Poetic License

The fictions and realities of Abbas Kiarostami's boundary-breaking Close-Up
by Joshua Land  posted March 24, 2010
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Art exists that we may recover the sensation of life....The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects unfamiliar, to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.  —Viktor Shklovsky, from “Art as Technique” (1925)

I see very few films and very few videos. I am not influenced by any particular director—my only influence is reality. Have you ever seen a film that resembles the ones that I have made?  —Abbas Kiarostami, from an interview with Farah Nayeri for Sight and Sound (1993)

The elevation of Abbas Kiarostami into the Western film-critical canon represents an ongoing challenge to some established ways of thinking about cinema. Not only does the Iranian director hail from a country and region previously viewed by most outsiders as marginal to the medium’s development, but his work has proven particularly resistant to comparison with that of other filmmakers from the traditional art-film havens of the United States, Europe, and Japan. Not that this has stopped critics from trying; a casual survey of serious Kiarostami criticism turns up all manner of references to the likes of Antonioni, Bresson, Ozu, and most of all, Rossellini. Such comparisons, while not without value, are of limited usefulness in assessing the work of a director who, by his own account, is anything but a cinephile. A deeper understanding clearly depends on going beyond the influence of foreign films, and beyond that of cinema altogether.

Kiarostami has used the phrase “poetic cinema” to describe the type of films he’s interested in creating. It’s a description that, like so much else relating to Kiarostami, is both seemingly transparent and upon closer analysis almost impossible to pin down. The notion of poetry in Kiarostami’s films is most salient in The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), which takes its title from a poem by modernist writer and feminist icon Forugh Farrokhzad recited during a crucial scene, and also alludes to Omar Khayyam’s 11th-century Rubaiyat. But it’s less obvious how it applies to Close-Up (1990), Kiarostami’s greatest film (getting a run at New York’s Film Forum from March 26 through April 1) and one of the epochal works of contemporary global cinema.

Indeed there would seem to be little resemblance between the vivid, often frankly erotic poetry of Farrokhzad and the plain, unremarkable surfaces of Close-Up, but Kiarostami’s film embodies an impulse at the heart of artistic modernism in Iran: the need to see the world as it truly is, free of a priori notions. It’s an impulse that’s often been realized via counterintuitive means. Sadegh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl (1941)—often cited as the greatest work of prose fiction in modern Iranian literature, even as it remains too little known in Western literary circles—is a fractured, surrealistic narrative, only loosely classifiable as a novel, that tells two ostensibly separate stories involving a young man and a mysterious woman. The status of either half of the book as reality or fantasy, as well as the question of how the two halves relate to each other, is left open. While Hedayat’s personal temperament (his suicide in 1951 was the culmination of a lifelong struggle with depression) is clearly the decisive factor in the novel’s despairing tone, a number of Iranian writers, including the notable novelist and critic Jalal Al-e Ahmad (1923-1969), have linked its downbeat mood to the failure of Iran’s Constitutional Revolution, the tumultuous period from 1906 to 1911 that saw the creation of the Majles (the Iranian parliament) and other significant political reforms, before the country lapsed back into internecine warfare and eventual dictatorship under Reza Khan, who was declared shah in 1925. Made a mere decade after the Islamic revolution of 1979, Kiarostami’s film would, even more obliquely, document a later “after the revolution” moment.

The modernist impulse in Iranian art was expressed most strongly through poetry, which was enjoying a creative heyday in Iran by the time Kiarostami started making commercials and documentary shorts in the late ’60s. Writers like Farrokhzad, Sohrab Sepheri, and others launched what scholar Hamid Dabashi describes (in his invaluable book Close-Up: Iranian Cinema Past, Present and Future) as an attack on “the whole metaphysics of representation,” achieved by “reaching for the immediate experience of the world before its mediated modulations” (italics in original). Their project was, in a word, defamiliarization, in the original Russian Formalist sense—the use of poetic forms and language to prompt the reader to see the stuff of everyday life in new, strange ways.

Similar currents run through Iranian cinema of the period. Although the Iranian film industry dates back to the 1930s, the ’60s saw the seeds of what would become a vibrant art cinema, with key works including Farrokhzad’s only foray into filmmaking prior to her death in a car accident at age 32, a documentary short about a leper colony entitled The House Is Black (1962). A poetic film in multiple senses, The House Is Black combines the literal poetry of Farrokhzad’s narration with avowedly “ugly” images of the diseased, often deformed bodies of the lepers, as they receive medical treatment, attend school, or just gaze into the camera. Typically transgressive, Farrokhzad’s film follows The Blind Owl and anticipates Close-Up in its casual violation of commonly accepted artistic boundaries—in this case, those between poetry and cinema, art and documentary.

The aesthetic development of Iranian cinema would continue during the 1960s and ’70s with Dairush Mehrjui’s The Cow (1969), a fictional film about a man who goes mad upon the death of his beloved cow, and works by directors like Bahman Farmanara and Bahram Beizai. Kiarostami’s own first feature, Report, arrived in 1977. The director’s early oeuvre consists of an unwieldy mix of fictional features, feature-length documentaries, and short films of various stripes, most of which remain very difficult to come by. (A complete filmography, as well as critical discussions of most of the films, can be found in Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Abbas Kiarostami, part of the James Naremore-edited Contemporary Film Directors series.) It wasn’t until the late ’80s that Kiarostami gained international attention with Where Is the Friend’s House? (1987), which won a prize at the Locarno Film Festival in 1989. That movie would be the first of a career-defining trilogy of films set in the Rostam-abad region of Iran, along with Life and Nothing More (1991) and Through the Olive Trees (1994), but Kiarostami would first make two other major films. One was a documentary about Iran’s educational system called Homework. The other was Close-Up.


