Abbas Kiarostami, 1990
It’s a strange story. Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up centres a real-life event—of a man, Hossain Sabzian, arrested and charged with fraudulent impersonation of a well-known filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf—as the basis for his meta-cinematic blend of fiction and documentary. Indeed, Kiarostami’s film destabilises all that we, as audiences, assume regarding the boundaries of performance and reality; he pushes the invisible lines, he reclassifies their borders. An awareness of the extent to which Kiarostami plays with the textuality of his film demands knowledge of its context. Most pressing of all is the casting: the real people involved in the case play themselves; they reenact a criminal trial, itself connected to performance and directorship—they become players who fret their hour upon the stage.
Performance implicates an audience and a performer, yet Kiarostami’s narrative throws into question the definitions prescribed to these positions, conflating their ontology to constitute the same identities. Sabzian, an imposter—(aren’t all actors?)—masquerades as Makhmalbaf to an unsuspecting family, convincing them of his identity to the extent that he promises the children parts in his upcoming feature. Though the story is mediated through the docufiction form, the incident is personally, self-consciously explored by Sabzian and the family during a court trial. Thus it seems that the passage of retrospect, as promised by a trial and its investigative spotlight, has much to do with Sabzian’s duality; it illuminates a slippage between the act and the actor.
Closely aligned to the audience and prosecutors, the documentarians wish to understand the intent behind this unsustainable act of impersonation. They hope, for their documentary’s sake, to procure insights from Sabzian to provide the substance for their film. ‘This camera is here so you can explain things’ they tell Sabzian, as if competing with the very function of the trial itself. As if Sabzian was not already under the watchful eyes of those pressing charges against him, he must reconcile performing for both a camera and a courtroom. Contextualising his act of fraud, he admits that its motivation was born out of a fervent identification with Makhmalbaf’s films. ‘He spoke for me,’ Sabzian memorably claims. For both camera and court, his crime is eclipsed—he persuades us of his humility.
Kiarostami’s direction operates within two schools of self-awareness. Firstly, everyone plays themselves and are therein afforded a chance to reenact what has already happened to them; the implications of this alone are a feast of meta-cinema. Secondly, Kiarostami upholds a camera towards the notion of filmmaking as its own agent of recreation. That is, the sensational real-life event is not impartially retold, it is focalised—reframed to convey perspective. Rather post-modernly, and as a reflection of his profession as a director, Kiarostami’s sympathies and fascination are directed towards the act of imitation—towards the ‘actor’, Sabzian, who (fittingly) works in a print shop. Indeed, the copy confers more intrigue than the original.
Though others have come close, perhaps there is no greater example of a filmmaker and a film that champions the art of recreation so grandly. Vacillating between the formalists and realists, Kiarostami purveys a dualism shared by Sabzian: ‘I know I’m guilty in the eyes of the court, but I feel my love for the arts should be taken into account.’ Posturing a love for the arts into the sterility of a courtroom is a suitable metaphor for Kiarostami’s own adoption of both artistic sensibilities. In fact, Kiarostami demonstrates how one, in all its bounteous artificiality, can enhance the other—how balancing the two can enable us to get up-close (/close-up) to that which is expected to be impossible to capture.
Kiarostami communicates this optic through surmising a sense of harmony within the act of inhabitance, at least a cinephile’s inhabitance of a director’s persona. By the film’s end, Sabzian and Makhmalbaf snake through the bustling streets of Tehran on a motorbike as one organism, stopping off to pick flowers at a road-side market. ‘Do you prefer being…’ Makhmalbaf begins to ask Sabzian though the rest is cut out; we are told by the documentarians their equipment is faulty. Between patches of disrupted sound, and in the chasm between fiction and documentary, it appears that (re)creation is always a process of identification. As audiences inclined to see ourselves in the narratives we explore, to embed our being into the fibres of cinema, creation and reception become a fluid, indivisible response to our surroundings—in Close-Up, this impulse is richly poetic.