31 years of ‘Close-Up’: Abbas Kiarostami’s investigation of transgressive cinephilia
“In the total darkness, poetry is still there, and it is there for you.” – Abbas Kiarostami
When it comes to one of the most accomplished filmmakers of all time, it is undoubtedly a very difficult task to select one single work as the magnum opus. Over the course of his illustrious career, Iranian New Wave maestro Abbas Kiarostami has created multiple masterpieces like Where is the Friend’s House? and The Taste of Cherry, which continue to be ranked as some of the best films ever made. However, Kiarostami’s 1990 work Close-Up is arguably the most influential addition to his filmography because of its unique narrative style and the unforgettable experiments with fiction and reality. His other films have conducted similar experiments without managing to replicate the universal appeal and the unabashed pathos of Close-Up. Three decades have flown by since it was first released but it still remains one of the greatest cinematic studies of human nature and cinema itself.
Based on actual events that took place in Tehran during the late ’80s, Close-Up is a trenchant look at the social conditions prevalent in a post-revolution Iran. More importantly, it is the story of one man who would probably have remained silenced by history if Kiarostami had not read Hassan Farazmand’s article about Hossain Sabzian in Sorush. At the time, Kiarostami was already working on a project called Pocket Money but Sabzian’s account affected him so much that he started seeing him in his dreams. Immediately pivoting from the pre-production preparations of Pocket Money and committing to Sabzian’s special story, Kiarostami acquired the necessary permissions to film his courtroom trial and convinced the people involved in the case to re-enact the incidents for the camera. Due to this indistinguishable distortion of fact and fiction, Close-Up is often placed under the oxymoronic category of “docufiction” but Kiarostami transcends the limitations of genre and claws at another kind of truth. Close-Up’s dialectics are radically different because it does not present didactic revelations. Instead, it focuses on exposing the flawed nature of an epistemological tunnel-vision by oscillating between the separate domains of the legal and the moral.
Kiarostami chooses to begin at the lowest point in Hossain Sabzian’s life, leading up to a moment where his deception is outed by the journalist Hassan Farazmand who outlines the entire story for a taxi-cab driver as well as the audience. In doing so, he shows us how the specifics of the story do not even matter. What matters is the man himself. Why did he pretend to be a famous filmmaker in front of an affluent family? Was it because he wanted to cheat them out of their money? It has to be a classic case of identity fraud for personal profit, right? As the film progresses, such simplifications of human motivations transform into asinine reductions and superficial interpretations. When Kiarostami and his crew go to the judge to ask for permission to film during the trial, the judge is surprised as well. He cannot understand why someone would take the time to film this particular man’s story when there are other criminals with more “serious charges”. Kiarostami even visits Sabzian in jail and asks him what the filmmaker could do for him. He replies:
“You could make a film about my suffering.”
Often seen as a courtroom drama as well, Close-Up travels seamlessly from the current reality of Sabzian’s trial to his history of fraud. Kiarostami deconstructs the mythology of filmmaking by explaining to Sabzian that there are two cameras filming the proceedings, hearing which he looks at one of the cameras and says, “You are my audience.” The reason why he has been brought before the court is because he tricked a wealthy family into believing that he was Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Kiarostami’s contemporary and another great filmmaker from the Iranian New Wave. When the family was interviewed by Kiarostami as well as subsequent interrogations, they appear defensive and cautious. They want to tell the world that they were not fooled by this poor man out of their money and respect, that they were onto him right from the start. Sabzian took advantage of the young son in the family who had studied to become a civil engineer but was unemployed due to the poor economy, assuring him (as Makhmalbaf) that he would be the star of his next film which would be shot in their house. As he descended deeper and deeper into his personal fiction, Sabzian could not keep up with his own lies and was ultimately apprehended.
Over the course of the deeply personal trial, Sabzian explains why he did what he did but we keep second-guessing his words. This is probably one of the biggest achievements of Close-Up; Kiarostami succeeds in making the audience of the film the actual jury. It is up to us to decide whether Sabzian is forgiven or whether his lies are beyond salvation. The camera remains fixated on his face (following the directions of the title of the film) and captures every single facial gesture while he explains his ratiocination, placing the pseudo-actor under intense scrutiny. He explains that he is a cinephile and that he has only seen his sufferings reflected in the works of directors like Makhmalbaf and Kiarostami, focusing on his specific obsession with Makhmalbaf’s 1987 film The Cyclist. Since he belonged to a lower economic stratum, he knew that entering the world of cinema was a fantasy so he decided to film his dream on the streets. Sabzian told people that he was the great Makhmalbaf because that is the only way people actually listened to him and respected him. During the trial, he confesses: “Whenever I fell depressed or overwhelmed, I feel the urge to shout to the world the anguish of my soul, the torments I’ve experienced, all my sorrows but no one wants to hear about them.”
It is easy to identify with Sabzian and his lonely cinephilia that pushed him towards extreme actions but the trial keeps us on our toes. Every time we decide to plunge into empathy for this sad man, he backtracks on his statements. He tells the judge that he knew he was going to be arrested and he wrote the same in his notebook before he was taken into custody, insisting that the judge can verify it. However, he instantly says he tore the page up when the judge asks to see it. Is he still playing a part? Is Sabzian a fraud who is playing the role of a cinephile who pretended to be a filmmaker? Although Kiarostami never makes any definitive claims, he admitted in an interview that he was inclined towards believing that Sabzian’s love for cinema was the only constant throughout the film’s shifting narrative. Further, Kiarostami identified with Sabzian because they came from the same social background and it was the reason why he chose to make Close-Up. For Kiarostami, Sabzian was probably a glimpse at an alternate reality where he could have easily ended up in Sabzian’s tattered shoes. By making this experimental documentary, the filmmaker granted Sabzian something that nobody had offered him before: a voice.
The family eventually forgives Sabzian because they think that social malaise and unemployment had made him lie and cheat but there is something deeper there. Sabzian’s actions are not only a part of a micro-rebellion against class divides. It is a transgression of a cinephile against the fictional nature of the medium itself by questioning the mechanisms of fiction. If an actor plays a director in a film (Makhmalbaf would explore this very concept in his 1996 film A Moment of Innocence), it is celebrated and considered as an artistic achievement but he is accused of fraud just because his medium is the city of Tehran.
Sabzian is neither an artist nor a fraud, he is a cinephile who got lost in the labyrinth of reflected revelations. Kiarostami perfectly punctuates this conflict between fiction and reality in the iconic final sequence where Makhmalbaf comes to meet Sabzian in person and the latter breaks down crying. The sound from the footage keeps cutting out as all washes over him at once, the guilt of what he has done and the joy of meeting his muse who inspired Sabzian to create his own fictional masterpiece: the only notable thing that people will remember his insignificant life by. Sabzian would pass away in 2006 due to a heart-attack but Close-Up has immortalised this ordinary man in the hearts of thousands of cinephiles who are constantly afraid of ending up the same way.