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Spectators as Characters: Close-Up on Abbas Kiarostami’s “Shirin”

A close look at the Abbas Kiarostami movie now playing on MUBI in the US.
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI.. Shirin (Abbas Kiarostami, 2008) is playing on MUBI US through October 7, 2014.

As Abbas Kiarostami's 2008 Shirin begins, viewers hear a gate open or close, followed by dripping water and slow, deliberate footsteps. One might imagine a dark and musty dungeon with the faint shadow of an unseen figure sweeping across the stone wall. But the scene is a mystery and this would only be speculation. A close-up shot reveals a woman in a room so dark her hair and hijab almost disappear. She stares forward with a look of tempered curiosity as she pops a snack into her mouth. The footsteps continue and it’s immediately clear that the woman is in a theater watching the film to which the sounds belong.
The next scene is similar, with a different woman who appears to be patiently anticipating plot development. Each subsequent shot is similar to the first and the film features over 100 actresses, including Iranian stars Mahnaz Afshar, Golshifteh Farahani, Leila Hatami, and Niki Karimi, as well as French actress Juliette Binoche. The story that unfolds is based on the tragic twelfth-century romance “Khosrow and Shirin” by Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi. Viewers never witness the lovers embrace nor the battles unfold. Though the dialogue and soundtrack are audible, nothing from the fictional film is seen, save for flickers of light against the faces of the audience. 
Viewers must intuit much of Khosrow and Shirin’s story from the audiences’ expressions. They at times seem bored, enthralled, and anxious. This intense focus makes one wonder about even slight movements—what does it mean when an audience member rests her face on her fist or bites her finger? In one shot, a woman’s eyes track back and forth several times, indicating some sort of hurried movement on the unseen screen. These clues are most captivating during moments of silence in the film, of which Kiarostami offers many.
There is no omnipotent narrator describing every detail, as might happen in a novel, nor is the dialogue written in a manner that discloses all of the action. There is often no way to know that something is being missed without the audience’s reactions. When the audience becomes more alert, for example, we are signaled to expect conflict or drama, though the nature of it is not always divulged. Frequently, Kiarostami gives viewers only enough to taunt them; the in-film audience reveals nothing but that there is something to be revealed. By denying film’s most important attribute—the visual—Shirin underscores the ability of imagery to create nuanced meaning.
In another way, however, Kiarostami has denied viewers nothing. Shirin is a full ninety minutes of visual storytelling—the relationship with the literary characters is just oblique and inferred. There is no “real” film about Khosrow and Shirin that is being withheld. Kiarostami didn’t film a low-budget movie for the actresses to watch, so there is nothing missing and nothing to recreate.
Because the actresses are not responding to an actual film, it’s important not to think of Shirin as a documentary. They are not even reacting to the script, which wasn’t written at the time of filming. Kiarostami didn’t decided on a story until after filming. Instead, the actresses followed directions from Kiarostami while facing a camera. It was not until later that the filmmaker impressively edited this into a cohesive assemblage accompanied by a dialogue and score. Through this lens, Shirin is a fictional tale, like “Khosrow and Shirin,” but it is one about cinema and spectatorship.
Kiarostami has said that he has no interest in seeing what the audience is watching because he has seen those things many times. Understandably and unavoidably, viewers will find themselves trying to construct a visual counterpart to the dialogue. But as the film progresses they will likely begin to contemplate their own spectatorship. Each time an actress adjusts her hijab or shifts in her seat, the viewer becomes more aware of his or her own fidgeting and facial expressions. Less concerned about what Shirin looks like or how well the set is designed, it becomes easy to dwell on what causes you to cock you head to the right, smirk, yawn, or zone out.
As the film ends, Shirin says to her sobbing sisters, “Through these tears, I see your eyes. Are you shedding these tears for me, Shirin? Or for the Shirin that hides in each one of you?” Tears roll down the cheeks of the women in the audience. As they wipe dry their red eyes, it is clear that Shirin is speaking to them, who are equally characters in the film. No details have been revealed about their lives, they do not even have names, but in this moment, we know a little bit about them. By turning the camera on the audience, Shirin lets the story infiltrate each one of them. We know that, as with all audiences, their relationship to the film is not passive—they are both spectators and characters, as are we.

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