July 16, 2014 - 3:56pm
Posted by Jim Healy

These Notes on Abbas Kiarostami's Close-Up were written by Hamidreza Nassiri, a Teaching Assistant and Ph.D candidate in UW Madison's Communication Arts Department. The UW Cinematheque will present a 35mm print of Close-Up on Thursday, July 17, at 7 p.m. in the Chazen Museum of Art.

Abbas Kiarostami is one of the most acclaimed filmmakers of the last two decades, one who represents “the highest level of artistry in cinema” according to Martin Scorsese. His initial studies were in painting at the University of Tehran, later embarking upon filmmaking in the 1970s and 80s at Kanoon, an institute in Tehran that played an important role in forming young filmmakers during this period. Kiarostami first became known to international audiences with the film Where Is the Friend’s Home? (1987), which won the Bronze Leopard at the Locarno film festival. In 1997 he won the Cannes Palme d’Or for Taste of Cherry (1997). Kiarostami has made films in so many different fields and styles that David Bordwell has acknowledged him as the filmmaker with the “widest octave range” he has ever known. The most well-known Iranian director in the world, Kiarostami has influenced such filmmakers as Michael Haneke, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Aki Kaurismaki, and Ramin Bahrani.

Close-Up followed Where Is the Friend’s Home? and Homework (1989). Prior to its production, Kiarostami was already in pre-production for Pocket Money when he read a piece of news about a man who impersonated the famous Iranian director, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, in order to take advantage of a middle-class family. Kiarostami thus decided to postpone Pocket Money, and Kiarostami and his crew began shooting Close-Up shortly thereafter.

The news of this impersonator, Hossain Sabzian, was published in Soroush magazine and the film itself begins with a sequence where a Soroush reporter, Hassan Farazmand, accompanies a soldier and a taxi driver to arrest Sabzian. Following a non-chronological narrative structure, Close-Up also depicts Kiarostami’s efforts to make a film about him and Sabzian’s trial. Flashbacks of what happened to Sabzian and the Ahankhahs are interspersed between the courtroom scenes. Finally, the film ends with Sabzian’s release from prison, and his encounter with the real Makhmalbaf. This structure is a departure from the chronological order of the film’s first edit. As Godfrey Cheshire elucidates, the projectionist at a festival in Munich made a mistake and showed the reels in the wrong order. Kiarostami for his part liked this new version of the film, compelling him to re-edit the film to its current iteration.

Close-Up is a combination of documentary and fiction. It is based on a real story and all the people in the film play themselves as they are in the real world. Even the soldier who arrests Sabzian in the film is the same individual who did so in reality. This blending is to such an extent that it has made it difficult for audiences to realize which parts of the film are documentary filmmaking and which parts were re-enacted or constructed.

Close-Up is, more than anything, concerned with illusion and identity. Farazmand, the reporter, is another version of Sabzian in his emulation of Oriana Fallaci, the great Italian journalist. Later in the film, Mr. Ahankhah (the father of the family that was infiltrated by Sabzian) claims that he had realized Sabzian was not the real Makhmalbaf, while Farazmand writes in his magazine that it was he himself who resolved the case and the flashbacks confirm this.. Farazmand aspires to the persona of Fallaci in order to achieve the fame, respect, and perhaps even the money such figures earn. For his part, Sabzian also craves respect and money—though more the former than the latter. He confesses in court that he found pleasure in the Ahankhahs obeying him when he asked them to do something. An unemployed man burdened with financial issues, he further confesses to the judge that he can sometimes not even afford to buy anything for his family’s breakfast. In spite of his disparate social positioning to Farazmand, the film draws distinct thematic parallels between their impersonations of more successful figures.

In our reading of this piece, we can further extrapolate this depiction of impersonation to the illusions implicit in cinema itself. According to Alireza Zarrindast, the film’s director of photography, the flashback scenes where we see the story of Sabzian and the Ahankhahs were shot on 35mm film, while those in the courtroom were shot instead on 16mm. In the courtroom, the camera is also relatively restless in comparison to other scenes, zooming in and out several times. Such cinematography is reminiscent of news reportage and documentary filmmaking. Moreover, the performances, from Sabzian and the Ahankhahs to the judge are very realistic. However, this scene was in fact recreated, but with the intent of remaining faithful to the actual words recorded in the courtroom. Even, according to Cheshire, interruptions in sound in the final sequence were created in post-production and are not real. Close-Up as such questions not only documentary cinema, but cinema in general, and challenges viewers to distinguish the reality and its imitations.

This theme is achieved in a confluence of both style and narrative. Sabzian is an extreme cinephile, sacrificing his life and family for the cinema. He is enraptured not only by movies themselves, but also by the aura that surrounds them and their makers. It is for this reason that, of all the people he could impersonate, he chose a film director. Hence, Close-Up underlines its critique of the illusionistic quality of cinema and its peripheries. As Werner Herzog remarks, it is “the greatest documentary on filmmaking” he has ever seen.

Issues of alienation stemming from socio-economics are truly transnational, and the commentary on these issues in Close-Up has engendered its warm reception with audiences around the globe. In this critique, Kiarostami discusses the similarities between Sabzian and the Ahankhah family, pointing out how their similarities draw them to each other. The Ahankhahs are likewise challenged by socio-economic problems and unemployment as a result of both the revolution and the 8-year war with Iraq. The Ahankhahs belong to the middle class, but their sons, both educated in engineering, are either unemployed or working in unrelated fields.

We can track Close-Up’s influence on different films. An example could be Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell (2012), in which, like in Close-Up, different characters tell their own stories about a unique event and it is hard for an audience to find the truth. Polley’s recreation of real events and combining documentary and fiction in the way that it would be sometimes hard to distinguish them is another important thing inspired by Close-Up. Many filmmakers and critics around the world have admired and drawn upon Close-Up. In 2012, Sight and Sound chose it as one of their “Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time.”

Close-Up ends with a frozen image of Sabzian, regretful but smiling. His dream has come true; now his picture is on the billboards on the streets and festivals around the world. With this framing, I am compelled to say that, while criticizing the illusionistic quality of cinema, Close-Up is also thus an act of homage to it, an art that can make dreams and illusions into reality.

- Hamidreza Nassiri