What’s Found & What’s Wrought: On Abbas Kiarostami’s CLOSE-UP

By Jacob Bews

Issue 018, Volume Five | Fall 2019

Close-Up, directed by Abbas Kiarostami (1990).

STILL Courtesy of Janus Films. All Rights Reserved.

This year, Calgary Cinematheque presents a retrospective on the esteemed filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. Born in Tehran in 1940, Kiarostami began by making documentaries in the 1970s. His rise to international recognition began with his films Where is the Friend’s House? (1987) and Close-Up (1990). The former marked the beginning of his Koker trilogy, which focuses on characters living in rural Iran. His documentary filmmaking bred a personal style which blends naturalistic elements of Italian neorealism with Persian spirituality and poetry. Though he would later make films outside of his native Iran,1the bulk of Kiarostami’s films delight in the people and landscapes of Iran.

So far, Cinematheque has presented the most emblematic films of Kiarostami’s career, including Through the Olive Trees (1994) and the Koker trilogy Where is the Friend’s House?, And Life Goes On (1992), and The Wind Will Carry Us (1999). The final film in Cinematheque’s showcase is his 1990 film Close-Up, which will be presented on November 21 at the Globe Cinema.

The film follows the story of Hossain Sabzian, who after an impulsive initial deception, convinced the Ahankhah family that he was the famed Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Upon discovering Sabzian’s secret, the family has him arrested for fraud. The film follows Sabzian’s trial, pairing scenes of the courtroom with re-enactments of the various moments which led up to his arrest.

Close-Up, directed by Abbas Kiarostami (1990).

Still Courtesy Janus Films. All Rights Reserved

Kiarostami blurs the traditional line between documentary and fiction to tell and re-tell the story in Close-Up. The people involved all play themselves in the re-enacted scenes from the real-life case, exemplifying the “docufiction” aspect of the film. For example, Kiarostami asks the “actors” to recreate the initial meeting between Mrs. Ahankhah and Sabzian, and the latter’s arrest. Fiction and reality blend as Kiarostami’s crew film the trial as it happens, interacting and altering the case’s course irrevocably. Kiarostami even wrote some of the testimony Sabzian monologues during the court scenes – albeit taking inspiration from the interview with Sabzian which led Kiarostami to his story.2Close-Up investigates the line between truth and lies, and though the film wasn’t particularly praised in its home country of Iran after its release, it enjoyed an ecstatic reception outside of Kiarostami’s home country.

Kiarostami became part of a small group of filmmakers who remained in Iran after the 1979 revolution. He released Close-Up a year after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, the revolution’s leader. Khomeini’s death signaled a slight change of content for Kiarostami. He had previously added to a genre which focused more on children as protagonists, the “child quest” genre of Iranian cinema, with his 1987 film Where is the Friend’s House? The genre arose from the prominence of films about young people—nearly half of Iran’s population were under the age of 15, and these films tended to perform well at the box office.3Child quest films feature a young child lead who struggles, yet manages to persevere and overcome obstacles.4Other films by Iranian films which employ a ‘child quest’ narrative include The Runner (Amir Naderi, 1984), Bashu, The Little Stranger (Bahram Beizei, 1990), The White Balloon (Jafar Panahi, 1995), and The Mirror (Jafar Panahi, 1997). Kiarostami continued to employ the use of naturalistic cinematography and non-actors, as in his prior work.

For me the appeal of Close-Up isn’t to find out the verdict of Sabzian’s trial. Rather, the appeal is the way Sabzian can comment on cinema, nature, identity, by assuming the role of the director and the artist. Sabzian, sitting in the family’s couch, says “One must be in touch with the colors of nature to remove the rust covering one’s heart.”5He, in trying to be Makhmalbaf authentically, tries to investigate the greater themes and mysteries, which artists at large explore, including Kiarostami himself. When Kiarostami visits Sabzian in prison for the first time, Sabzian says “I’m not a con man.”6Kiarostami then asks why he confessed to fraud. Sabzian replies “because what I did looks like fraud from the outside.”7What he’s doing, to him, isn’t what it looks like. In a sense, this mirrors film itself, since film is not what it looks like. The illusion of moving images, whether flowers, cars, hands holding, waves receding, smoke—will always be illusion created by flashing digital images or celluloid. Now, this is obviously a different sort of illusion from fraud, but Kiarostami remains interested in the distinction throughout the film, since it’s a distinction which doesn’t bother Sabzian: “Legally [fraud] might be an acceptable charge, but morally it is not” he says at his trial.

For me the appeal of Close-Up isn’t to find out the verdict of Sabzian’s trial. Rather, the appeal is the way Sabzian can comment on cinema, nature, identity, by assuming the role of the director and the artist. 

