Saturday, April 9, 2011

[Art/Life] Imitates [Life/Art]

Film: Nema-Ye Nazdik (Close-Up)
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

It’s an old saying that truth is stranger than fiction, and it’s rarely on display more completely and fully than in Abbas Kiarostami’s Nema-Ye Nazdik (Close-Up). In this film, Kiarostami traces one of the most bizarre crimes of the last couple of decades and creates from it a half-documentary, half-recreation using the actual players. It’s a blend of both art and real life unlike anything I have ever seen before. The film depicts real events and recreations of real events, each one using the actual participants playing him- or herself.

Essentially, the story is this: a man named Hossain Sabzian spends a few days in the house of the Ahankhah family. The Ahankhahs have invited him in because Sabzian has claimed that he is actually noted Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. In this role, Sabzian has told the family that he wants to use their house for his next film and use them as characters. It’s a weird little bit of fraud that, aside from his borrowing some money at one point, seems almost victimless.

After a few days, Sabzian is arrested on fraud charges and thrown in jail. Kiarostami obtained permission to film the trial, and he shows us a good portion of the proceedings in the courtroom. It is here that we get the full story of Sabzian, and it’s either a terribly heartbreaking saga or a solidly rehearsed con game. Sabzian works at a print shop, but the work is spotty. His wife has divorced him and left with one of the kids, and he now lives with his mother. He’s interested in film, and since Makhmalbaf’s appearance is relatively unknown, he saw an opportunity to be, for the first time in his life, important.

Eventually, the real Makhmalbaf makes an appearance at the end of the film, no so much confronting Sabzian as attempting to understand him and reconcile his actions with the Ahankhah family.

What’s fascinating here beyond the courtroom footage, is that Kiarostami managed to get everyone involved in the story to essentially recreate their roles in this real-life drama so that he could film events as if this were a piece of fiction. We seen meetings between Sabzian-as-Makhmalbaf in the home of the Ahankhah family discussing his films and his life. We see the journalist who broke the story (Hossain Farazmand) searching desperately for a tape recorder so that he can get comments from the arrested man. These are events that naturally transpired without the benefit of a camera crew the first time, and yet here they are.

A couple of noteworthy things stand out to me from this film. First, Kiarostami has managed to get these ordinary people, these non-actors, to recreate events in their lives seamlessly, as if they were not merely acting a rehearsed and previously experienced event. It looks real, like documentary filmmaking. The people are unself-conscious on camera and look natural, as if they are going through a real conversation. I can’t imagine this was easy, but it looks effortless here.

Equally important is the courtroom portrait of Sabzian. It’s easy to side with the judge and the general populace at the outset of the trial, because the behavior is so bizarre and so oddly focused that he appears entirely insane, at least in terms of what he did. Once he begins to explain his actions and the reasons for his keeping up the charade, he quickly stops being simply a crazy man and becomes a very human and tragic figure, the kind he claims to admire in Makhmalbaf’s films. He is so frustrated by his existence that any possible means of escape, even patently fraudulent ones, seem reasonable alternatives.

Third is the film’s otherwise evident normality. Say the word “Iran” to many an American, and you’ll be greeted with visions of rioters burning flags, women in burqas, vicious jurisprudence, and men in flowing robes and turbans. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Tehran of this film appears almost European. The judge appears to be patient and understanding enough that he wants to render both a fair verdict and to give enough time to Sabzian to explain his actions. The clothing is modern, or at least was for even the early 90s. Tehran looks normal. Who would have thought?

Nema-Ye Nazdik is a sensitive and intelligent portrayal of the nature of fame and success, and the dark places that live in virtually every human heart. If I could have a wish, it would be for another 20 minutes or so of film. It was over far too soon.

Why to watch Nema-Ye Nazdik: A fascinating combination of art and life.
Why not to watch: It’s too short.


  1. This is a bizarre coincidence (to my mind anyway) - we just watched this film as part of our Documentary Studies course. Our lecturer kept describing it to us as 'meditative', and I have to agree - I sat there and absorbed it, Kiarostami gives us little moments of space to breathe and think (the can rolling down the hill). I felt such empathy for Sabzian, I really pitied him. We discussed whether we would class this as fiction or documentary.

  2. It's a fascinating film, isn't it? I have a strong desire to check it out again and watch it a few more times. The idea of getting the same people to reenact their actions (and do it so well) is nothing short of revolutionary. It's an almost pure reenactment, sort of a non-comical Groundhog Day.


  3. I have had such good luck with Iranian films. I saw A Separation in a theater when it first came out and I rented Offside about the same time. (Offside is not as well known as A Separation ... but it should be!) And more recently I've seen The House Is Black, Under the Shadow and Gabbeh. And they've all been so good, for their various reasons. I have found them all delightful, sometimes fun, sometimes moving, sometimes a little bewildering. Even The House Is Black, that weird little documentary on leprosy, gets a lot of points for being both unique and less than 25 minutes.

    Which brings us to Close-Up, which I started last night on YouTube and finished this morning. It had Spanish sub-titles, which I'm getting more and more used to, and I was very pleased with how well I followed the Spanish.

    I've been thinking about Close-Up all day. I didn't really like it last night. That's why I quit about 35 minutes into it. I was dozing off a bit, I was following it, yes, but I was only mildly interested and not really seeing what the big deal was.

    But I finished it this morning with no trouble, and I'm still mulling it over. I like it more and more as I keep thinking about it. What an accomplishment! And what a look at life in Iran, where film directors are so well known and respected that some dude will masquerade as one for no other reason than to feel important for a few days.

    Later on, it struck me as a sort of very low-tech Being John Malkovich.

    1. It's a good call out to Being John Malkovich, although in some ways, this is weirder because it actually happened.

      Iranian film is one of the best national cinemas currently going. South Korea ranks pretty high for me as well.