"The fact that we can think with certain films, and not simply about them, is the irrefutable sign of their value" - Nicole Brenez

Monday, 7 April 2014

"AN HONEST FRAUD" by Muthoni Maina

The two "Makhmalbaf(s)"

Every so often, a simple story is captured by a special eye, and becomes a spectacle. That special eye in this case belongs to Abbas Kiarostami, the director of Close Up. This Iranian film is a 1990 documentary style story (though based on true events, it has been called a docufiction) about a poor man accused of fraud for impersonating a famous writer and filmmaker (Mohsen Makhmalbaf as himself) and cheating an upper middle class family off some money.

It is a simple, emotive story that uses delicate close up shots of Hossain Sabzian (as himself) defending himself in a court of law. When approached by Kiarostami and asked what can be done for him while in prison, he simply requests that a film be made about his suffering. He states that “The Cyclist”, Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s book later adapted into a film, was a part of him.
The film addresses major “Third cinema” themes, like inequality, poverty and unemployment in Iran. Sabzian is an unsuspecting fellow, and as described by a guard, does not appear capable of committing a crime. He is a cinephile, and for no clear reason, pretends to be a famous film director because of the respect and self-confidence he gains from it. Sabzian claims that nobody would have listened to him as himself, yet in his new “role” he even gets the opportunity to direct his own movie, hoping that the family he cheated would sponsor it. At the trial, his actions seem justified by his poverty; he cannot support his family, and is only partly employed. His crime even seems escapist in  a sense, committed just to forget about his misfortunes for a while. However, the film suggests that unemployment does not only affect poor people, but even the educated, as the Ahankhah boys (sons belonging to the Iranian middle class family) both studied engineering and have not found any jobs.

The storytelling technique used by Kiarostami is quite fascinating, as the trial is the real one that Sabzian actually went through for the crime that he had committed. However, the tale of his arrest is a reconstruction of the actual events surrounding the story. The first scene lays the foundation upon which the whole story is built, as the journalist, who does not appear again throughout the film, explains the whole story, that we later get to see enacted. Kariostami read Sabzian’s story in a magazine, and decided to visit him in prison, asking if he could film his trial where everybody appear as themselves. This makes it a movie reality show of sorts, and adds to its raw, authentic feel. The fact that the trial is also filmed with a hand-held camera makes the movie very earthy. It makes the audience feel as if they are watching a live event, rather than be drawn away by elaborate cinematography. Interestingly, Kariostami uses many point of view shots, almost as if he is telling the story from a different number of perspectives. After giving us what seems to be a synopsis of the film through the journalist (Farazmand), the story is told from the eye of the film maker, with the added point of views of Sabzian and Ahankhah’s friend, Mohseni (as himself). 

Kariostami manages to maintain a delicate balance between the serious and the mundane. In the first scene, one is not very sure about the gravity of the situation the journalist is describing; yet the audience is left outside the house, where the arrest is being made. We are left with the taxi driver who kicks an empty aerosol can which the camera follows for a while. This is slightly confusing, as the audience does not know whether to take the can seriously - it seems that we are shut out from the action, yet it is the mundane aspect of this scene that helps to add to the normalcy of the story, or its humanity so to speak. The final scene has the camera following Sabzian and Makhmalbaf on a motorcycle through the city, going to the Ahankhah residence to seek forgiveness. It is as if the audience experiences a peek through a window into a private, intimate event. The person behind the camera also says that the sound is faulty and therefore the sound keeps going off as we follow the duo through the city, adding a mystery as to what a fan and impersonator of a famous person would say in conversation with their “idol”.

At the trial, the judge says that Sabzian’s actions are indeed punishable by crime, but asks that the family to pardon him; Sabzian is told not repeat his actions. Despite the fact that Kariostami did not have much control over the verdict of the trial, I felt the outcome was too prescriptive. It was obvious that Sabzian was poor and struggling to raise a family, but this did not have to be verbally announced. Ahankhah saying that Sabzian was forgiven because he was a victim of unemployment among other things took away from the reality of the situation. It appeared to be a forced prescription as to why something should be done about poverty and unemployment in Iran, like a theatre or media for development forum rather than an honest look at the fate of one man.

All in all, Close Up is a powerful film on the genuineness of humanity and the power of art to influence its actions. 

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