Monday, September 04, 2006


CLOSE-UP (NEMA-YE NAZKID, 1990, Iran, Abbas Kiarostami)
Every time I feel sad in prison I think of the verse in the Koran which says, "To remember God is the best consolation for a troubled heart."

In Iran, it seems, you can be sent to jail for impersonating a film-maker. Whether this indicates a higher regard for film-makers or a lower regard for personal freedom, it's hard to say. But it provides the premise of a unique film that is by turns disorienting, revelatory, absurdly amusing and surprisingly moving.

The film has the look and feel of a straight-forward documentary, but we soon begin to wonder what is "real" and what is not. As one character later observes, "appearances can be deceiving." We begin with the meandering conversation of a taxi driver (who doesn't know his way around the city, and turns out "actually" to be a fighter pilot), and his passenger, who claims to be Mr Farazmand, a reporter, but who I quickly recognized as a fraud – the fellow journalists he refers to sound suspiciously like movie directors, and his approach to reporting seems hopelessly amateur and improvised. It seems that the film-maker is impersonating a reporter, and that what we are seeing is not a "real" situation, but a performance for the cameras which clearly must be mounted on the hood of the taxi.

In the back seat, though, are two other men, and eventually the driver reveals the truth that must have been obvious all along to anyone who has lived in a police state: they are soldiers or paramilitary, and Mr Farazmand their commanding officer, on the way to make an arrest. And though he denies this, once they reach their destination he is the one who organizes the arrest. Which is particularly odd since, as it turns out, he is in fact a journalist – though why he has to pay the taxi to take the prisoner to jail, or why he must beg door-to-door for a tape recorder to record his story, is never explained.

Then the credits inform us that Mr Farazmand, as well as many of the other key characters in the story, are being played in the film by their real-life counterparts. Frarazmand is neither a film-maker nor a cop impersonating a journalist: he is actually a journalist, playing himself, however badly. Mr Sabzian, who is arrested for posing as a film-maker, is played by Mr Sabzian, and Makhmalbaf, the film-maker he is impersonating, will eventually appear, played by Mr Makhmalbaf – bearing a great resemblance to Mr Sabzian. The Ahankhah family will play themselves, enacting the scenes in which they meet and are befriended by Sabzian, and eventually turn him over to the police. (Actually, to the journalist, but he's acting like a policeman....)

The remainder of the film focuses on the enigmatic Mr Sabzian. His real crime was in accepting 1900 tomans from the Ahankhah family for taxi fare, which they readily gave him when they believed he was a world-famous film director preparing to make a quasi-documentary film about their life in which they would play themselves. When they realized that he was actually nothing but an unemployed film buff, they were not so happy to have given him their money – an event which, ironically, leads to them portraying themselves in a quasi-documentary film about their lives.

The director of the film – the real film, the one we are watching – is Abbas Kiarostami, an acquaintance of the impersonated film-maker, who became intrigued with the story after reading the wonderfully bizarre newspaper headline, "Bogus Makhalbat Arrested." In "real" footage, we see the Kiarostami obtain permission to interview Sabzian in prison, and in the ensuing interview arrange to to film the trial itself. By this point we have our feet under us, and recognize the narrative pattern as it shifts from the "real" action of the trial to a series of flashbacks portraying events leading up to the arrest which opened the film.

No sooner do we have the shifiting realities of the film itself figured out than we become engaged with the much deeper and more significant conundrums of the events and characters, the very real tension between appearance and reality, between what is performance for the camera or the judge and what is heartfelt and authentic. The accusers make claims, the accused makes claims, and we – like the judge – struggle to sift fact from invention, to distinguish truth from pretence.

Sabzian claims to be "quite religious" – but what else would he say? He is, after all, appearing in an Iranian court before a judge who is actually a Muslim cleric. (Again our expectations are reversed: as much as the haphazard pre-trial proceedings and disregard for the rights of the accused confirm our preconceptions about Muslim law in hard-line Iran, the trial itself puts western justice to shame with its humanity, civility and emphasis on mercy and reconciliation). Sabzian also claims to be remorseful for what he has done – yet he clearly takes delight in recounting the details of his charade, and the Ahankhah family questions whether his repentance isn't as much an act as everything that went before.

This is a film about art-making, and the way in which stories inspire us and give us hope in times of suffering. It is about celebrity and anonymity, about power, the rift between rich and poor, and the improbable acts we'll commit out of desperation. It's about distinguishing truth from illusion, living from acting, law from morality, justice from vengeance.

The greatest paradox, the greatest mystery, is Hossain Sabzian himself. This film gives us the rare privilege of observing, close-up, a man who may be an artist denied the chance to live out his calling, or who may be deluded and emotionally troubled, or who may be simply an opportunistic con man with remarkable improvisatory gifts. Viewing this film, I was reminded of the humble sense of awe I experience watching Michael Apted's equally memorable 28 UP, or any of its 7-year sequels: I marvel at what an extraordinary gift we are given, to be able to look closely at the inscrutable mystery of a single human soul.

But what is most powerful about this film is the way in which it stands as quite testimony to a rather remarkable act of grace. Whatever else we may conclude about this man and the people in his story, there can be no denying the unstated but undeniable redemption embodied in a film where accusers and accused end up co-operating in making a film about the painful, even shameful experiences they've shared – and in so doing, find themselves living out the very things they've yearned for all along. CLOSE-UP is a film about the elusive possibility of true reconciliation, the hope that we too might someday find ourselves in the place "where justice and peace shall kiss."


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