Close-up: Prison and Escape

In the autumn of 1989, the Iranian magazine Sorush printed a story about an unusual crime: a poor man had been arrested for impersonating a celebrated film director, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, to a middle-class family in northern Tehran. Although the accused, Hossein Sabzian, had accepted some money from the Ahankhah family, the main motivation for his ruse did not appear to be financial. Rather, he and the Ahankhahs shared a love of cinema, and after an initial impulsive lie about his identity during a chance encounter, Sabzian seemed to have become fixated on the success of his continuing deception, during which he promised the family members parts in “his” next film and rehearsed them for their roles. It was only when their Makhmalbaf appeared unaware that he had won an award at an Italian film festival, an event reported in Iran’s news media, that the Ahankhahs’ suspicions crystallized and they alerted the authorities. Sorush’s reporter, Hassan Farazmand, witnessed the arrest, and at the police station conducted a lengthy interview with Sabzian that figured prominently in the published account of the strange case of the Makhmalbaf impersonator.

Upon learning about the case, Abbas Kiarostami has said, he quickly initiated efforts to make a film about it, even while events were still in motion and the impostor’s fate had yet to be decided. Setting aside preparations for another film, the director enlisted the participation of several of the principals, including the Ahankhahs and the real Mohsen Makhmalbaf. He also approached Sabzian and the court’s cleric judge, and gained permission to film the trial, during which, as it turned out, Kiarostami and his cameras were not neutral observers but active participants. In addition to filming Sabzian’s subsequent release from prison—after the complaint was dropped—and his emotional meeting with the man he had impersonated, Kiarostami shot earlier parts of the story by persuading Sabzian, the Ahankhahs, Farazmand, and others to play themselves in reenactments of events that had already transpired.

Close-up is thus neither a documentary nor a drama but a provocative, unconventional merging of the two, a meditation on perplexities of justice, social inequity, and personal identity that also subtly interrogates the processes and purposes of cinema. The film met with a mixed, generally unappreciative reaction when it was first shown in Iran in 1990. Abroad, however, it proved singularly successful. Although displayed at second- and third-tier festivals in the West, Close-up made such an impression among critics and cinephiles that it paved the way for Kiarostami’s elevation to Cannes, New York, and other top festivals with his next film, And Life Goes On (1992). Arguably, no film was more dramatic or decisive in heralding the international artistic arrival of postrevolutionary Iranian cinema. At the end of the 1990s, Kiarostami was voted the most important director of the decade by U.S. critics in Film Comment, while dozens of international and Iranian film experts surveyed by the Iranian magazine Film International named Close-up the best Iranian film ever made.

That last superlative seems destined to endure, given Close-up’s status as the film that redefined Iranian cinema, shifting it from the lyrically compassionate, often child-centered work that began emerging after the government-sponsored revival of the country’s cinema in 1983—including Amir Naderi’s The Runner, Bahram Beyzai’s Bashu, the Little Stranger, and Kiarostami’s own Where Is the Friend’s House?—to something much more complex. Close-up seemed to combine the social concern of Italian neorealism, to which the new Iranian films were often compared, with the French New Wave’s cerebral self-expression and formal idiosyncrasy, and to project the whole into the vitalizing context of a postrevolutionary Islamic culture. The film’s key innovations—the unorthodox mix of documentary and fiction, the self-reflexive musing on cinema and its impact, the simultaneous exaltation and questioning of the auteur—may have had certain precedents in both world cinema and Iranian culture, but Close-up fused them in a wholly new and original way.

The film was startling to Western viewers in the early 1990s on several fronts. To begin with, its formal sophistication and philosophical complexity were unexpected, coming from an authoritarian theocracy, and indeed seemed even more inventive than what was issuing from Europe and the United States at the time. The film also offered a picture of the Islamic republic far more shaded and intriguing than the clenched fists and burning effigies featured on Western TV news—this was an Iran where comfortable householders and a poor man shared a devout love of cinema, and where a turbaned Islamic judge could use that love to effect a compassionate reconciliation between bitterly opposed legal antagonists. And Close-up announced a filmmaker with a witty, ingenious, and unusually challenging formal approach.

From the outset, the film baffles expectations as it slyly subverts standard film language. The opening scene shows Farazmand and two soldiers getting into a taxi. During their subsequent trip to the Ahankhah house, the reporter describes to the driver the strange case of the Makhmalbaf impersonator and his excitement at covering it. As happens in many Kiarostami films that involve car rides, the taxi driver repeatedly stops to ask directions, evoking a sense of disorientation that mirrors our own. Then, when the destination is reached, something decidedly odd happens—not only in what the film shows but also in the way it shows it. When Farazmand and then the soldiers go into the house for the arrest of the impostor, the camera doesn’t follow them. Rather, it stays with the driver, who turns his taxi around, gets out, looks up at a jet’s twin exhaust trails bisecting the sky, and picks a little bouquet of flowers out of a rubbish heap. As he does, he dislodges an aerosol can that rolls slowly down the street, observed by Kiarostami’s camera for what seems like an extraordinary length of time.

