Films With Meaning

Art in Close-Up

Hossain Sabzian and Moshen Makhmalbaf in ‘Close-Up’ by Abbas Kiarostami

Hossain Sabzian and Moshen Makhmalbaf in ‘Close-Up’ by Abbas Kiarostami

This seminal documentary-narrative hybrid film by Abbas Kiarostami holds a special place in Iranian cinema, documentary cinema, and among hardcore film fans for how it discusses the art of film and the meaning it can hold for an average Joe’s life. Our average Joe is Hossain Sabzian, an impoverished family man who is accused of fraud for impersonating a famous filmmaker to take advantage of a wealthy family in Tehran. The details of the case and even the method of storytelling by Kiarostami are secondary to Hossain’s story and the way he tells it, such is his screen presence. Of course those other factors are interesting to discuss when dissecting this film, but they pale in comparison to the words of Hossain in defense of himself and his actions. Even in America, the land of the free, we have major systemic injustices that create far fewer opportunities and options for certain segments of the population, no matter how much we want to tout it as the land of opportunity where anyone can be anything. Yes it is true, but certain people have a much easier path to that anything than others based on race, gender, religion, wealth, and many other factors. When you get outside of America, the disparity of opportunity is often much greater, as it can be in Iran. 

Hossain represents the have-nots, a poor working man struggling just to afford enough to eat for his family. He is also a deeply feeling man who finds relief in the cinema of filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, a cinema that uniquely captures the struggle of the working class in Iran and reflects the struggle of Hossain’s own life. Hossain’s appreciation for Makhmalbaf’s art even provides him a reason to live and to keep on struggling. He dreams himself of being a filmmaker and providing the same kind of relief to millions of other people who are struggling so much so that he pretends to be Makhmalbaf one day on a city bus ride when talking to a mother of two young men interested in film. What starts as a lark for Hossain turns into something much more, a fleeting moment of dignity and respect in a sad and lonely life. So he continues to play his role of a lifetime, visiting the Ahankhah family, promising a role in his new movie to one of the sons, and scouting their house as a location for a future film. When he borrows money from the family which he knows he cannot repay, he crosses a line that brings his ruse to an end, and he states in court his willingness to accept responsibility and be punished for his deception. However, his words in defense of his actions provide the heart of “Close-Up”, as his face is shot in close-up pouring his heart out to the court and the camera.

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Essentially, the legal question at the heart of the case is, “what constitutes fraud?" Was it Hossain’s intention to deceive the Ahankhah family, and was it for personal or financial gain? But there is an even more interesting philosophical questions beneath the case: “what do human beings need to survive?” In regards to the question of fraud, Hossain argues that it was never his intention to deceive the family, and although he did borrow money, he was not attempting to gain anything from the family. He really had a desire to be a filmmaker, but did not feel he had the means or opportunity to become one, so posing as Makhmalbaf was the only way to be a filmmaker in his mind. When he saw the way the family respected and admired him, he did not want to give up that role and he did not want to let them down. This gets to the question of human need. In his daily life, people do not listen to Hossain, they do not respect his opinion, and they do not pay him special attention because he does not matter in society. What is a man to live for if he has no dignity, no respect, and no appreciation from the society around him? 

When Hossain was with the Ahankhah family, they would do whatever he told them to do to prepare their house for filming, the sons would listen to his advice on how to make it in the film industry, and they appreciated his presence in their lives. Everyday after he would leave their house he would instantly return to his reality as a nobody that was almost invisible to the world around him. The characters in the films he loved so much from Makhmalbaf were poor, working class, struggling nobodies who became really meaningful to people around the country by virtue of being a subject of a work of art. Likewise, Hossain's meaningless life was suddenly given meaning by this new role as director. But what’s more than that, art imitated life, because Hossain’s actions became the subject of a film and he himself became a character who became a symbol of the same struggles explored in the films he loved. Going back to human need one more time, I believe this film is actually an argument that art is a human need. Art and stories give us the strength to carry on by relating to us and providing the inspiration that things can change and things can get better. Stories have been with us basically as long as language, and they help us to understand the world and our place in it. Art gives expression to our innermost feelings and our deepest humanity, connecting us to one another. For Hossain, a life without art would be a life with only struggle, a life without hope. 

The final scene in the film is of his hero Makhmalbaf picking him up and driving him by motorbike to go visit the Ahankhah family together. In the end, a movie was made at their house, and Makhmalbaf came to their home to speak to them. So, is Hossain a fraud, or a film prophet?