Truth is stranger than fiction in Abbas Kiarostami’s hybrid documentary
Film 53 of 115: CLOSE-UP (1990)
Close-Up follows the trial of Hossein Sabzian, who’s charged with fraud after posing as famed Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf in order to gain the trust of a middle-class Tehran family, the Ahankhahs. His motivations remain somewhat mysterious, and even though an exchange of money took place and the Ahankhahs raise suspicions of a future robbery, it’s difficult to say what crime Sabzian’s actually committed. One thing is clear, though — the Ahankhahs fell for Sabzian’s ruse, and Sabzian remained equally committed to keeping up the lie. The film intercuts between Sabzian’s trial, interviews with accusers and the accused, and re-enactments of Sabzian’s deception — with everyone involved playing themselves. What initially begins as an examination of one man’s curious charade becomes a rumination on the impact of art on society and the near-impossibility of filming objective truth.
I feel like there’s a certain mental gear-changing that happens when watching documentaries versus narrative films. In fiction, we can accept nearly any situation or plot development, no matter how absurd— since what we’re watching isn’t real, there’s a certain acceptance that, theoretically, anything is possible as long as it feels organic to the world created for the story. But with documentaries, there’s the unspoken agreement and expectation that what we’re being shown is true. In accepting that the people and stories in front of us are real, we expect that the person filming them is assuming the same role we are — passive observers of some subject whose life will play out un-manipulated. Suspension of disbelief feels like a given in fiction — but once one starts to doubt what’s happening in a documentary, the whole experience feels poisoned.
Close-Up rarely allows us to change gears. Through a series of revelatory yet unobtrusive cinematic flourishes, Kiarostami encourages us to doubt which mode of storytelling we’re even in from scene to scene. The film’s beginning, which follows a journalist on his way to witness Sabzian’s arrest, feels like a ride-along out of Cops…until he arrives at the arrest. The film suddenly cuts to reaction shots of his taxi driver waiting outside, comically busying himself with the litter around him; this never was a documentary, but a staged re-enactment. Sabzian’s trial (cheekily postponed to accommodate Close-Up’s shooting schedule) is also “staged,” with witnesses directed to look towards one of two cameras so Kiarostami can capture their testimonies more effectively. In my favorite moment of the film, a typical interview setup of master-shot and intercutting close-ups is revealed, in one sudden tracking shot, to also be a re-enactment parroting an earlier interview’s shooting style. In pulling out the rug from under us so often, Kiarostami urges not to let us get too complacent — to not take any character, even the director himself, at their word. In Close-Up, no one perspective is an objective truth.
So, what’s an audience to do then, if Close-Up lacks the omniscience of a documentary but also refuses to let any single character be the Virgil to our Dante? To Kiarostami, it’s simple: instead of getting to a simple truth to the strange mystery of Sabzian and the Ahankhahs, Kiarostami invites us to become as part of the story as much as he did as a director.
It’s a reoccurring sentiment expressed in the other two Kiarostami films I’ve seen. Certified Copy’s two leads continuously provoke their viewers into questioning the nature of their enigmatic relationship; at one moment, a wink in a mirror feels like a sudden acknowledgement of our invisible presence. Shirin, on the other hand, paints a retelling of a classic Iranian folktale in the imagination of the viewer by focusing on the reactions of another audience entirely: a legion of Iran’s most famous actresses (and Juliette Binoche), watching an unseen film play out in front of them. The story they watch doesn’t just feel like like it’s taking place behind us — sometimes it’s more like these “fictional” women are reacting to our reactions.
Kiarostami’s films feel endlessly aware that we’re watching them — and in so doing force us to question not just how, but why we’re doing so. And by forcing me to endlessly engage with the nature of what I was watching, Close-Up led me down a path of reckoning both with my expectations and my responsibilities as a viewer. Because it refused to be so passively viewed like other films or documentaries, Close-Up was a rigorous and ultimately rewarding experience that, in turn, made me feel much more connected to its story than other films.
It’s also by similarly connecting to Makhmalbaf’s movies that Sabzian rationalizes posing as the director himself. Makhmalbaf’s films put a voice to Sabzian’s suffering, clarified it, and relieved him of it in an experience worth repeating over and over again. Like any cinemagoer, Sabzian found an escape in film — and, oddly enough, it’s by making the impulsive lie to Mrs. Ahankhah that he is Makhmalbaf that Sabzian’s given a real-world opportunity to escape his troubling life. Sabzian’s both seduced and repelled by the sudden power he possesses — “Before, no one would have ever obeyed me like that, because I am just a poor man. But because I pretended to be this famous person, they would do whatever I said.” Nevertheless, Sabzian recognizes the inevitability of returning to his real life — no matter what he does as Makhmalbaf, when he goes home, he goes home as himself. It’s a strange ouroboric compulsion Sabzian plays out — the more he retreats into his Makhmalbaf persona, the greater chance he risks in exposing himself, which only pushes him to do indulge in it even more. In Close-Up, cinema and the escape it provides feels like a powerful drug — something that Kiarostami, his subjects, and the audience feel all too aware of as this fiction-reality plays out. Naturally, the film depicting this struggle feels just as endlessly reflexive — and, in a delightfully ironic fashion, finds its solutions in the cathartic feelings that film provides.
In a way, Close-Up is the ultimate restorative justice exercise, forcing victim and perpetrator to re-enact a crime in order to bring about forgiveness and resolution. There’s a unique tension in the scenes when Sabzian works his magic on the Ahankhahs all over again — as if all parties can’t believe how they fell for each other after the fact, but are also rediscovering how they did so in the first place. At the same time, everyone — including Kiarostami the director and us as a viewer — reckons with themselves as an individual, fictional character, actor, and audience member all at once. By the end, everyone’s not just conscious of their individual actions and desires, but also of how they affect and are affected by the actions and desires of those around them.
Great films use the induced empathy of an audience for their characters to bring about a mirrored catharsis — as a character endures suffering and experiences change, hopefully so will we. And by using the cathartic nature of fictional narrative filmmaking, Close-Up hopes to bring about an equally euphoric and pacifying resolution between Sabzian and the Ahankhahs.
Close-Up is a film that celebrates the bond that cinema creates between people who would normally struggle to find common ground. It’s a film by a director — gone too soon — who unabashedly believed that showing an audience how a magic trick worked helped deepen their appreciation of it. And, ultimately, Close-Up is an impressive meditation on how life imitating art eventually becomes it.