Criterion Sunday 519: کلوزآپ ، نمای نزدیک Kluzap, Nema-ye Nazdik (Close-Up, 1990)

I do love the late Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami’s works, and this isn’t even my favourite of his. It is however, the film that, perhaps more even than his celebrated Koker trilogy (the first of which pre-dates this film), shows the power of his craft. Once again he approaches a real-life incident but loops in so many layers of storytelling that it’s unclear where documentary ends and fiction begins. Perhaps there is no truth, or perhaps it is all true: there’s a court sequence that seems like it must be unmediated reality but that itself feels like a construct (the grainier image hinting at some more ‘truthful’ technique, like that video-shot sequence at the end of Taste of Cherry, but then there’s also an abundance of very prominent camera equipment, lights and boom operators, that moves us away from cinéma vérité). There are also sequences which must surely be reconstructions, but the classical filmmaking style gives the impression of being there, such that you have to catch yourself occasionally. Is our lead character Hossein Sabzian a foolish figure, a grifter out to make a buck, or is he the one ultimately being conned? You could make an argument for any of these, and all are possible within Kiarostami’s film. Ultimately this is a film asking where the truth lies, and certainly in Close-Up — as perhaps, we are led to believe, in all filmmaking — there is truth and there are lies.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • This is an excellent release for those who love Kiarostami because you get an entire early feature film as a bonus extra, The Traveller (1974), which is claimed in some sources to be his debut feature although it appears from others to be his second film (the first was an hour long, which may be where the confusion lies). In any case, like many of his early short films, this focuses on kids and football. A boy in a small town loves it to the exclusion of his schoolwork and is focused on getting to see the national team play in the capital Tehran. Thereupon he embarks on a series of ruses (mostly of dubious morality) to get the money to go. You can see Kiarostami’s indebtedness to Italian neorealism here, but there’s a lot of what would later become his familiar style present also. It ends in an almost shockingly abrupt way, but it works, especially when we consider its production by a childhood education institute — though there’s nothing overtly didactic about the script (aside from an amusing scene where he’s trying to do some maths, then promptly skips his maths lesson).
  • Another extra is Close-Up, Long Shot (1996, dir. Moslem Mansouri/Mahmoud Chokrollahi), a 44 minute video-shot companion piece that revisits Hossein Sabzian some years after he’d been the focus of Close-Up. With his greying hair (he’d made a reference in the earlier film to dyeing it black) and time to reflect, he cuts a quite different figure from the slightly foolish and diffident man of Kiarostami’s film — suggesting yet another layer on top of those presented in Close-Up of how truth has been manipulated. Certainly Sabzian does feel here — and expresses it with some eloquence — as if he was the one being conned ultimately, and if his story isn’t exactly triumphant, he at least has his wits about him (though sadly he died 10 years later). The filmmakers of this documentary give a sense of his life and family, talking to his friends, and it’s an interesting extra piece of what was already a multi-faceted cinematic puzzle.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Abbas Kiarostami عباس کیارستمی‎; Cinematographer Ali Reza Zarrindast زرین‌دست علیرضا; Starring Hossain Sabzian حسین سبزیان, Mohsen Makhmalbaf محسن مخملباف; Length 98 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Tuesday 12 April 2022 (and earlier, probably at home on VHS, Wellington, early-2000s).

مسافر Mosafer (The Traveller, 1974)
Director/Writer Abbas Kiarostami عباس کیارستمی‎; Cinematographer Firooz Malekzadeh فیروز ملک‌زاده; Starring Hassan Darabi حسن دارابی; Length 71 minutes.

Seen at Close-Up Film Centre, London, Monday 5 June 2017.

NZIFF 2021: شیطان وجود ندارد Sheytan Vojud Nadarad (There Is No Evil, 2020)

After last week’s review of the Iranian film Hit the Road at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival, the festival screened another quite different film from the same country, the kind of thing that doesn’t get screened in its home country due to some pretty direct criticisms of the regime. It’s long, depressing, and in several parts, but pretty great all the same.


