There is a myth surrounding the nature of documentary; the myth that its goal should be to reflect pure, unobfuscated truth. Whether or not this is what you want out of documentary (which is merely a matter of opinion), there’s debate to be had over whether or not that’s even possible. After all, is it “pure” if the subjects know the camera is there? Are you still getting the “truth” of the construction of the film is subject to the director’s conscious and unconscious prejudices and biases? Abbas Kiarostami is clearly interested in such questions, but rather than make it easy on the viewer, he blurs the lines between drama and documentary so thoroughly he ends up creating something with Close-Up that feels altogether new.
He does more than pair re-enactment with reality, interview with acting. Kiarostami inserts himself into the narrative with one hand and removes himself with the other. To understand exactly what I mean by that, we can look directly at the courtroom scenes. Unlike most other documentaries, in fact I can’t think of a single other example, Kiarostami was granted permission to film the actual trial himself. When Sabzian pleads his case, when his mother speaks to the court on his behalf, when the Ahankhah family speak of their feelings of betrayal, all of that was captured in real time by Kiarostami. Knowing this, it might seem inarguable that Close-Up is anything other than observational cinema, but this is where Kiarostami doesn’t just film the scene, he affects it directly.
The camera stays focused on Sabzian, the man on trial for impersonating famed director Makhmalbaf, in a tight close-up, while the rest of the room is shot with a wide-angle lens—a deliberate choice on the director’s behalf, but also one that Sabzian knew about in the moment. And if Sabzian knew he was being filmed more closely than everyone else in the room, how can we assume this affected (or did not affect) his performance?
And speaking of his performance, on my first viewing his words impacted me immensely, especially when the Ahankhah family wonder aloud whether on not everything Sabzian is saying isn’t just another performance itself, another elaborate fiction designed to garner sympathy. In response, Sabzian says simply, “I’m speaking of my suffering. I’m not acting.” Imagine my surprise then when I learned that Kiarostami himself wrote Sabzian’s speeches for court. To add another layer of confusion on top of that, Kiarostami also says that the speeches he wrote were based on things Sabzian actually said.
Fiction is layered over reality again and again in a strata that makes deciphering how “true” anything is almost frustratingly impossible. It’s undeniable that what we’re seeing on screen is inspired by a real event, and the use of the actual participants in that event instead of actors lends Close-Up a great deal of its authenticity. At the same time, it’s hard not to wonder whether Kiarostami’s direct involvement with the events, both while they were actually unfolding and in his depiction of them made it more or less real. What would have happened to Sabzian if Kiarostami had never gotten involved? How would it all have played out?
As fascinating as these questions are to ponder, what remains is one of the most inventive documentaries (dramas? docufictions? something else entirely?) of the late 20th century. To this day, Close-Up seems to exist in a league of its own.