The film uses flashbacks as another way to ease plot tension: the viewer knows that Sabzian and the Ahankhah family come out fine since they are present to portray themselves later. The judge sentenced Sabzian to a minimum prison stay for a month, and since the Ahankhah family withdrew their complaint, albeit at Kiarostami’s request, Sabzian faced no more punishment.

The actors in Close Up are both real and fictional. Take Sabzian: he’s split from the inside as he is both himself, and an actor playing Sabzian in a film. Kiarostami explores the unification of different objects, moments, and/or psyches: the two bouquets of pink flowers from the beginning and ending of the film are graphically united, despite the real probability of their being separate flowers. Sabzian and the rest of the cast are two people simultaneously, when filmed—this is because when you film an object, you both have the real object in front of you, and the reproduction of the object now printed on celluloid. You have the court scene happening in front of the camera, but now also the images which make up the court scene on film. Does this split between the authentic and reproduced occur within the camera? Sabzian speaks for himself, but he plays himself too, performs himself. If he was authentically himself always, he couldn’t have pretended to be Mohsen Makhmalbaf in the first place. Close-up makes the argument that it is not necessarily the cinematic medium which creates this split between real and reproduction, between authentic and performed, only that film exposes the split.

Shortly after the opening section of the film, a journalist, two soldiers, and a taxi driver travel en-route to the family’s house. The taxi driver parks and approaches a pile of ragged leaves. He picks out pink flowers from the heap, enough for a bouquet. He disrupts an empty can from the pile, he pokes it with his shoe. The can tumbles down the empty autumn street. The camera follows the hollow ringing of the can as it rolls down. Kiarostami cited a time diversion for watching the can, just something to play with while waiting, yet couldn’t the can also be Sabzian? An empty, used vessel nudged down a certain path? Or couldn’t it then represent the film itself? A found object followed to its ‘natural’ conclusion? So various meanings are added despite the utilitarian reason for the scene’s addition, and Kiarostami admits this.8

Close-Up, directed by Abbas Kiarostami (1990).

Still Courtesy Janus Films. All Rights Reserved

Images of flowers are repeated throughout the film. A man finds flowers in a pile of scraped up refuse on the road. We then see the flowers again when Sabzian buys them. He’s instructed by the real Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who’s giving Sabzian a ride on his motorcycle, to buy the pink flowers. When Sabzian picks up the flowers, he is an actor performing with the guidance of the director. Makhmalbaf chooses the pink flowers, the same kind of flowers found in the refuse at the beginning of the film. Someone, in the crew that is, did have to pick those flowers out inevitably. So, both Makhmalbaf in the story, and the film crew in reality, picked the flowers. It could have been Kiarostami. Filmmaking, in this excerpt, is a collage of many objects, all representing a single object or concept. They might be different flowers in reality, but in the context of the film, the flowers become a recurring motif for beauty—the context of cinema adds meaning, just as with the empty can. Or does the context of cinema merely reveal? Does film add the meaning? Or show what meaning was hidden?

The flowers mirror the nature of a close-up itself. A filmmaker isolates one object—a face, a hand, a key, a stone—omitting the surroundings to bring attention to the object. The close-up, one of the most basic structures of the film, must necessarily negate other aspects to exist. The close-up reveals detail and sparks intimacy. It says, “this is important, this is worth your attention right now.” Creating a close-up is symbolized in the act of picking flowers out of the large heap of leaves, the leavings, the refuse, the garbage: the result of time and its flow across the lives of people. Yet the flowers are there, amongst the heap.

The flowers mirror the nature of a close-up itself. A filmmaker isolates one object—a face, a hand, a key, a stone—omitting the surroundings to bring attention to the object. The close-up, one of the most basic structures of the film, must necessarily negate other aspects to exist.

Kiarostami also focuses on one of his favoured motifs: vehicles for travel, bikes, public transit, and cars. Perhaps the most important vehicles are the ones at the beginning, the bikes, the bus on which Sabzian meets the mother of the family, and of course the taxi. This again points towards the unifying ability of cinema. When people believe there’s a movie happening, that they're being watched, or what they're doing is “important,” they act differently. They might become kinder to strangers. Sabzian and Makhmalbaf are both strangers to the family, but believing that Sabzian is the famous director, they open up to him. What if they could simply meet as fellow enthusiasts of Makhmalbaf? But that wouldn't be as special, so Sabzian lies about who he is.

Kiarostami also made choices to make the film’s narrative more satisfying. For the scene in which Makhmalbaf meets Sabzian for the first time, Kiarostami was unimpressed with Makhmalbaf talking more than Sabzian.9He decides to manufacture a sound malfunction to cut out all the input from Makhmalbaf’s mic. To create the emotional tone he wanted, Kiarostami also lied to the audience.