The story is simple enough. Hossain Sabzian, an unemployed printer and divorced father, meets a woman by chance on a bus and passes himself off as director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Sabzian befriends the woman’s family, the Anhankhahs, and convinces them he wants to make a film with them. They soon grow suspicious and report Sabzian to the police, who arrest him for fraud. Newspaper coverage of the story comes to the attention of Kiarostami, who goes to interview Sabzian in jail and agrees to make a film about him. Kiarostami arranges to have the trial moved up and gains permission to film the proceedings. He also arranges for Sabzian, the plaintiffs, and other real-life figures to re-enact some of the events leading up to Sabzian’s arrest for the movie. Following the outcome of the trial, Kiarostami arranges for Sabzian to meet the real Makhmalbaf.

This is the plot of Close-Up, laid out chronologically, but as presented by Kiarostami, the effect is far less straightforward. Not only does he begin in the middle, double back, and repeat part of the story from two different perspectives, but the film as a whole is a mix of modes, combining “documentary” footage of Sabzian’s trial with “fictional” scenes depicting earlier story events. Even to insist on this distinction is to grossly oversimplify the various shades of fact and fantasy, fiction and documentary, being and acting in the film.

Take the opening scene, in which a taxi driver brings a reporter and two policemen to the Anhankhah residence to arrest Sabzian. In retrospect, we know it must be, generically speaking, a fictional scene, since it takes place before the point when Kiarostami becomes aware of Sabzian’s story. But the scene unfolds in documentary-like fashion, proceeding more or less in real time as the driver negotiates traffic and stops to ask for directions (a recurring scene in Kiarostami’s films); more perversely, once the car reaches the Anhankhahs’, we’re made to wait outside with the driver while the scene’s main action, the arrest of Sabzian, unfolds offscreen inside the house. The scene, which lasts 15 minutes, until the opening credits roll, is an anti-dramatic fiction, one created by imposing some of the temporal and spatial constraints of documentary and seemingly designed to confound the spectator. It’s not the film’s last exercise in viewer frustration.

Close-Up continually creates the impression of transparency while actually undercutting it. The hall-of-mirrors interplay between fiction and reality perpetually casts into doubt the status of what we’re seeing. Some 40 minutes later, the film circles back to Sabzian’s arrest, finally shown in a lengthy scene in which Sabzian-as-Makhmalbaf comes to the Anhankhah house, not realizing the police have been called. Here, Sabzian is playing himself playing Makhmalbaf in a fictional flashback narrating true events interpolated into a documentary courtroom scene.

Where do the layers of acting end? After Sabzian gives an emotional testimonial about the troubles he’s faced in life (the closest the film comes to explicit social commentary), Kiarostami—whom the judge periodically allows to break into the proceedings and question Sabzian himself—asks him, “Aren’t you acting for the camera right now?” The implied answer is yes, of course, but how much of Sabzian’s acting is for the benefit of Kiarostami’s camera and how much is merely Sabzian playing the social role of a criminal defendant at a trial? Are these fundamentally different activities?

Kiarostami’s cross-examinations also raise the question of how the presence of the filmmaker and his crew is affecting the trial—the extent to which the trial itself is being rendered a fiction rather than a documentary reality. Likewise, other elements in the story begin as fiction and end as reality, such as Sabzian’s promise to the Anhankhahs that they will appear in a film. The overall effect, one only enhanced by the transparent, documentary-like surface, is profoundly defamiliarizing; as Dabashi puts it, Close-Up is “a sustained examination of reality in the face of its simulation.”

The reality in question is not just that of cinema, but of Sabzian himself, and it is this scrupulous examination that renders Close-Up poetic, even subversive. Kiarostami is often dismissed as a detached, dispassionate filmmaker, and Close-Up has rightly been hailed as a milestone in the history of self-reflexive cinema, but in the spirit of Shklovsky’s notion of art as a means to “recover the sensation of life,” Kiarostami’s formalism is not an end in itself and the movie’s climactic scene packs an undeniable emotional wallop. (Those who haven’t yet seen the film may want to check out here.) After the trial closes with the Anhankhahs forgiving Sabzian for his deception, Kiarostami arranges for the real Makhmalbaf to meet his impersonator. With Kiarostami and his crew filming from across the street, Sabzian and Makhmalbaf get on a motorcycle and drive toward the Anhankhahs’ house. We’re primed for a big, teary scene—and then the sound goes out. In an apparent technical glitch (which one suspects must have been intentional), the sound from the Sabzian-Makhmalbaf conversation continues to go in and out, making it almost impossible to follow what they’re talking about. It’s a stunning lesson in viewer humility, as we’re compelled to question our initial frustration, to ask ourselves whether we’re really entitled to witness this real-life moment in what is, after all, a true story. 


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The Criterion Collection
Close-Up, directed by Abbas Kiarostami
Photo Gallery: Poetic License


Abbas Kiarostami  |  Close-Up  |  realism  |  poetry  |  Iranian cinema  |  documentary  |  Mohsen Makhmalbaf


Joshua Land is a freelance writer and a founding co-editor of the online literary journal Essays & Fictions. He is currently studying applied economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

More articles by Joshua Land
Author's Website: Pop Tones