I feel like if you’re going to do an issues-driven drama based on contemporary society — and this one is about the death penalty — then this is the way to do it. It’s not unclear what the filmmaker’s point of view is — it’s clear enough, indeed, that he’s had to endure prison sentences and bans on filmmaking over the last few years — and he goes in pretty hard on his own country’s use of the death penalty, though despite being made in Iran and featuring its cities and countryside rather beautifully, it’s a story that could be told anywhere that the death penalty exists.

Like a lot of Iranian films, the focus is very much on the moral quandary of those involved in it, which range the gamut from bland acceptance to turmoil. The first segment lulls us in with a very quotidian story of a middle-class family that could be in any western country and whose bickering and patterns of life are entirely relatable, before a stinging twist at the end. Indeed, having booked to see the film a month ago, it wasn’t until the end of the first story that it became clear to me what the structuring conceit of this film was.

The second and fourth stories seem to be continuations of one another — in the earlier one, a young military conscript rebels against the requirement that he get involved in an execution, while in the last an older man who did the same when he was a kid and ran away to the countryside, comes to terms with the choices he made in terms of his family. The film indeed is very interested in moral choices that aren’t made in a vacuum, but take place in terms of ensuring one’s own freedoms, one’s own family and work, and the extent to which we should or should not accept capital punishment if it’s just a means to get food into mouths or to live the life you want (given that the person being executed is just going to killed by someone else).

It’s not necessarily an easy subject, but the filmmaking is clear and flows beautifully, with solid performances across the board. It is entirely deserving of its awards, and one can only hope that the filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof can continue to make films.

Sheytan Vojud Nadarad (There Is No Evil, 2020)CREDITS
Director/Writer Mohammad Rasoulof محمد رسول‌اف;
Cinematographer Ashkan Ashkani اشکان اشکانی; Starring Ehsan Mirhosseini احسان میرحسینی, Kaveh Ahangar کاوه آهنگر, Mahtab Servati هتاب ثروتی, Baran Rasoulof باران رسول‌اف; Length 150 minutes.
Seen at Light House, Wellington, Thursday 11 November 2021.

NZIFF 2021: جاده خاکی Jadde Khaki (Hit the Road, 2021)

Another early highlight for me at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival is this new Iranian film, which simultaneously feels like a lot of earlier Iranian films but also has its own voice and strengths. Nepotism is very much alive in the cinema of that country, but luckily it reaps some rewards with some fine films.


It seems that the Makhmalbaf filmmaking dynasty that runs through Iranian cinema has some competition now that Jafar Panahi’s son Panah has made this debut feature. This deceptively simple story has many of the hallmarks of contemporary Iranian cinema, in setting up a journey that harks back to plenty of antecedents — a 4WD drive vehicle with a family crossing alternately rocky and lush landscapes. We get to know them gradually, that they’re a family and that they’re mysteriously travelling without mobile phones, and little details like this are dropped that something a bit deeper and more emotionally turbulent is going on. However, throughout there’s a sense not just of the familiar familial bickering in a comic register, but also little flourishes of magical realism (not too much to be offputting, mind). Each of the people in the car copes in their own way with what seems to be a journey being undertaken on behalf of the eldest son, and even the end brings no clear answers to what’s going on: the important thing is getting to know these four people, and how the each are handling a time of heightened stress. It suggests a lot without ever saying anything concrete, and that only adds to its enigmatic spell. Plus it is heartwarming and funny and likeable, and all the performances are excellent (even the precocious brattish younger child).

Jadde Khaki (Hit the Road, 2021)CREDITS
Director/Writer Panah Panahi پناه پناهی;
Cinematographer Amin Jafari امین جعفری; Starring Pantea Panahiha پانته‌آ پناهی‌ها, Hasan Majuni حسن معجونی, Rayan Sarlak رایان سرلک, Amin Simiar امین سیمیار; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at Light House, Petone, Monday 8 November 2021.

