Close Up: Abbas Kiarostami

In 1990, the influential Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami took advantage of the true story of an impostor to achieve one of the most successful analysis of the nature of reality and its depiction and portrayal in cinema. Nama-ye-Nazdik (Close- Up) is part documentary, part fictive recreation of the real story of a man named Ali Sabzian who so admired Mohsen Makhmalbaf, one of Iran’s leading filmmakers, that he pretended to be him. Ali Sabzian even convinced an unsuspecting family that he was Makhmalbaf and that he was going to make a film in which they and their house would be prominently featured. The family, an elderly couple and their children, fell for the ‘impostor’ Makhmalbaf and agreed to act for him. Sabzian was finally recognized as the impostor that he was and taken to court by the family for his deception and on suspicion that he was planning to rob their house. Kiarostami heard this story from a magazine and immediately followed it. He shot interviews with Sabzian and the family he had fooled and finally obtained permission to shoot the trial in the courtroom where, in addition to the question asked by the judge, Kiarostami repeatedly asked Sabzian to explain his actions. He also persuaded Sabzian and the fooled family to re-enact certain scenes from their encounter. The result was a sustained examination of the nature of reality in the face of its simulation.

In 2004, Sight and Sound, a leading authority on cinema all over the world named Close-Up as one of the 20 Best Non-English films of all time. It is widely considered as a masterpiece and opened a brand new genre of filmmaking. In Close-Up, Kiarostami contemplates the interaction of fact and fantasy, reality and fiction in the story of Sabzian/Makhmalbaf. One could begin with either fact or fiction and it would not make any difference; therein lies the power and beauty of the film. Makhmalbaf is a filmmaker, a real man who creates fictional worlds. Sabzian fictitiously enters the real world of Makhmalbaf by pretending to be him. Or we can say that Sabzian physically enters the fictitious world of Makhmalbaf. He becomes so successful in his fantasy that he convinces a perfectly respectable family to cooperate with him, thinking that he is Makhmalbaf. Sabzian’s fiction finally unravels and he is taken to a real court where he receives a jail term. But all this happens before Kiarostami enters the scene.

Kiarostami now subjects everything to a double erasure by asking the people involved in the event to “reenact” for him what happened. However, by doubly negating the real, Kiarostami’s erasure confirms a reality: Sabzian now actually does act and direct for Kiarostami, the family does feature in a movie, and Kiarostami ends up making a film. The spectator is thus put in the most bizarre situations – a succession of fact and fantasy, in which one knows that one is watching a fiction (Kiarostami’s film Close-Up) that is based on fact (Sabzian’s real story) that is based on fiction (Sabzian pretending to be Makhmalbaf) that is based on fact (Makhmalbaf is a leading Iranian filmmaker) that is based on fiction (Makhmalbaf making fictional stories in film) that is based on fact (the reality Makhmalbaf transforms into fiction).

The translucent nature of fact-as-fiction thus becomes the diaphanous lens through which Kiarostami begins to show us ways of looking we never knew existed. For long Iranian filmmakers especially Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, his daughter Samira Makhmalbaf and Majid Mejidi have shown traces of this fascination with the nature of reality. As early as 1955, Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon made a huge statement on perspectives and the distortion of truth in the face of human fallacies. But Close-Up is the first consistent instance of this distinctive view of cinema and the whole process of filmmaking as a whole. By esthetically subverting the metaphysics of “the real”, Kiarostami has opened the way to radically dismantling of the structural violence of “meaning”, upon which is predicated such metaphysical surrogates as “history”, “tradition”, “identity” and “piety”. A pellucid reading of reality-as-fiction begins to replace the opaque metaphysics of objectivity at the roots of all violent claims to truth. The fictive transparency of the real that thus emerges begins to eat into the legitimacy of any and every absolutist claim to truth, reality, veracity, having-been-there, having-seen-it.

The fictive lucidity of the real is the strategic attendance upon the reality otherwise concealed behind the metaphysics of presence, the culture of the significant, the ideology of the victorious, the politics of truth. Reality is then stripped of all its accumulated layers of metaphysics. Though cleared of its historically accumulated burdens of “meaning”, reality reveals itself as the object of mere observation. But this time around, the very act of observation is the result of a set of fresh eyes, eyes cleansed of all the dust of metaphysics, culture, ideology and politics. In Close-Up, Kiarostami creates reality and fantasy as being equally present and challenges the perceptions with which individuals live.

Close-Up is one of those brilliant films that come once in a lifetime and challenges its audience to look and think beyond the ordinary. In a country, where strict state control of cinema and its content has been widely criticized by the Western media. Iranian filmmakers have gone beyond obvious political rhetoric to create a new brand of cinema, taking ample inspiration from the tenets of Islam and its rich Sufi culture. Cinema, thus, becomes the tool for a national identity and consciousness. And Close-Up is a representative of all that, an Iranian view of the world, where the “personal” is often related to the “universal”.

Anupam Dhar

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