In withholding the important event we expect to see and focusing instead on an unimportant character involved in idle, inconsequential actions, this scene—often cited as one of the most striking in Kiarostami’s work—recalls the director’s stated intent to craft “half-made” films that must be completed by the audience’s imagination. Here, a standard journalistic narrative is displaced by techniques that might best be called poetic. The unseen arrest and the random flower bouquet set up rhymes that will be closed in the film’s final sections. The rolling aerosol can (which is set back in motion by Farazmand, stranded after the taxi leaves), meanwhile, gives us a multivalent symbol as opaque as it is whimsical. At every turn, Kiarostami engages us with questions concerning not only the events we witness but also the film containing them.

Those latter, metafilmic questions are particularly important because Close-up is endlessly deceptive. Contrary to what most first-time viewers assume, none of its scenes are strictly documentary. Not just the reenactments but all the other scenes, too, are at least partly scripted or otherwise contrived by Kiarostami. In effect, the film is not one in which documentary is blended with fiction but one in which an intricate fiction is composed of real-life materials. Some
of the most important of those materials concern the two filmmakers at the film’s center.

When Close-up was made, Kiarostami was forty-nine. An artist who’d grown up in a middle-class family, he had enjoyed a successful career before and after the Iranian Revolution. His opposite number in almost every respect, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, then thirty-two, was a product of poor south Tehran who’d participated in an anti-shah terrorist action and been imprisoned and tortured for years, until being released by the revolution. As a filmmaker in the 1980s, he started out as a radical Islamist and publicly denounced prerevolutionary directors like Kiarostami. But as the decade progressed and his doubts about the revolution’s fate—expressed in such films as The Cyclist—made him a hero to legions of lower-class Iranians, like Hossein Sabzian, he left behind Islamism for humanism, and sought to make amends with some of the filmmakers he had disparaged. One such bridge-building effort took him to Kiarostami’s office the week that Sorush’s Sabzian article appeared.

When I interviewed them separately in Iran in 1997, the two filmmakers gave me different accounts of Close-up’s origin. Makhmalbaf said he’d brought the magazine to the office and that he’d had the idea of making the film himself, but that Kiarostami said he shouldn’t direct it, because he was a character in the story. For his part, Kiarostami recalled that the magazine was already in the office and that he started talking about his idea for making a film about the case only because Makhmalbaf made him nervous. In any event, the two men then borrowed a car and visited the Ahankhahs. The directors and the family stayed up late drinking tea and talking. To paraphrase Makhmalbaf’s conclusion, by evening’s end, Kiarostami had bam­boozled everyone into participating in the film, with himself as director.

Bamboozlement, to be sure, is crucial to Close-up in various senses. The story, after all, began with Sabzian bamboozling Mrs. Ahankhah on a bus, when he told her that he was the author of the screenplay he was reading, The Cyclist; it continued while he posed as Makhmalbaf with her family. Then Farazmand bamboozled his way into an outlandish criminal case and ended up with a front-page scoop. Kiarostami subsequently bamboozled all of the participants into performing in his film. But the ultimate source of bamboozlement here, clearly, is cinema itself. Its power to bewitch is evident every time Kiarostami turns on his camera. The Ahankhahs, the reporter, the soldiers, and the rest—all seem swept up by the medium’s peculiar magic. That power, no doubt, was especially pronounced at that particular moment in the Islamic republic, when many of the great dreams inspired by the revolution had dwindled, and when other public art forms had been suppressed while cinema was revived and privileged, with some directors emerging as cultural luminaries.

If one of Kiarostami’s aims was to show cinema’s strange sway at that historical juncture in Iran, surely the most potent proof offered by Close-up comes in the various bamboozlements that surround the trial of Sabzian. First, Kiarostami convinces the amiable mullah judge to schedule the hearing according to his filmmaking timetable, and to stage it as, in effect, a full-blown movie trial. Next, he gets permission to take part in the proceedings, positioning himself beside Sabzian (we never see Kiarostami but frequently hear his voice) and joining the judge in putting questions to the defendant. And if this arrangement were not odd enough, Kiarostami brings two cameras into the courtroom and tells Sabzian that the one with the wide-angle lens will film the legal proceedings, while the close-up camera will remain on him, recording his performance. (Whether for economic or aesthetic reasons, the courtroom scenes are shot in 16 mm and the rest of the film in 35 mm.) The two-camera scheme seems designed to mirror Sabzian’s own view of his plight, as “the law” versus “art”: he is accused by the law and admits that he violated its letter, but he avers that his reasons had to do with art and deserve to be taken into account. It should be noted that Kiarostami scripted most of Sabzian’s speeches at trial, though he based them on things Sabzian had actually said.

