Close-Up (Nema-ye Nazdik)

Iran (1990) Dir. Abbas Kiarostami

Q: When is a documentary film not a documentary film?

A: When it’s an Abbas Kiarostami film about a true story that can only be filmed in the most meta way possible.

Close-Up really is a remarkable film because it is a truly subversive work without deliberately trying to be subversive, but the circumstances behind its making demand it be this way without losing any of its power. Everything about the story is based in reality but Kiarostami blurs the line between documentary and staged drama to tell it with a twist for the ages.

The plot could have been invented and would have made a great drama or black comedy but the fact it actually happened corroborates the aphorism about truth being stranger than fiction. Basically, a film fan by the name of Hossain Sabzian was on a bus reading the published script for the film The Cyclist by his favourite director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. The woman sitting next to him, Mahrokh Ahankhah also a fan, asked about the book and, for some reason, Sabzian claimed he was Makhmalbaf.

Mahrokh can’t be a big Makhmalbaf fan if she didn’t know what he looked like as she accepted Sabzian’s claim and invited him back to her home to meet her family, who are also big fans. Sabzian tells the Ahankhah clan their house would be perfect for his next film with them as the cast, inveigling his way into their lives for free feeds, cash loans, and other benefits of their hospitality.

Eventually the penny drops when Ahankhah patriarch Abolfarzi suspects the famous director in his home might not be on the level when a friend shows him a picture of the real Makhmalbaf in a magazine and he looks nothing like Sabzian. Abolfarzi calls the police and invites a journalist friend Hossain Farazmand to record the arrest, which takes place at the very start of the film.

Had this been scripted, the plot hole of someone not knowing what one of their favourite filmmakers looks like, especially if he is as prominent in Iran as Makhmalbaf is supposed to be, would cause headaches for eternity. Yet, the Ahankhah genuinely were not able to recognise Makhmalbaf form which we could infer maybe filmmakers are able to move about anonymously in Iran.

If this is the case, it was a huge gamble on Sabzian’s part to make such a daring claim and expect it to go unchallenged for so long. But as we meet Sabzian, he doesn’t appear to be a callus and calculating chancer looking to separate poor unsuspecting fools from their money and their dignity, so why did he do it?

Kiarostami was afforded the chance to film the trial – in fact, he was able to get it moved forward to fit his filming schedules – and it is presented here for all to see, as uncut as possible but definitely the genuine article, evident by the grainy film stock and unwieldy natural lighting compared to the rest of the film. It’s not a glossy high court scenario like over here – simply a small room, where everyone sits together, plaintiffs, the accused, and the gallery on one side and the judge on the other.

Sabzian’s explanation is not what one would expect and for many it may not make much sense but it does give Kiarostami more than he bargained for, allowing him to present a film that explores the idea of identity, adulation and the power it brings. If Kiarostami knew this beforehand he must also have known the lottery numbers too, but I’m sure this was more a case of serendipity.

But being a canny filmmaker, Kiarostami knows he has to spin the full yarn to keep the audience invested, so in between the reality footage, dramatised scenes of Sabzian’s deceit are shown to explain how it went down, namely the meeting on the bus and the fateful arrest. But here is the twist – the real people played themselves in these scenes! Sabzian, the Ahankhah family, Farazmand and others, all recreated this wacky story but this time as actors.

For Sabzian though, this was living the dream, as he reveals during the trial and it is clear he wasn’t acting out of malice or with any determined plan to steal from the Ahankhah’s, though Abolfarzi did wonder if that was Sabzian’s goal. This is strenuously denied and we believe Sabzian, especially once his backstory comes to light but this doesn’t justify his actions, which Sabzian openly admits.

It is a little disarming to think that we find ourselves oddly sympathetic towards Sabzian once he explains his actions, and realise that he isn’t a schizophrenic or dangerous charlatan but a simple man for whom films are an escape and for a brief moment, he was the leading man in his own production. Aside from some borrowed money and a few free meals, was any real harm done?

Obviously, Sabzian wasn’t severely punished as he wouldn’t have been able to act in this film if he had, but for a country big on oppression, strict laws, and stricter punishments, this was one of the most amiable court cases you’ll ever see. We wonder if it had been scripted how much more dramatic it would have been but presented like this, we get to feel very moment and live in it as the cast do.

What one takes away from this is depends on how much empathy and understanding they can show towards Sabzian, and indeed tolerance for the Ahankhah family for readily buying into the charade. As a film, it is not quite so immediate due to the non-linear narrative and switching between fiction and reality but one the groove is established it is a riveting work to behold.

Close-Up is about the power of art, in this case, film and in keeping with the meta motif illustrates this perfectly by being a powerful film in its own right.