November 17, 2009


Abbas Kiarostami has retreated from the international scene for most of this past decade, working on a variety of museum installations and digital video experiments that received little to no distribution in the U.S. These pursuits, which include the installation Looking at Taziyeh, the long-take landscape film Five Dedicated to Ozu, and his latest, Shirin extend his interest in off-screen space and ways of seeing. Taziyeh is a mixed-multimedia work, with Kiarostami directing a live stage performance of a Shiite passion play (Ta’ziyeh is a folk theater form that re-enacts the murder of Hussein, the grandson of Muhammad), while giant monitors near the stage depict Iranian audience members reacting to a previous version of the play.

Kiarostami told The Guardian that “Ta’ziyeh is strictly linked to its audience – the event is actually created by the rapport between actors and spectators.”  Five Dedicated to Ozu, available on DVD from Kino (full disclosure: a company I work for), is a series of fixed-camera long takes of a beach on the Caspian Sea that capture ducks, dogs, shorelines, and reflections of the moon. It is an academic exercise imbued with Kiarostami’s wry humor and keen compositional eye. It asks for a patient, involved viewer, as it unveils split-second narratives and fugitive plastic beauties. While watching it, one can be emotionally involved in a duck’s fate, then pull back to enjoy the framing of driftwood on the horizon, or simply leave it on as an impossibly hip screen-saver.

Kiarostami extends and refines these ideas for Shirin, his latest experiment in point-of-view and meta-narrative, and was recently released on DVD by the BFI (you’ll need an all-region player to watch). He pares away the theatrical aspect of Taziyeh, limiting himself to close-up portraits of 112 Iranian women (and one Juliette Binoche – star of his forthcoming return to narrative filmmaking,  Certified Copy) as they watch an unseen movie. There are male characters in the background, but none receive the centered close-ups of the women (Homayoun Erbashi from Taste of Cherry is one of these men). Kiarostami recorded an audio-track for the film, an adaptation of Nezami Ganjavi’s epic poem, Khosrow and Shirin, but there is no corresponding video. The actresses were staring at a sketch he taped above the camera – in fact, Kiarostami didn’t know which narrative he would use during the shoot – the radio-play soundtrack wasn’t recorded until later. The actresses are going through the same process as the viewers, attempting to construct a narrative, or an emotion, from the slenderest of threads, not unlike the process of viewing Five. Watching requires an act of imagination.

The film requires a constant negotiation between narrative and image: there’s an urge to follow the audio’s story, to become involved in the romantic travails of the Iranian Prince and Armenian Princess, but then one is struck by the jade-green of an actress’ eyes, a perfect Modigliani-like oval face, a set of red bow-tied lips, or even the furtive way in which a strand of hair is brushed aside. It is a tad perverse that Kiarostami, who staunchly used non-professionals in his more conventional narrative films, opts for trained actors only when they have to sit and stare at an invisible screen. It’s a playful but rewarding decision, as the performers are all equally extraordinary, with their particular tics, shifts, and individuality. On this level, the film is pure cinema, glorying in eyes-face-mouth like a gigantic Garbo close-up from the silent era. David Bordwell points to Carl Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc and Godard’s My Life to Live as precedents, especially the former, of which he says, ” almost never presents Jeanne and her judges in the same shot, locking her into a suffocating zone of her own.”

Kiarostami does his own kind of “locking into zones”. Two or three spectators surround the centered subjects, but none seem to know each other, are part of families, or interact in any way. They are all shut off in a private conversation with the artwork, imbuing them with a kind of religious fervor, an intensity around the eyes that does recall Falconetti’s saucer-welling turn in Dreyer’s masterwork. In a documentary including on the DVD, Taste of Shirin, Kiarostami is shown directing his actresses on a simple dark set (which was in his own house), urging them to “define the movie for yourself”, asking for “indifference”, and instructing “let your eyes smile, not your lips.” He choreographs their fidgeting and scratching, but asks them to do it in their own particular way. He even busts out a spoken word version of “My Favorite Things” to encourage them to personalize their twitches.

He is essentially urging these actresses to stop acting, to simply “be”. Without any context or character to draw on, they enter a beautiful kind of stasis, their emotions emerge from someplace beyond the story world. These emotions are irreducibly the actors’ own, which is perhaps why I found this to be the most moving experience I’ve had watching a Kiarostami film. This intensity of feeling, which was also a part of the Taziyeh exhibition (which I have not seen), is joined with the purest expression of his obsession with negative space, the action taking outside of the frame and inside of our heads (think of the unseen well-digger in The Wind Will Carry Us). Shirin is the first major work from his experimental period, and perhaps its logical endpoint, forever delaying a reverse shot which will never come. All that it leaves, according to Kiarostami, is cinema:

I suggest you watch another world which is more attractive than the story. I believe if you dare let go of the story, you will come across a new thing which is the Cinema itself. In fact, I suggest you let go of the story and just keep your eyes on the screen.

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