Saturday, December 31, 2016
Abbas Kiarostami | Shirin
Abbas Kiarostami (writer and director) Shirin / 2008
by Douglas Messerli
Abbas Kiarostami’s 2008 film, Shirin might be described as a film without a film, or a work of “film effects.” Throughout this almost two-hour movie, we see nothing but an audience of mostly women, head on, as they watch and react to a film on the screen which we never see but can hear.
The story, a kind of melodramatic version of Tristan and Isolde concerns a 12th century Armenian princess and later queen, Shirin, who falls in love with a Persian prince, Khosrow. He is equally in love with her, but in order to save his kingdom he must ally with the Romans, marrying a Roman woman. Each time the would-be lovers come close to one another something happens to keep them apart; finally Shirin even gives up her kingdom in order to live in Persia, although her love can never be consummated, and she and Khosrow die without ever knowing each other’s love.
This is what we might call in the US, a “woman’s pic,” and we observe several of the dozens of women watching it in tears or, at the very least, with their faces in great consternation. Almost all of them, except French actress Juliette Binoche, are Iranian women, and Kiarostami presents us with several types, each of whose reactions are somewhat different from the others.
Strangely, even without being able to view this film—or perhaps one should say because we are unable to view the film—we must imagine it, perhaps, as my case, as a splendiferous color spectacle, laced with Persian miniatures. However we might conjure it up, the only things we have to work with are the dialogue, the music (a historical film score by Morteza Hananeh and Hossein Dehlavi) and visual clues from the faces of the audience members.
In some respects, the central characters’ love for each other is not unlike our own relationship with the missing images; we desire to see the missing film, and so must create it for ourselves, crafting it in our own image of that desire
Apparently, Kiarostami filmed these women (some say in his own home) by simply asking them gaze at a series of dots above his camera. Even he had no idea what movie he might pretend they were watching, and only at the last moment chose the famous 12th century tale.
It reminds me some of what the Iranian-born sculptor Siah Armajani once told me about his childhood film-going experiences. A local theater owner would gather pieces of American and British cinema that had been cut from the films for purposes of censorship. He’d then link these pieces together in a loop and, while showing them, create a dense narrative for his mostly youthful audiences against the evils of the West. “Never before or since,” Siah sighed, “has film been so immersive and exciting. We had to imagine those narrative connections which these strange ‘forbidden’ images only hinted at.”
In a sense, Kiarostami’s work requires the same sort of process, while even further cleansing his art of images, as if to explore how to make art without the actual art. And in this manner, the filmmaker has perhaps made one of the purist and theoretical works of cinema ever, forcing us to become directors of his story.
Los Angeles, New Year’s Eve, 2016Reprinted from World Cinema Review (December 2016).