Monday, April 10, 2017

Abbas Kiarostami | کلوزآپ ، نمای نزدیک‎‎ (Klūzāp, nemā-ye nazdīk), (Close-Up)

you oughta been in pictures
by Douglas Messerli

Abbas Kiarostami (writer and director) کلوزآپ ، نمای نزدیک‎‎ (Klūzāp, nemā-ye nazdīk), (Close-Up) /1990

Abbas Kiarostami’s 1990 film Close-Up begins simply enough. A journalist has hired a taxi and, along with two policeman, makes a visit to the pleasant home of the Akankhah family. After the journalist enters alone, he returns to the taxi, and, joined by the policemen, returns to the house where they arrest Hossain Sabzian. 

Given the horrors about Iranian state arrests we often hear told in the West, the incident seems almost comical. What is the relationship between the
 journalist, Hossain Farazmand, and the two young policeman, and who is this timid man, Sabzian, who have they just quietly arrested? On camera, incidentally, all the figures are played by themselves. Has the film’s director, Kiarostami, also tagged along with these men, or is this a film segment made “after the fact?” 
       The rest of the film, primarily through the scenes of Sabzian’s trial—which again Kiarostami is filming, after he has convinced a judge that he should be able to document it (the only oddest thing about Iranian justice is the strange liaisons made between the police and others)—which reveals Sabzian’s almost inconsequential crime.

       Again, in a scene apparently shot in retrospect, we see the accidental bus meeting between Sabzian and Mrs. Akankhah. A near-enclyopedic cinephile, Sabzian is reading the script of popular Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s The Cyclist. (He was also a fan of the films of Lars von Triers, it was revealed after his death) When Mrs. Akankhah expresses interest in the script—she has been taken to the movie by her two film-loveing sons—Sabzian tells her that he, himself, is the director; he quickly signs the book for her and gives it to her as a gift, promising, after he procures her address, to visit her cinema-loving family.
      Indeed, after a few days, he does appear at their home, enchanting the sons and her daughter, and promising them to try to film a movie, using them as actors. Who wouldn’t be delighted? The two brothers, both engineers by education, have been unable to find work in the current Iranian economy, one of them now heading a bakery company; but what these brothers truly desire is careers in film, and now one of Iran’s greatest directors seems to be offering just that possibility. 
      Sabzian promises to return again, borrowing, from one of the brothers, 1,900 tomans for the taxi home, claiming he has forgotten to bring his billfold. If anything, the family is charmed by the director’s absent-mindedness. 
      Soon after, however, Mr. Akankhah, begins to suspect that Sabzian is a fraud; yet still the family puts him up for a night. Sabzian’s next visit to the house, however, is the one we have witnessed in the first scene, wherein the poor dreamer is arrested for fraud.

      After the Akankhah’s quietly lay out in detail how they have been defrauded, the judge asks Sabzian for his own version of the events. With Kiarostami’s focusing in on a close-up of his face, the handsome young man (who does, indeed look something like the real Makhmalbaf) describes how much that director’s films have meant to him, and how The Cyclist, in particular, has made him feel that he and his class are not completely ignored: “For me, art is the experience of what you’ve felt inside.” Although he has never made such an assertion before, the temporary belief that he was a man of importance instead of a destitute being who cannot even buy his own children food, made him feel like a real human being, a man of importance, who could make decisions about his own life instead of being subject to the entire society’s whims. 
      What is even more startling—as the young identity-thief speaks of his life of poverty and dreams, about which the audience can only be moved—is his revelation that what he truly would like to have been was an actor. But, of course, he is now being a kind of actor, with Kiarostami’s camera framing his face with a close-up that Nora Desmond would have died for.

      With the agreement of the Akankhah family, the judge releases him, and with the real Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Sabzian returns to the Akankhah home to apologize for his deceit, the great Iranian director (being filmed by the now great Iranian director Kiarostami) hugging the would-be actor/director rather imperiously proclaiming: "I hope he'll be good now and make us proud of him."
      In a sense, of course, Kiarostami’s camera, which has so carefully recorded Sabzian’s own defense, has already made us “proud” of him, as we have been enchanted by what we now perceive as his truth-telling and his own humility. And by the end of this mesmerizing film it is difficult to determine who, precisely, is manipulating who. Has the society, which has not lived up to its promises, forced young dreamers like the Akankhah brothers to desperately seek out any possible “breaks” in the walls of inopportunity that surround them? Is Makhmalbaf, by agreeing to be in Kiarostami’s film, simply taking advantage of a desperate liar, who desired to be someone other than himself? Is Kiarostami, himself, leaping into the fray simply to transform a simple case of identity fraud into a statement about his own narrative concerns? Is there really any future in this world for someone like Hossain Sabzian?
      After a few months of attention, Sabzian was basically forgotten; strangely just before his death at age 52, he had attempted to act in another documentary about his life, but he collapsed in the Metro on his way to the interview, and died a few days later in a coma. Kiarostami, when he saw his own movie again, years later, admitted that he couldn’t sleep for several days, and was disturbed by his own intrusion into Sabzian’s life. This docu-drama remains, however, a forever haunting statement about how film inherently is a necessary space where dreamers cannot separate themselves from the dreams they desire.

Los Angeles, April 10, 2017

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