Ur Abbas Kiarostamis «Close-up» (Nema-ye nazdik, 1990)

Kiarostami om mästerverket Close-up

«So I decided to watch the projectionist’s version and realized it was better than my own! Back in Tehran I changed the order of the reels.»

POV publicerar ett utdrag ur Godfrey Cheshires nya samtalsantologi med den iranske filmikonen Abbas Kiarostami om tillkomsten av pionjärverket «Close-up».

(Text på engelska.)


(100 mins., color, 1990)

A poor man is arrested and put on trial for impersonating prominent filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf to an upper middle-class family in the film that gained Kiarostami international critical acclaim. Blurring the line between documentary and drama, Kiarostami for the first time focuses on filmmakers and filmmaking, while provocatively pondering the relationship between cinema and social justice in post-Revolutionary Iran.

Cheshire: I’d like to talk about Close-Up.

Kiarostami: I’ve made two films that I have opinions on, I don’t have opinions on the rest. First is The Traveler, because twenty years have passed since it was made. I have distanced myself from the film, and therefore feel I’m a part of its audience and no longer its director. At least, I don’t watch it as its director. Among all my films, The Traveler moves me deeply. The other film is Close-Up. When I saw Close-Up after its making, there was already a distance between me and the film, meaning that I was again a part of its audience. And it’s very strange that Hossein Sabzian, the protagonist in Close-Up, sees himself as a character in The Traveler.

Does he say that in the film?

There’s a moment in the court scene where he says that he feels like a child, that his love is as strong as the love of the child in The Traveler.

What he doesn’t say is that he was beaten.


Yes. He wasn’t beaten in the film, but he has been beaten in real life. When I talked to him on another occasion, he told me about his life and it was very similar to that of the boy in The Traveler. The first time he went to see a film, he didn’t leave the theater after it finished. He stayed to watch the film five more times in a row. Suddenly, he realized that it was midnight and he couldn’t go home. He hid in the men’s restroom and waited until everyone had gone. The following morning, instead of going to school, he was tempted to go back into the theater and watch the film again.

Makhmalbaf gave me his story of how Close-Up started, what’s yours?

I didn’t even know Makhmalbaf had a story about it. Well, he has a story about everything. [Laughs]

I met Makhmalbaf for the first time in a movie theater, and he said he had a screenplay for me to read. So he came to see me in my office. I kept thinking about how after all the insults he’d directed toward established filmmakers, he now wanted to start a relationship with them—I wasn’t completely comfortable. There was a magazine on the table and it had an article in it about someone who tricked a family into believing he was Makhmalbaf. I remember that I didn’t really like Makhmalbaf ’s screenplay, and it’s hard for me to talk about a script I don’t like, so I talked to him about this article instead. We then went to the local gendarmerie where Sabzian was being held. There we asked the soldiers what the story was and things became a bit clearer. I wanted to meet the family, the Ahankhahs, because I thought this situation had the potential to become a film. So, that night we went to the Ahankhahs’s house. We rang the doorbell and they looked at me with suspicion and asked me for my ID card. The young daughter told me they had just gotten rid of a fake Makhmalbaf, and they were not willing to deal with a fake Kiarostami. I didn’t have an ID card, so I told them that the real Makhmalbaf was sitting in the car, and if they wanted I could go and get him. I brought him in and they served us tea, and we talked about what had happened until midnight. I was fascinated. Three days later I took a camera to the prison. I still wasn’t sure that there would be a movie though. I filmed the first part of the film continuously from behind the glass screen. Then I met with Sabzian who introduced himself as Makhmalbaf and thought, yes, I do want to make this.

For forty days [during the making of the film] I couldn’t really sleep, even for a moment. Every night I’d close my eyes, then they’d burn, and I’d have to open them because of the pain. I’d take notes during the night and we’d film during the day. We first shot the trial, and after he was released we filmed the rest.

Did you ever resume talking to Makhmalbaf about his script?

No. I gave it to him that night and told him we’d talk about it later. We never did. At the time that Close-Up was being shot Makhmalbaf was in Isfahan overseeing the editing of another film. But the day Sabzian was released from prison—which is shown at the end of Close-Up—we asked Makhmalbaf to come and meet him. This was the beginning of Sabzian’s freedom, but in the editing process we placed it at the end of the film.

Tell me about the head of the court. What’s his name?

He’s a judge and a religious figure, as all judges are. I don’t know his name. To film inside the courtroom we needed permission and this took a long time. As he says in Close-Up, the head of the court didn’t mind, he just thought we could find better cases to film. He’d said that line to us before, so I told him to repeat it on camera.

By the time you started shooting, had the trial already started?

We created the trial. In cases like this they don’t have trials, they just have quick hearings.

Did the family meet Sabzian in court before they were filmed?

No. We sat them down, and then the police officer brought in Sabzian and sat him down. It was just as you see in the film.

So you filmed the only encounter between them? Would that encoun- ter have happened even if you weren’t filming?


So, the hearing was arranged for the filming. You were sitting near Sabzian and asking him questions? Isn’t that unusual?

Yes, normally it isn’t done. But in Iran court isn’t as formal.

So the judge and family agreed for you to be part of the trial with two cameras?

Yes. I’d told the Ahankhah family to first act tough but to slowly, at my signal, accept his release. I was the director of the courtroom.

What did the family feel about what you encouraged them to say?

They were mad and didn’t want to agree to release him, as you can see from the expressions on their faces. At the end, when they suddenly drop the charges, it’s because of my pressure and the judge’s. They wanted Sabzian to be locked up.

