A close-up side view of a middle-aged Iranian man's face. He has a short beard and is looking downwards and smiling. He has is holding a small rose plant.
A close-up side view of a middle-aged Iranian man's face. He has a short beard and is looking downwards and smiling. He has is holding a small rose plant.
Close-Up (1990) Celluloid Dreams
Stories & Ideas

Wed 18 May 2022

Close-Up: Kiarostami’s vision of shared humanity

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Nick Bugeja
Nick Bugeja

Writer & Editor

Abbas Kiarostami saw something in Hossein Sabzian that most people missed.

On a fateful bus ride in Tehran, Hossein Sabzian sensed an opportunity to take leave of his malaise, if only for a moment. A fellow passenger, Mahrokh Ahankhah, notices a script he’s reading: The Cyclist (1987) by Mohsen Makhmalbaf. “Please take it. I wrote it,” Sabzian insists, spontaneously assuming the identity of Makhmalbaf, one of his cinematic idols. He even autographs the book for Mahrokh. She has reservations, wondering why a filmmaker of Makhmalbaf’s stature would be taking public transport. Sabzian has a cunning, if not entirely untrue, response: “I often take the bus to look for interesting ideas for films.”

Before long, Sabzian, still playing the role of Makhmalbaf, is invited to the Ahankhah household. He inspects each of the rooms and enlists Mahrokh’s sons, Mehrdad and Monoochehr, to rehearse scenes under the pretence that he is preparing for a new film (all of this transpires offscreen).

Sabzian, the sympathetic, real-life subject of Abbas Kiarostami’s 1990 film Close-Up, didn’t leave much of an impression on some of Tehran’s functionaries when he was finally taken into custody for fraud. Captain Bashiri, whose unit arrested Sabzian, told Kiarostami he couldn’t recollect the details of the incident. “It’s been a few weeks. As you can see, we are very busy here,” he avers. A court clerk utters similar platitudes to justify his absent-mindedness: “We have stacks of files here. I can’t remember all the names involved.” The judge presiding over Sabzian’s case, Haj Ali Reza Ahmadi, is bewildered by Kiarostami’s interest in it, remarking: “I took a look at this case, and I don’t see anything worth filming.” For Judge Ahmadi, it’s merely “a case of petty fraud”, hardly worth Kiarostami’s time and attention.

Kiarostami was deeply affected by the news of Sabzian’s deception, which he came across in the Iranian magazine Sorush in 1989. One of Sabzian’s quotes in particular struck him: “I’m like a piece of meat in the butcher shop.” With little time to spare – and as the case continued to evolve – Kiarostami set aside his other projects and launched himself into a tight filming schedule for Close Up; a testament to the auteur's eagerness to tell Sabzian’s story.

“What drove me to move forward with this story was my curiosity about Sabzian’s personality,” Kiarostami said in a 2009 interview on the production of Close-Up. Possessing the rare sensibilities of a true artist, Kiarostami detected what the bureaucrats wouldn’t or couldn’t: Sabzian’s captivating self; his quiet, understated charisma and his jadedness with the world. And beneath all of that, a story of economic deprivation, unfulfilled dreams, and suffering and loss.

A middle-aged Iranian man sits in a chair overlooking a sparse landscape at dusk. He is looking back at the camera with a slight smile on his face.

Hossein Sabzian as photographed for Close-Up Long Shot (1996)

Ever the innovator, Kiarostami found ways to tell Sabzian’s story, pivotal moments of which were condemned to an irretrievable past. He took the extraordinary step – though not unprecedented; Robert Flaherty’s seminal ‘documentary’ Nanook of the North (1922) used staged sequences 100 years ago – of filming re-enactments with his subjects, Sabzian and the Ahankhah family.

The re-enactments – of Sabzian and Mrs Ahankhah’s encounter on the bus, of the discovery of Sabzian’s unusual deception – are seamlessly woven into the fabric of the film, alongside the real-time court hearing. They also have a powerful symbolic dimension. The very act of re-enactment in this film denotes reconciliation; the gaping chasms of ill-feeling and distrust between the Ahankhahs and Sabzian were eventually bridged, as affirmed by Close-Up’s indelible finale.

