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A funny thing happened on the way to this month’s blindspot; Around one month ago, the BFI released their list of the 50 greatest documentaries of all time. I was a bit taken aback when I saw this month’s selection sitting at number thirty-seven on the list. I wasn’t taken aback because I believed it unworthy – I was taken aback because I hadn’t yet realized it was a documentary. Sometimes when I label a film a “blindspot”, I mean really blind. My few interactions with director Abbas Kiarostami to date had all been of the fictional variety, so I hadn’t counted on a doc. But cool – two documentary blindspots in 2014? Bring it.

Then the film began and I settled in to watch this heralded Iranian documentary. I looked on without notice as four men got into a car and began to lay out the situation. Before long, something seemed amiss. The conversation continued, but through a reverse shot – and in this reverse shot, the first camera was nowhere to be seen. Wait, what?

Every month I say that these films blind side me, but believe me: I mean it!

For the uninitiated (like me just forty-eight hours ago), CLOSE-UP is officially dubbed a “docufiction”. The story is of a man who claimed to be Iranian filmmaker Moshen Makhmalbaf. Upon meeting a woman on a bus who confessed to being a fan, he posed to her that he is working on a new film and that her house might make for a perfect setting. After meeting with her and her husband a few times, Makhmalbaf is arrested one afternoon. His cover blown, the man – Hossain Sabzian – is arrested for fraud and attempted burglary.

Here’s the hitch – everything we see from this part of the story is staged using the very people who were involved in the events.

From here, Sabzian is put on trial for claiming to be someone he isn’t, and casing a home for a potential robbery. His arraignment and trial is genuine documentary footage.

The line between the two? “Blurry” doesn’t even begin to describe it.

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Before pressing “play” on this opus, I reached out to my friend and fellow film enthusiast Amir Soltani and asked for a bit of guidance, knowing that he was far more well-versed in Kiarostami than I ever will be. He pointed me towards the possibilities of the medium, and the extent to which cinema is real or fake.

Considering the amount of time and energy I dedicate to consuming, appreciating, and reflecting on the art form, it’s fair to say that I believe cinema to be a “real experience”. To be clear, I fully realize that it is Daniel Day Lewis up on there on that big white rectangle and not Abraham Lincoln. But time and again, I have watched fictionalized accounts of real events move me to genuine emotional responses. I have been made to reflect upon the real world I live in, what my thoughts and feelings are about it. I am often mentally transported out of the cinema and forced to think about what has happened, is happening, and could yet happen. All of this is achieved with heavy amounts of dramatic license.

So perhaps Kiarostami considered the way an audience member like me goes on this journey, and asked himself “How could I lead the audience on an even more powerful journey?”. It could have been so easy for him to resort to music, lighting, or shot selection to make that point. To utilize the very people the story is about is both unexpected and profoundly powerful, and it leads to a sort of cinema that is both real and fake.

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The other detail that Amir suggested I zero in on was Kiarostami’s way of using less-as-more. The mild irony is that for a film titled “Close-Up”, we are so often quite far away from the goings-on. In the re-staging, this often seems like a stylistic choice…wanting us to feel like a fly on the wall by holding back a bit the way a documentarian might while a real event plays out. Other times, he backs off and lets a shot like the one below fill us with feelings of sympathy and curiosity. However, when we get to many of the true events that Kiarostami captured, he is pulled back from the action due to practical restrictions.

So much of the story takes place in the courtroom as we listen to the legal proceedings surrounding Sabzian. Does he understand the magnitude of the case against him – the seriousness of his appearance before this justice? He begs for mercy; pleading that his fraudulent actions did not come from a place of malice or ill-intent. Should we believe him? He has carried on a lie for weeks, what indicator is there that he is telling the truth now?

The truth is in his body language and his facial expression. We soak up his stoicism like scientists observe subjects behind mirrored windows. We watch him from such a distance that he forgets he is even being watched. There is no performance happening in these moments, just the truth unfolding about a man who knows he has fucked-up. The scene easily could have been trumped-up by re-staging it too in a way that was more cinematic (pans! dollys!). However, by allowing the trial to be captured in stark reality, the severity of it is given real teeth.

Any question of the veracity of what has been staged is almost completely nullified by the raw emotion of these real moments captured on film. Happily, as a reward for our bearing witness to this man’s quiet plea for mercy, we are given one moment of amazing human mercy before the film ends.

It too is seen only from a great distance. It too is dripping with raw emotion. It too embodies true human mercy.

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In the waning moments of CLOSE-UP, I couldn’t help but something I wrote almost two years ago where I questioned the balance of fact and truth in documentary filmmaking. It could be said that by having his subjects re-enacting the events, that Kiarostami isn’t being entirely truthful (especially early on, when any notion of re-enactment is yet to be revealed). However, by getting the subjects themselves to re-enact the deeds that led to this story unfolding, it could likewise be said that Kiarostami is actually being especially truthful. He

Re-enactment is a well-brandished weapon in the documentarian’s arsenal, and Kiarostami is neither the first nor the last to wield it. However, he may be the first to use it in a way that seems so genuine. By getting the actual people to replay the events that they lived through, he is able to fill those parts of his story with a unique version of the truth. It’s a step down from having them recount the details, but a step up from staging the re-enactments with hired actors.

What we witness in CLOSE-UP is both factual and truthful in a way all its own, and for that it takes the cake as one of the most unique pieces of nonfiction I’ve ever seen…and one that truly blindsided me.

Blind Spots

I usually post Blind Spot entries on the final Tuesday of every month. If you are participating, drop me an email (ryanatthematineedotca) when your post is up and I’ll make sure to link to your entry.

Here’s the round-up for September so far…

Beatrice watched THE GODFATHER

Josh watched THE DOCKS OF NEW YORK

Fisti watched MONSIEUR VERDOUX

Ruth watched DOUBLE INDEMNITY

John Hitchcock watched PSYCHO

Max Covill watched THE BIRDS

Jay Cluitt watched MULHOLLAND DRIVE

Dan Heaton watched BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN

Brittani Burnham watched NORTH BY NORTHWEST

Chris watched COME AND SEE

Will Kouf watched THE GRAPES OF WRATH

Sean Kelly watched GOODFELLAS

Steven watched PLAYTIME