begin to engage with the film in a way that is much more rewarding than if he had just taken us step by step. We begin to ask questions of the film which he leaves open for a later stage of the story.
Close-Up is a film that discusses cinema in a manner that not many people would be able to claim it quickly as a ‘film about film’ movie. The subvert nature of how Kiarostami shows his hand in pushing characters into a factual tale as well as keeping the story focused on the passion of art is commendable and hard to not love.