The film toys with the notion of the commodification of art, and of finding art in the natural world. Originally, the journalist Farazmand simply went to Sabzian’s story for the self-gain, though, without the article, Kiarostami may not have known about the story. In the re-enacted scene, Farazmand declares to the cab driver, “a story like this doesn’t come around often. You might get two or three your whole career.”10The line speaks to both Farazmand and to Kiarostami—since both happened upon the story by near chance. Though, Kiarostami became interested in the case’s potential relation to cinema.11So did Kiarostami simply look around and find beauty in a pile of leaves? Or did he look and see a promising product for an audience? This raises a central concern with the nature of cinema itself, since its history has always been closely tied with the film industry and profit motives. Historically films have been made by those with the means to make them. With the advent of cheaper digital cameras, cinema has become more democratized only recently. If Kiarostami wanted to capture beauty as it was in reality, then why are much of the results of the film so staged? The judge in the film was asked by Kiarostami to be lenient, and the ending shots were dramatically contrived.12Despite employing an eye for beauty, there is still the impulse to craft a satisfying product.

Close-Up, directed by Abbas Kiarostami (1990).

Still Courtesy Janus Films. All Rights Reserved

Close-Up brings tensions between classes into the foreground, exploring the differences of wealth and the way that people personally separate from each other as a result. The working class is often derided by the upper in film, as represented by the upper-middle class family which Sabzian tricks. One of the only ways that the lower class can get the upper class to listen to them, the film suggests, is to present oneself as an artist, assuming a role which the upper classes respect. This assumes the upper class does not already respect people as people. They only respect the ones whom they deem worthy of respect. That being said, even the upper class in Iran had an issue with getting a job, with making their lives and careers. This might point elsewhere in the world, towards the greater context of Iran in the late 80's early 90's – a country freed from a US puppet leader, only to be replaced with a more authoritarian state, and now antagonized by Iraq and the US. In the opening scenes of Close-Up, Kiarostami interviews the Ahankhah family – the son says, “I have a degree in civil engineering, but I haven’t yet found a job in my field,” who goes on to say of his brother “[he’s] a mechanical engineer who’s selling bread.” He then says, “I prefer artistic work to selling bread.”13In this respect, both Sabzian and the son have a common love for art and artistic endeavor, yet they are separated. It takes a fraud from Sabzian to bring them together.

One of the illusions of class is the separation between people. Riding the bus or riding on a bike with someone, sharing the ride, breaks down the illusion of separation. It's unclear whether the separation is real or not, since the mother asks Sabzian why a famous director would ride the bus. But then, does the real director actually ever ride the bus or does Makhmalbaf drive his own car? It was the production of Close-Up which brought the family and Sabzian together finally. This may not have happened otherwise.

Close-up makes the argument that it is not necessarily the cinematic medium which creates this split between real and reproduction, between authentic and performed, only that film exposes the split.

Regardless of, and perhaps due to, his contrivances for creating the film, Kiarostami creates beautiful cinema. Close-Up being only one piece of his great woven cloth of a career. The contradictions created in the film add to its intrigue—whether it be the origin of meaning, if we find it or create it, or whether beauty can be separated from its own commodification. The captured beauty of the flowers is found in the beginning of the film, and bought at the end, with the direction of Makhmalbaf. There’s a significant loop created in the film. The film begins where it ends, the dead end at the end of the street. The flowers are found in a heap of scraps, just like the story of Sabzian and the family. Kiarostami finds the story and picks the beauty out of it to present to someone. 

Whether the motive for making a film remains after the people who held those motives are gone is hard to say. Filmmaking is setting free an empty can and watching the results, can, and camera rolling.


  1. In France, he created Certified Copy (2010) and in Japan, Like Someone In Love (2012).

  2. Godfrey Cheshire, “Close-up: Prison and Escape,” The Criterion Collection, June 22, 2010.

  3. David Bordwell & Kristin Thompson. Film History: An Introduction. McGraw-Hill, 2010, pp 609.

  4. Ibid. 

  5. Close Up, Janus Films, 1990. Director & Writer: Abbas Kiarostami

  6. Ibid. 

  7. Ibid. 

  8. Interview by Criterion with Abbas Kiarostami.

  9. Ibid. 

  10. Close Up, Janus Films, 1990. Director & Writer: Abbas Kiarostami

  11. Ibid. It’s worth noting that Makhmalbaf and Kiarostami both vied for credit over who discovered the article and decided to make a film.

  12. Godfrey Cheshire, “Close-up: Prison and Escape.”

  13. Close Up, Janus Films, 1990. Director & Writer: Abbas Kiarostami

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