Close-Up doesn’t just toe a line between documentary and fiction, it’s agnostic about the line’s existence. It’s a rewarding film, but you’ll have to take that on faith for the first fifteen minutes or so before the opening credits start. The movie begins with an eager-beaver journalist jumping into the front seat of a cab and chatting up his driver. This guy is not our protagonist, nor his driver, nor the two cops inexplicably riding in the back seat. They won’t return until a reenactment an hour later. Two of our main characters appear in this sequence but their faces are never clearly shown. The lynchpin shot of the sequence shows an empty can rolling after it’s kicked by the driver. The shot lasts a good ninety seconds or so, which is a long time to watch some litter amble down the street.
It’s a bizarre gambit to open on a digression in a movie that will provide plenty more material for thought. The movie proper is about the trial of Mossein Sabzian, a poor man who is accused of fraud after impersonating filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. He’s been pretending that he’s planning to use the Ahankhah family and their residence in a new movie, collecting a loan in the meantime but mostly basking in the respect he’s given. Abbas Kiarostami, Close-Up’s director, constructs a hall of mirrors using this cinephile crime story, his own approach to filming it, the effect of the act of filming on the story, what this effect says about Sabzian’s crime and back and forth across reflections of reflections. Kiarostami foregrounds his techniques, and his shortcuts and stretches of the truth become commentary on the nature of truth itself, particularly under the gaze of a camera.
Even though we’re often watching non-actors in a real courtroom, at no point is the viewer expected to forget they’re watching a movie. Kiarostami catches the boom microphone at the edges of the frame. He leaves in the slate at the beginning of the trial. The name of the scene is read and the sticks clap just before an official leads Sabzian into the courtroom. Hearing the phrase “take one” adds an unusual context before an ostensibly real trial, as we’ve been trained to believe documentaries don’t allow for take two.
Kiarostami often addresses his subjects from behind or just in front of the camera. At the start of the trial (or at least take one of the trial), he explains to Sabzian that he will have two cameras filming, one wide and one in close-up. The courtroom pauses to allow his explanation. In a previous scene Kiarostami talks to the judge about getting permission to film in the courtroom. Kiarostami asks for the trial date to move to accommodate his shooting schedule. Sabzian answers to Kiarostami almost as much as the presiding judge. All the ostensibly real moments have the fingerprints of production all over them.
Yet the camera crew mischievously disappears during the film’s reenactments of Sabzian’s deceit. Reenactments seem commonplace now, but only the year prior The Thin Blue Line was snubbed by the documentary category of the Oscars because of its use of reenactments. Kiarostami throws another curveball at purists by having Sabzian and the Ahankhah family play themselves in the reenactments, so the same people recreate their own actions in the same place they occurred. This is not the event itself, that would be impossible to see. Had cameras been there, it would have occurred differently. Sabzian isn’t going to sit around waiting to get caught under the scrutiny of a camera crew. Are Close-Up’s dramatization of unspoiled events more or less authentic than a live recording altered by the presence of cameras?
Laying this many cards on the table allows Kiarostami to keep some up his sleeves. He most likely scripted at least some of Sabzian’s passionate courtroom speeches. Most ingeniously, he fakes equipment problems in the climactic scene to explain convenient audio dropouts. When Sabzian gets a surprise visit from the real Makhmalbaf, Kiarostami was displeased with the director’s inability to improvise off Sabzian’s genuine emotional response, so he cut the audio whenever Makmalbaf spoke. Editing scenes down to the best and most relevant components is what filmmaking is all about, but Kiarostami’s genius is to do this without having to make the same trims to his image. Adding audio of his frantic crew mentioning the faulty equipment (apparently they’ve miked themselves too for some reason) gets the audience to accept the technique.
Layered on all of this is the nature of Sabzian’s crime. He’s a man accused of manipulating a family as a fake director standing trial under the manipulation of a real director. Noel Murray puts it best when he observes “Kiarostami is a true artist, not a phony. Because true artists know how to manipulate people without getting arrested.” The many parallels of Sabzian’s case and the film capturing same are a treat to puzzle over, but the only definitive statement of Close-Up is its description of the filmmaker’s role.
Rewind to that opening scene. We now understand it’s going to add tension to the re-enactment of Sabzian’s arrest because we’re being shown the preparation on the other side. The gung-ho journalist and the taciturn driver’s seemingly meandering conversation has more significance now. His insistence on finding a tape recorder is the film’s first thought on the significance of the recorded story — “It’s pointless if it’s not taped” laments the journalist. He’s thrilled about finding this story, evoking the names of journalists who relentlessly pursue stories. These are people expected to be truth-tellers, reporters who mine true events for a story. A story, though, has to be shaped, and “manipulate” and “shape” are pretty close to synonyms.
This scene, our introductory encounter with the movie, is shot from multiple angles and contains unlikely details – would a journalist share a taxi with the police on the way to an arrest? – that give it away as a staged movie scene. Yet there’s a looseness to the dialog and a raggedness to the presentation that fight our expectations of scripted film. Then that stray can gets kicked over and the camera follows its progress down the street, every rattle and dribble for over a minute. This shot is the mirror to the jounalist’s insistence that a recorder would make these events real.
Documentary as a genre is defined by assumptions on how the movie was made. Namely, we assume that scenes we witness have been captured in real time with the participants knowledgeable but uncoerced during the process and that the story unfolding will be as close to the truth as the filmmaker can approximate. This is the premise of documentary film, even though the genre’s founding father staged scenes for Nanook of the North about a native seal hunter not named Nanook who did not hunt seals like that.
Truth-tellers shape and bend their facts to create stories, but even cameras capturing false scenes are capturing real objects in motion and complete control is an illusion for either set. The filmmaker can kick the can down the street, but nobody knows what faults and jolts it will encounter on the way across the pavement. Kirostami suggests the job of the filmmaker – documentarian or whatever – is to kick that can and record what it does next.