What was your initial impression of Sabzian, and did it change during the course of filming?

I knew it was a complicated case. The day after his release he went to that same judge and complained about me. The judge told him that he was very ungrateful, saying: “Kiarostami got you off, and now you’re complaining about him?” Sabzian was complaining because he couldn’t believe he’d been released and was being fed good food—he thought he was being tricked. He was quite difficult throughout the shoot, and constantly treated everything with suspicion. He would change his lines. I had written dialogue for him, even for the courtroom scene. The whole thing was his words, I just put them together as I needed them and created connections by saying, for example, “Finish your sentence like this.” Not that he was completely against it, but he did wonder what exactly we were asking him to say. He was suspicious that maybe we’d use those lines against him later.

He seems like an interesting man, because on the one hand he seems to be from a poor, underprivileged background, yet he quotes Tolstoy and is obviously smart.

He’s quite creative and very intelligent.

But it’s natural intelligence.

Yes, he’s self-educated.

It says something about Iranian society, that you have people like that. The second interesting thing is what it says about cinema in society. So what happened to these people after the film?

Both the family and Sabzian were very dissatisfied. They both liked the film but they didn’t make up. The family felt that, at the end of the film, Sabzian wasn’t punished or disciplined the way he deserved to be. They thought the way he was portrayed made him seem innocent—they really believed he’d wanted to steal their money. I told them that I wasn’t there to judge. The court judges, I’m filming it.

But, in a way, you manipulated the legal process.

Yes. But I don’t think he really wanted to steal their money. I believe he was closer to how he was portrayed in the film. I really wish I had time to remake the film and this time, instead of having the family complain about Sabzian, I’d ask him to file a complaint against the family for forcing him to be someone else. I don’t believe their fault is less than his.

You saw the film “Close-Up Long Shot”* and said you were very affected by it.

As a film, it did nothing. But it did remind me of how smart Sabzian is. I couldn’t sleep for three nights because of all the energy that came from him. The film isn’t well made, but an intense energy came from within Sabzian.

Have you seen him or talked to him recently?

Three months ago we were supposed to meet, but that was during the Cannes Film Festival. Then I got involved in a film. But it’ll happen one of these days. Every year he calls me three or four times and wants to see me.

Maybe you should make another film about him.

I don’t think so.

Where did the idea of playing with the film’s sound at the end come from?

It came from the film itself, during the scene when Makhmalbaf and Sabzian take off on the motorcycle together. I had the headphones on, and was listening to their conversation in the car behind them. Makhmalbaf knew that we were shooting but Sabzian didn’t know. Sabzian was pouring his heart out while embracing Makhmalbaf. He even noticed us filming at one point, but nothing mattered to him—he’d forgotten everything. When Makhmalbaf spoke his first sentence, I quickly realized that the film didn’t need it. Firstly, Makhmalbaf said: “Being Makhmalbaf has worn me out.” Then he added, “Being Makh...” I cut him off, because the film is about Sabzian—I didn’t want to conclude the film with Makhmalbaf ’s extraordinary energy. Makhmalbaf’s energy and personality could’ve overshadowed the entire film. In the last reel of a film you can’t add too exciting an element. When it’s ending you can’t bring in Marlon Brando, for instance, for the last shot. I really like this part of the film, and the opportunity it provided to play with the sound.

Tell me about the reaction the movie got in Iran.

It wasn’t good. Most thought it was a propaganda film about Makhmalbaf. Nobody viewed it correctly. Some said that I really screwed Makhmalbaf over, while others said that I portrayed him quite well. I said to them that the film depicts neither viewpoint: I’m not aggrandizing him, nor am I screwing him over. It’s not even about Makhmalbaf but about one individual, and about the daydreams of a man when life becomes hard. It’s in praise of daydreaming. It’s not even about Sabzian really, since, before the film, he was no one. It’s about a human being and his dreams.

It’s also about the power of movies.

Yes, but still, that aspect is less emphasized. I didn’t want to highlight cinema, other than that aspect of cinema that fulfills our dreams. It’s about when life gets hard and the daydreams become more intense. We know everything about our five senses, but we never think about our dreams. There was a time when I thought if I were asked to choose between my eyesight and the ability to dream, I’d choose dreams because, even with- out your eyes, you can live a better life with the help of your dreams. Without dreams, how can one live? Dreams are like the fan in an automobile engine: when the engine overheats, the fan automatically starts working. If the wire snaps, the car won’t go forward. With the help of dreams, we can escape from the worst prisons. Actually only the body can be imprisoned—in dreams you can escape the walls. In dreams you can sleep with anyone you want. Nobody can touch your dreams. In a sense, dreams perfectly embody the concept of freedom, as they free you of all constraints. I think God gave human beings this possi- bility to apologize for all their limitations. This film is in praise of dreams; it’s a beautiful portrayal of a human being who has reached a dead end but still has a hold on his dreams.

The first time I saw Close-Up, in 1992, the editing was different to how it has been subsequently. Why is this?

Close-Up was shown at the Munich Film Festival in Germany. I was in the audience, and when the second reel began, I realized it wasn’t in the right order. I was going to rush upstairs and fix it, but then realized it was too late for that. So I decided to watch the projectionist’s version and realized it was better than my own! Back in Tehran I changed the order of the reels. Good films and bad films are like that: changing the reel order doesn’t do much; the good ones stay good, and the bad ones stay bad.

Av Godfrey Cheshire 7 nov. 2019