I’ve heard people like director Jean-Pierre Gorin say that there is little to no distinction between documentary and fiction. At first, it strikes us as a curiously false statement. But after giving it a moment of thought it actually makes sense, because no matter the intention behind it, the medium of film is always subjective. It’s always a created reality that’s inherently false and even in its attempts at realism — that realism is still constructed.
So you see, this is the start of an interesting idea. Film is about what you decide to put within the frame and what you keep out. Directors, cinematographers, screenwriters, and editors among others all play a part in this process. They all formulate what we see on the screen — the reality that we perceive.
It occurs to me that Abbas Kiarostami’s film Close-Up stands at the crossroads of the documentary and classical fiction filmmaking with the two lineages blurring together like very few undertakings have ever been able to do, at least to my knowledge.
The story feels simple. It follows the real-life trial of a man who impersonated popular Iranian film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf in order to gain the confidence of a family of film enthusiasts. He wanted to make a movie and they were to be his actors. Abbas obviously took interest in the story that he read of in a magazine because of its relation to film. Here was a seemingly ordinary man who loved movies so much, that he was willing to masquerade as a film director. The irony is that this cinephile Hossain Sabzian also became an actor in the process, donning this role for the family. The family who accused him consider him a confidence man, even a burglar but that’s not how he sees himself. In fact, in a way, this film reminds us that we’re all actors. It all depends on your definition and the circumstances at hand. In some way, shape or form at a given point in time, we’re playing someone who is supposed to be us.
The beauty of Close-Up that not only does it feature the real individuals involved in this whole ordeal: There’s Sabzian playing himself, the Ahankhah family who brought the case to court, and Kiarostami appearing as well. But it blends the actual footage from the trial with reenacted scenes set up by the director as if they are happening for the first time.
One of the few things to tip us off that some of these moments are reenactments is that we see the same sequence twice, just from different perspectives. Thus, the whole docudrama becomes this blend of reality and falsity. Documentary paired with purposeful re-creation, utilizing a kind of cinema verite filmmaking. I almost don’t want to know what is real and what is fake and in some respects, I don’t care. And that’s what’s fascinating about Close-Up. The story is not altogether extraordinary but, again it’s this dichotomy between reality and fiction. The dividing line proves to be paper thin.
Since much of the film is made of a close-up on Sabzian’s face, it does bring up some questions about the defining factors of identity. Is this man in front of us really what he says he is? Is how he is acting genuine and real. Is it all a facade? Was this whole sequence contrived by a director for the benefit of the viewer? You could go on and on with such assertions and with such questions I think you start getting at the profound aspects of Kiarostami’s film and film as an artistic, expressive construction.
If you’re ready to actually consider what you are being fed, what you are viewing and how you can react to it, this is a film worth your time. I have never known a film to be more engrossed in the dilemma of reality versus fiction. It took me long enough to see a film by this late great of Iranian film, but now that I have been opened up to his oeuvre, I look forward to more on my horizon from Abbas Kiarostami.