LFF 2020: خط فرضی Khate Farzi (180° Rule, 2020)

Another of the MENA film selections, from Iran, a country with a strong film culture and a number of contemporary women filmmakers. I didn’t perhaps love this the most, mainly because it’s a tough watch and quite a wrenching and tragic story, but it has real filmmaking chops.


There is a lot of crying in this film, not least because it takes a trajectory of family tragedy, compounded by illiberal patriarchal restrictions which filter through a number of characters within the film. It’s difficult to always follow the contortions that mother Sara (Sahar Dolatshahi) goes to in order to maintain her status in her husband’s (Pejman Jamshidi) eyes after the tragedy strikes, but you get that they are grounded in a sense of shock or hopelessness. There are no rewards at the end, and even a brief detente seems to lead into further spiralling guilt on the mother’s behalf. However, it’s all shot in elegant widescreen and is put together nicely, enough I think to allow you to follow Sara even in her darker moments.

180° Rule film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Farnoosh Samadi فرنوش صمدی; Cinematographer Masoud Salami مسعود سلامی; Starring Sahar Dolatshahi سحر دولتشاهی, Pejman Jamshidi پژمان جمشیدی; Length 83 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player streaming), London, Friday 9 October 2020.

بابا عزیز Bab’Aziz (2005)

The Tunisian director Nacer Khemir made this film, the third in his so-called ‘Desert Trilogy’ made over three decades, in both Tunisia and Iran, so it’s both a North African and a Middle Eastern film at the same time, in Arabic and Farsi. It tells a sort of pan-Islamic tale of mysticism, but it harks back to a storytelling tradition that’s based more on the journey and the details than on any particular destination.


This isn’t a period film (there are cars and roads and signs of modernity), but then again it also feels really unmoored from any specific time, or even place — some characters speak in Farsi, some reply in Arabic, and that’s just how it is, a sort of pan-Islamic world utopian vision of deserts and dervishes. It functions, then, less as a film about the world as a film of a spiritual journey or quest — if I knew more about Sufism (a sort of ecstatic, dance-focused branch of Islam), I might be able to pick up on more specific reference points. An old dervish (the father Aziz of the title, played by Parviz Shahinkhou) and his young granddaughter (Maryam Hamid) trek across a desert in search of a gathering of other dervishes (those practising Sufism), while he tells a story of a Narcissus-like prince. Gradually other people they meet add in their own stories, and by the end you realise that in fact nothing very much has really happened at a plot level, but it’s all in the telling. However, it’s a beautiful rendering of this environment, with many sweeping, gorgeous shots of the desert, rich colours and expressive performances. Plot, sometimes, really is a very minor consideration.

Bab'Aziz film posterCREDITS
Director Nacer Khemir ناصر خمير‎; Writers Tonino Guerra and Khemir; Cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari محمود کلاری; Starring Parviz Shahinkhou پرویز شاهین‌خو, Maryam Hamid مریم حمید, Golshifteh Farahani گلشیفته فراهانی‎; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 26 March 2018.

Global Cinema 1: Afghanistan – Stray Dogs (2004)

I like watching films from around the world but I thought I might start a regular feature of working rather more methodically through all the world’s countries. Perhaps in time I shall make it to smaller subdivisions, but let’s start big. I had thought I might work through them from largest to smallest, but I don’t want to put all the challenge of finding films from obscure nations at the end of this project, so I’m going more or less alphabetically, starting with Afghanistan. I’ll provide a small potted summary of (let’s face it) the Wikipedia page in each entry.