The circumstances here, then, could not be more artificial. Yet due in part to that, it offers a perfect frame for what Kiarostami has said compelled him to make the film: the personality of Sabzian. Accused and bitterly watched by the Ahankhah party, who claim they feared they were being set up for a robbery but mainly seem to suffer from the indignity of having been fooled, the thin, bearded cinephile compares himself to the hapless hero of Kiarostami’s first feature, The Traveler. With the grave demeanor of a martyr, he explains his deception in terms of hardship, control, and poverty: “Before, no one would have ever obeyed me like that, because I am just a poor man. But because I pretended to be this famous person, they would do whatever I said.” Still, he continues, “whenever I’d leave their house, I’d be back to my old self, even that night when I took the money. I’d realize I was the same old Sabzian . . . So I’d go to sleep, and when I’d wake up and think about going there to play a role for them, even if it was really hard for me, I still wanted to go back.”

Though his deception had ended up imprisoning Sabzian both literally and figuratively, cinema and its heroes still offered him a regular means of escape. “Whenever I feel depressed and overwhelmed,” he says, “I feel the urge to shout to the world the anguish of my soul, the torments I’ve experienced, all my sorrows—but no one wants to hear about them. Then a good man comes along who portrays all my suffering in his films, and I can go see them over and over again. They show the evil faces of those who trade on others, the rich who pay no attention to the simple material needs of the poor.”

Surely cinema contains few statements of its own powers of psychological and social beneficence as affecting as this tortured man’s testimony. And Sabzian’s appeal to “art” is duly rewarded. The judge, a calm and generous presence throughout, asks the Ahankhahs to forgive their transgressor, and they grudgingly agree. Soon after, Sabzian emerges from prison and is met by Makhmalbaf. After he collapses in tears in his hero’s arms, the two board Makhmalbaf’s motorcycle and head off across Tehran. Though problems with Makhmalbaf’s mic prevent us from hearing most of what they say—the annoying sound glitches eventually give way to the lovely theme from The Traveler—Sabzian’s joy at embracing his idol is transparent. The two stop to buy flowers (closing the visual rhyme opened in the first scene) and then arrive at the Ahankhahs’ house, where the film ends with a breathtakingly beautiful epiphany.

Each viewer will have to decide whether this ending is compromised by its wholesale contrivance. In reality, Kiarostami coaxed the judge into his verdict. The Ahankhahs were outraged; they wanted Sabzian to be convicted. Even Sabzian went to the judge later and complained, saying he felt sure Kiarostami had somehow tricked him! As for the moving departure from prison, it was staged, and Kiarostami shot from a distance purely for dramatic (or docudramatic) effect. And those “sound problems”? Most were created during postproduction to serve the final scene’s emotional punch.

The years following Close-up brought increased renown to both Kiarostami, whose Taste of Cherry (1997) became the first Iranian film to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and Makhmalbaf, who made the acclaimed A Moment of Innocence and Gabbeh (both 1996), and who, by 2009, was a Paris-based advocate of Iran’s Green Movement. Internationally, the Iranian cinema’s ascent climaxed with a number of prominent festival victories in the period from 1995 to 2000. During the past decade in Iran, however, while vigorous, innovative filmmaking has continued—in the work of Jafar Panahi, Majid Majidi, Bahman Ghobadi, and Samira Makhmalbaf, Mohsen’s daughter—cinema’s centrality seems to have been diminished by the rise of the Internet and other new media. Kiarostami himself continues to work, although his latest project, Certified Copy, was his first feature made outside of Iran, in Italy. Time was not kind to Sabzian, who died after a heart attack in 2006, age fifty-two.

After seeing “Close-up” Long Shot—the 1996 documentary about Sabzian—Kiarostami told me, he had trouble sleeping for three days. No doubt the film is disturbing: its portrait of Sabzian, described by one acquaintance as a “mythomaniac,” shows us an eloquent autodidact who is nonetheless deeply troubled, more a prisoner of cinema than an emblem of its salvific power. Yet it is the self-aware, suffering Sabzian of Close-up who touched the world’s imagination and survives as an icon of the Iranian cinema’s humanistic ideals, its faith in the dreams that offer avenues out of the world’s worst oppressions.

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