(Dir. Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 1990)
Filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami has toyed with the line between reality and fiction for so long now it has become the defining feature of his hefty body of work. Of late, he seems to have found a new, fresh voice outside his native Iran with stunners Certified Copy and Like Someone in Love suggesting he may yet have more to say regarding this singular theme that ties his films together. And yet, even with those two films and late ‘90s heavyweights Taste of Cherry and The Wind Will Carry Us, one of his first forays into the startling collision of fiction and non-fiction, 1990’s Close-Up, is still arguably his best. Halting a project already in progress by the late ‘80s, Kiarostami caught wind of an unusual story of a man being charged with fraud for deceiving a family into thinking he was the filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. In attempts to capture this story firsthand, Kiarostami obtained permission to film the man’s trial. These scenes, gripping and philosophically complex in their own right, are supplemented by the director’s interviews of the individuals involved, typical of documentary filmmaking, and unprecedented reenactments of the story’s events starring everyone as him or herself.
That Kiarostami manages to have the parties involved relive the events of this strange incident in a remarkably believable manner remains a miracle in and of itself. That he manages to craft one of the most engrossing films on the subject of film by seamlessly weaving fiction and non-fiction together offers proof for his position as one of the world’s greatest filmmakers. The recreated scenes interspersed throughout augment the narrative recounted by those present in court and provide much-needed dramatic visualizations of said events, but the meat of the film is found in the ruminations of Hossain Sabzian as Kiarostami’s camera rests on his near emotionless face in the courtroom. Before the Ahankhah family he deceived, Kiarostami’s crew, and the presiding judge, Sabzian explains his bizarre actions that led to his arrest. He confesses that what he did was wrong, and his only defense seems to be his love of the arts. Being a revered director gave him a power over the family and garnered him a respect he hadn’t experienced in his own life. They would cut down trees in their yard if he asked them to. On the surface, these arguments reek of vanity, but as the film progresses and Sabzian realizes his severe lapse of judgment, he appears rather pitiful and begins to win over our sympathy.
As if to correct this growing sentiment in our perception of this imposter, Mehrdad Ahankhah, one of the sons and spokesperson for the family, calls into question Sabzian’s remorse in front of the camera hinting that he may now just be playing another role. The defendant partially confirms this accusation by admitting that he now thinks his talents would be of better use as an actor. Off screen Kiarostami wisely asks, “isn’t that what you’re doing now?” And, as if to challenge the audience even further, Sabzian responds that playing the part of director is a performance all its own. Kiarostami has appeared in several of his films whether as documentary interviewer or more unexpectedly à la Taste of Cherry, but here the great director (via Sabzian) hints at something much deeper than a filmmaker appearing onscreen. In film, Close-Up suggests, the director is complicit with his or her performers in the illusion of whatever ends up on the screen. In cinema, we can be whoever we want to be – in front of or behind the camera.
Through his subject Sabzian, then, Kiarostami explores his own identity as a filmmaker. His own insecurities, hopes, and admitted privileges as an artist are present in Sabzian’s verbal defense. Of course, Sabzian’s story isn’t Kiarostami’s, but it is ultimately he who manipulates the outcome, just as Sabzian only wished he could have done posing as Makhmalbaf. The Ahankhah family ends up pardoning the fraudulent director’s crime partly at the insistence of the judge, but also possibly due to the presence of the film crew. Kiarostami then orchestrates a meeting between Sabzian and the real Makhmalbaf to offer an elaborate apology to the Ahankhah family. Kiarostami’s camera follows these two as a distant observer as they weave in and out of traffic on a motorcycle. Sabzian picks up a pot of flowers for the family on the way. When they reach the home, Mr. Ahankhah greets the two at the door – the real and the fake standing together – and presumably forgives his offender.
It may be a stretch to draw too many comparisons from the real-life story of Hossain Sabzian to Kiarostami’s work as a filmmaker, but his films are often so densely layered, the parallels seem to pop out all over the place. In Sabzian’s casual dismissal of Mrs. Ahankhah’s assumption that famous filmmakers don’t use public transportation, Kiarostami may be urging us to see those in film as people no more special than you or me. In the taxi driver’s brief mistake in taking Farazmand the reporter as a police officer, he may be suggesting the lines between who we are and who we are perceived to be may be blurrier than we think. And, in closing his film with the poignant reconciliation between Sabzian and his victim, he may be asking us, his audience, to forgive him for continually deceiving us with each successive film he releases. For Kiarostami, film is fake, but no more than a representation of the falsity that people live with every day. With Close-Up, Kiarostami reveals that appearances can deceive, and the very construct of his film that brilliantly melds the truth with fiction suggests that his apology through Sabzian isn’t intended as a promise to discontinue this practice of cinematic deception. And, as the last two decades have shown, the director has encouraged us to always look closer as he continually pushes the boundary between what’s real and what’s fake.