the sight & sound top 50 challenge: close-up (1990)

This year I am attempting to see more films that I ever have in a year, and whilst I can easily increase the number of new releases I see by attending the cinema on a more regular basis I also want to expand upon the number of classics in my repertoire. These ‘great’ films are the ones that many would claim are essential to expanding my cinematic vocabulary and are pieces of cinema history that have greatly impacted the discourses that come about in my classes and in my everyday film-related conversations.

With this goal in mind I am embarking on what I call ‘The Sight & Sound Top 50 Challenge’. This entails watching one film each week from the most recent Sight & Sound Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time poll, beginning with number 50 and working all the way to number 1. Each week I will publish a brief response to the film where I document my reaction, reading and understanding of the film, particularly as a piece of work holding a “greatest film of all time” title. 

This week's film, Iranian picture Close-Up is tied at #42 along with 5 other features.

#42 Close-Up (1990) dir. Abbas Kiarostami

Cellulouid Dreams

Cellulouid Dreams

Directors regularly blur the line between documentary and fiction. Sometimes this is through the inclusion of dramatic recreations to illustrate the facts at hand, or even with the embellishment of these facts in order to better underscore a perspective. Abbas Kiarostami takes this blurring to a new level in his 1990 picture Close-Up, fracturing traditional understandings of realism in both the documentary and fictional cinematic worlds to produce a film labelled with the unusual moniker of “docufiction.” The film centres upon cinephile and accused fraud Hossein Sabzian, who has been taking money from the well-to-do Ahankhah family whilst impersonating the Iranian film auteur Mohsen Makhmalbaf; proposing that the family star in his next feature. Recognising his ruse, and fearing he is about to rob them, the family have him arrested. Close-Up is not only based on a true story, but each personality depicted on screen is portrayed by the real life individual.

The “docufiction” film is the cinematographic combination of documentary and fiction which attempts to capture reality such as it is, reminiscent of many cinema verite works. These artistic stylings pervade Kiarostami’s film, making the raw aesthetic one of its greatest strengths. Kiarostami effortlessly immerses audiences into the story by juxtaposing two running narratives. The first, a two camera set-up, recording the real trial which carries a fly-on-the-wall tone; whilst the second is made up of more cinematically inclined and artfully-crafted recreations of the past events leading to the trial. The two forms of filmmaking work in collaboration to create a narrative that repeatedly asks audiences to decipher where realism exists in cinema, and where cinema can be found in reality. This blurring is underscored by the film’s final sequence in which Kiarostami and his crew follow the real Makhmalbaf as he meets Sabizan and takes him to meet the Ahankhah family. Unedited sound malfunctions caused by the old equipment being worn by Makhmalbaf to record the events, along with the commentary of Kiarostami and his crew as they observe Makhmalbaf and Sabzian, would indicate this was a ‘real life’ interaction. Despite this, the scene emphasises the fracturing of associations between realism and fiction as audiences are left unable to decipher whether Kiarostami has orchestrated the scene in order to add further levels of depth to his picture. This confusing possibility further propels audiences into Makhmalbaf’s contention. He asserts that, in the pursuit of realism, cinema and real life are often not in competition, but rather working succinctly, - mimicking each other – in the establishment of individual and societal identities.

Celluloid Dreams

Celluloid Dreams

Before the trial even begins, Kiarostami speaks to Sabzian and tells him when he wants to tell his story, he should look directly to one of the cameras so to “explain what people might find hard to understand or accept.” This means he speaks directly to the audience, as if he and they were talking one-on-one, directly resulting in a bold attempt to align their point-of-views. This is done to similar effect in Bart Layton’s, The Imposter. The 2012 feature relays the true story of Frederic Bourdin, a French con artist who seemingly tricked a Texan family into believing he was a missing 16-year-old relative. Just as Kiarostami tells his protagonist that the camera – with it’s close-up lens – provides him with a direct outlet to tell his story, Layton too puts Bourdin front and centre in the telling of the case. Talking directly into the camera, Bourdin works his con again, coercing audiences with ease to align their understanding of the story with his, despite being repeatedly reminded by others involved in the film that this man is a compulsive liar. In a similar manner, through the setting of the criminal trial, audiences are reminded again and again that Sabzian has committed a crime, and he should not be trusted.

Sabzian becomes one of the most fascinating characters in both documentary and fiction but particularly comes to life in Kiarostami’s hybrid, where audiences can be enthralled by the muddled distinction between Sabzian’s affinity for make-believe and his ‘real story’ as told by him in the trial. As the trial progresses it becomes clear to those in the courthouse and audience, that Sabzian had no plans to steal from his new friends. He is merely a dreamer who worships the art of cinema and enjoyed the validation that his ruse provided. This however does not stop audiences from agreeing with Merhdad, one of the Ahankhah’s sons, who believes that even from his seat in the trial Sabzian is just playing another role. This is supported by the revelations that this is not the first time he has impersonated Makhmalbaf, and further amplified when paired with the earlier recreation of Sabzian’s first encounter with a member of the Ahankhah family, which could insinuate that the conman regularly roams around on public transport with a copy of The Cyclist, hoping to prey on others whom may be fooled by his charade.

Celluloid Dreams

Celluloid Dreams

Part of Close-Up’s genius lies in its suggestions that there is no legal or moral justification for Sabzian’s actions and that his defence is impossible to fathom unless the spectator can share the man’s passion for art as cultural and intellectual emancipator. Ultimately, it is a film for cinephiles. If you too share Sabzian’s infatuation with cinema and its transformative abilities, you can almost understand his madness. It explores aspects of fanaticism and enters into discourse about film-versus-life, and proposes that one does not simply shadow the other, but rather they are like two mirrors facing one another, destined to parallel whatever enters their line of sight.