Saturday, February 15, 2014

My Favorite Abbas Kiarostami Film

It's tempting to want to pigeonhole Abbas Kiarostami as a Middle-Eastern filmmaker. He got his start making documentaries and simple narrative films about everyday people in his native Iran, particularly children. Then in the '90s his films became more experimental and unconventional, full of meta, self-references, often combining fiction and non-fiction elements. His Koker trilogy, for example, is a series of films where the characters in each successive film are aware of, and often participated in the making of the previous installments. The best encapsulation of this approach is 1990's "Close-Up," the story of a peculiar imposter.

"Close-Up" was initially intended to be a documentary about Hossain Sabzian, a film enthusiast who manages to convince the unwitting Ahankhah family that he is the famous Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Through a series of visits, he becomes close with the family, telling them that he's like to use their house for his next film and that he will feature them as actors. Eventually the ruse is discovered, of course, and this is where the story gets interesting, because Kiarostami becomes part of the narrative, as does the act of documenting Sabzian's case. The film is ultimately something far more complex and ambiguous than an ordinary documentary, unfolding like a fictional narrative, with all the real-life participants playing themselves re-enacting past events, including the director. After a certain point it's hard to say what is being caught on film in real time and what is a staged facsimile.

Even without the benefit of the unconventional storytelling, Hossain Sabzian is a fascinating figure, a man who so loves films that he feels compelled to assume the identity of one of his favorite directors in order to participate in that world. He doesn't do it out of malice or for greed, though he does use his leverage with the family to acquire some funds for pre-production of his nonexistent film. Rather, as he explains to the real Mohsen Makhmalbaf, he's tired of being himself. In his recreations of the scenes with the Ahankhah family, Sabzian is enlivened by the attention and emboldened by his perceived celebrity and authority. Though not a professional actor, the performance he puts on is a wholehearted and committed one. After he's apprehended, he seems reluctant to give up the persona.

Sabzian's journey could not have been so successfully explored without the intervention of Kiarostami. It is Kiarostami who arranges the meeting between Sabzian and Makhmalbaf, which provides the film with its moving conclusion. More importantly, the act of turning Sabzian's story into a film allows Sabzian to fulfill his promises to the Ahankhahs. They do become actors and their house is used in the film. And though Sabzian can never be Mohsen Makhmalbaf, he does become a filmmaker in a way, because his actions are responsible for the creation of "Close-Up." The judge in the courtroom does not understand the point of filming the proceedings, as it's only when you see them as part of the film that they become significant.

Kiarostami's films always have very lived-in universes, where you could imagine following any minor character off into entirely different stories at any moment. "Close-Up" begins not with Sabzian or Kiarostami, but with a reporter investigating the story. He takes a cab ride to the Ahankhahs' house with two police officers in tow to confront the imposter. We spend ten minutes listening to their conversations with the driver as they look for the right street, occasionally stopping to ask pedestrians for directions. When they arrive at the house, the camera stays with the driver waiting outside, who kills time by picking flowers out of a heap of garden trimmings. It was only on rewatching the film that I realized this was a recreation too.

So it comes as no surprise that Kiarostami has occasionally revisited stories and settings from different POVs, and at least once has built an entirely different film around a minor character who appeared in an earlier one. The cab driver may only have a very incidental part to play in the story, but Kiarostami gives his viewpoint its due - the driver has no idea who Makhmalbaf is or why the reporter is so excited about the story, making him a good stand-in for the audience. The whole sequence in the cab is wonderful, relaying exposition, situating us in the universe, and playing out its own small dramas. Similar conversations in cars and vehicles recur in Kiarostami films again and again.

Kiarostami's films have gotten more polished and more sophisticated in recent years, and his last two films were made in France and Japan respectively, with actors from those countries. Fortunately, he's largely managed to retain the spontaneity and structural looseness of his earlier work. However, he's never happened upon quite so serendipitous a series of events as the ones depicted in "Close-Up," that have allowed him to create such a fascinating conundrum of a film, about the nature of filmmaking itself.

What I've Seen - Abbas Kiarostami

Where Is the Friend's Home? (1987)
Homework (1989)
Close-Up (1990)
Life, and Nothing More... (1991)
Through the Olive Trees (1994)
Taste of Cherry (1997)
The Wind Will Carry Us (1999)
Ten (2002)
Certified Copy (2010)
Like Someone in Love (2012)

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