These scenes negotiate several minefields, of staging, the fallibility of memory, and power dynamics. While illuminating, these are at best a projection or approximation of the truth. Even the scenes occurring in real-time are inseparable from Kiarostami’s frame of reference, a fact gestured at by the self-reflexive decision to include a clapperboard at the beginning of the first courtroom sequence. Moreover, Kiarostami plays an active role in the trial, his filming and verbal interactions with Sabzian incongruous to the longstanding rules of courtroom conduct and decorum.

Film critic Godfrey Cheshire, writing for Criterion Current, claims that “Kiarostami scripted most of Sabzian’s speeches at trial though he based them on things Sabzian had actually said”. And Kiarostami has admitted to editing out dialogue in the film’s final scene, which would have otherwise compromised its impact. Thus, Kiarostami accommodates and platforms the perspectives of the characters, with a little dose of authorial input, leading some to characterise Close Up as ‘docufiction’ or ‘docudrama’.

While the court may enjoy legal jurisdiction over Sabzian, Kiarostami seems to posit that it is the province of the arts, the cinema, to portray the complexity of human life and the deepest truths about ourselves. Cinema cannot claim to offer unmediated, objective truth (as Close-Up demonstrates). Yet it certainly provides an impassioned, moving form of it. Kiarostami was a superb exponent of that vital approach to filmmaking.

Close Up’s key triumph – vivified through the techniques of re-enactment, direct address and shifting perspectives – is its capacity to elevate the humanity of its characters. Throughout his filmmaking career, in films like Where is the Friend’s House (1987), Taste of Cherry (1997) and The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), Kiarostami was never afraid to pull the handbrake on his film’s central narrative to explore the interior lives of his characters, or focus in on moments of human connection; the same ethos applies to Close-Up. Kiarostami allows himself ample space to foreground the aspirations, grievances and perspectives of Sabzian and the Ahankhahs. Sabzian’s portrayal is especially revelatory.

Before the hearing commences, Kiarostami seizes the chance to communicate with Sabzian through the camera, stating, “we have two cameras… one will stay on you." He elaborates: “this camera is here so you can explain things that people might find hard to understand or accept.” Sabzian nods earnestly in response, heartened by Kiarostami’s interest. It’s likely one of few times in his life that, as a member of Iran’s underclass, Sabzian has felt seen or significant.

Sabzian is given the agency – so long denied to him – to speak on his own behalf, mostly. The unobtrusive, compelling close-up shots that linger on Sabzian’s face in the courtroom provide a window into his past and present. His sad yet piercing eyes, often focused downward, speak to his contrition, suffering and marked pensiveness. “Before, nobody would have obeyed me like that because I am just a poor man,” he softly intones. Later, in a moment of self-reflection, Sabzian concedes his performance was hardly a remedy for his personal crises: “whenever I’d leave their house… I’d realise I’m the same old Sabzian.” It was just that – a performance.

A close-up shot of the back of the heads of two Iranian men. They are both wearing blue jackets and sitting on a motorcycle. The man in the back is holding a pot plant with bright red flowers, and the face of the man in front is in side profile. He is wearing glasses.

Mohsen Makhmalbaf (left) and Hossein Sabzian (right) in Close-Up (1990), image courtesy Celluloid Dreams

Kiarostami avoids positioning the Ahankhahs as one-dimensional adversaries to Sabzian; Close-Up seeks to understand Sabzian’s motives, while conveying the legitimate misgivings the Ahankhah family initially harbour. “He passed himself off as Mr Makhmalbaf, the filmmaker, to get close to our family”, Mehrad, the Ahankhah’s eldest son, informs Judge Ahmadi. To Merhad, there is something prima facie unsettling about the con that Sabzian perpetrated against his family, registering as a kind of betrayal, given Mehrad’s own passion for film and the arts. But the Ahankhahs do one of the most human things possible; they change their minds as Sabzian's sympathetic intentions and socioeconomic plight take centre stage.

At a broader level, Close-Up is a plea for us to constantly humanise each other. There’s a sense that this resonant work isn’t quarantined within the walls of a one-off artistic experience. It’s a living, breathing lesson on how to live our lives; with empathy and patience, especially toward those victimised by disadvantage and bad luck in this world.

– Nick Bugeja

Close-Up is screening at ACMI as part of our Abbas Kiarostami season

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