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Edinburgh International Film Festival 2009: Watching the Watchers ("Shirin," Kiarostami, Iran)

Abbas Kiarostami's Shirin continues his journey into the avant-garde world of Five Dedicated to Ozu.
David Cairns
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Abbas Kiarostami's Shirin continues his journey into the avant-garde world of Five Dedicated to Ozu, his 2003 excursion into long take minimalist cinematography. Ostensibly the film presents shots of an audience watching a film. We see only close-ups of the women in the audience, with a few blurry men behind them. The soundtrack of the film plays, and the women react to it.
But all is not as it seems.
The women are all actors (French star Juliette Binoche has inveigled her way into the auditorium to join the Iranian cast) and the film they are watching doesn't exist. Kiarostami has revealed that the women were simply watching moving dots. The film's soundtrack is effectively a radio drama, and the interaction between the audience and the movie is entirely fictional. And the illusion is, purposely it seems, not wholly convincing. When the women cry at the sad scenes, they all do so in the photogenic way traditional to Hollywood drama, with a single tear running down one cheek. Each close-up is brightly and carefully lit, suggesting only vaguely the dark of a screening room. It's all deliberately artificial.
Meanwhile, the soundtrack, a mixture of dialogue, music and sound effects, seems to have been fragmented in such a way that the story is impossible to follow, at least for western audiences unfamiliar with the very famous Persian epic from the 12th century, The Story of Khosrow and Shirin. All we can do is observe the women's reactions to it on a scene by scene basis, crying at the tragic moments, raptly attentive to the romantic high points, alienated or repelled by the bone-crunching battles (by virtue of its soundtrack alone, this is by far Kiarostami's most violent movie).
The obvious artifice of the picture track, scarcely less stylized than the mythic soundtrack, seems to exclude the kind of obvious appeal documentary might have—we don't share an intimate moment with this audience, but are instead presented with an unusually abstract form of sedentary performance art. Yet the public attending a rare screening at Edinburgh International Film Festival was attentive, almost hypnotized. Sleep beckoned, but was resisted. A relaxed, slightly stoned attentiveness was nurtured. In fact, I discovered a phenomenon unique in my film-going experience. A couple of times, when I closed my eyes for a moment too long, then remembered to reopen them to read the next subtitle, I caught flashes, a couple of phantom frames only, of the non-existent film Shirin's spectators are pretending to see...
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