Afghanistan flagIslamic Republic of Afghanistan افغانستان
population 32,226,000 | capital Kabul (4.3m) (کابل) | largest cities Kabul, Kandahar (614k), Herat (556k), Mazar-i-Sharif (469k), Kunduz (357k) | area 652,230 km2 | religion Islam (99.7%) | official languages Dari (دری) and Pashto (پښتو) | major ethnicities Pashtun (47%) and Tajik (27%) | currency Afghani (Af/Afs) [AFN] | internet .af

A mountainous country located on the historic Silk Road, connecting it to major trade routes. Its name historically means “land of the Pashtuns” although it has a wider modern application, and though populated since prehistoric times, politically it was established in the 18th century by the Hotak dynasty and the Durrani Empire. The British, of course, made their influence felt in the following century and fought three Anglo-Afghan Wars, with independence officially declared on 19 August 1919. It was a kingdom until a coup in 1978 installed a President as the head of a democracy. In recent times, fundamentalist Taliban forces took control in the late-1990s, but were pulled into regional conflict following the September 11 attacks, which led to the toppling of this regime and the reinstalment of democracy.

Cinema first came only to the royal court in Afghanistan and it wasn’t until 1923 that the first film was publicly screened. The first Afghan film production was in 1946, and regular production didn’t start until the late-1960s, with training from the Soviets. The Taliban cracked down on cinema upon coming to power in 1996, and film production didn’t begin again until 2002. The NZ documentary A Flickering Truth (2015) was made about the Afghan film archives, while Motley’s Law (2015) is about an American lawyer working in the country. An interesting recent film set in the 1980s is the drama/musical The Orphanage (2019).


سگ‌های ولگرد Sag-haye velgard (Stray Dogs, 2004)

In the 2000s, the Makhmalbaf family really seemed to have a stranglehold on portrayals of post-Taliban Afghanistan, and this film by Marzieh (Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s wife) joins those of her daughters Samira and Hana in depicting some of the turmoil and poverty of the country in this era. It uses neorealist tropes in a very knowing way, even using footage from Bicycle Thieves (1948) as a set-up for the denouement, as well as hooking into a venerable Iranian tradition of films using child protagonists (the girl Gol-Ghotai and the boy Zahed) as a window into a harsh and difficult world. Even a cute dog only sharpens the sense of desperation, and the two kids first try to get the girl’s mother out of jail and then try to get themselves thrown into jail with her. If it sounds tearjerking, it’s never quite played that way, as everyone is just making an effort to get on with living.

Stray Dogs film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Marzieh Meshkini مرضیه مشکینی; Cinematographers Ebrahim Ghafori ابراهیم غفوری and Maysam Makhmalbaf میثم مخملباف; Starring Gol-Ghotai گل غتی, Zahed زاهد; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 24 April 2018.

گاو‎ Gav (The Cow, 1969)

Of the various strands of films that Mubi regularly presents, many of them are new restorations of world cinema classics, and one such was this early and key film in the development of the Iranian New Wave, The Cow. You can trace the influence from this through to many subsequent filmmakers, and there are often


Clearly, a key film in the development of Iranian cinema, such that you can easily see the throughline from this to the work of Kiarostami, Makhmalbaf and many others over the succeeding decades. As it is, though, The Cow is a pretty bleak parable, shot in luminous black-and-white but dealing with the death of the beloved titular companion to Masht Hasan (Ezzatollah Entezami). This event is initially covered up by the other villagers, but increasingly Mashti starts to lose his mind, as the film becomes even a little bit trippy in the way that the cow’s death starts to affect everyone. Clearly it must have struck a nerve in pre-revolutionary Iran, and was even banned for a time, suggesting that perhaps this story was smuggling in something political and satirical in its depiction of its simple-minded village folk — which wouldn’t after all be unusual for the filmmakers who followed Mehrjui.

The Cow film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Dariush Mehrjui داریوش مهرجویی; Cinematographer Fereydon Ghovanlou فریدون قوانلو; Starring Ezzatollah Entezami عزت‌الله انتظامی‎, Mahin Shahabi مهین شهابی, Ali Nassirian علی نصیریان; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Sunday 2 February 2020.

تهران شهر عشق Tehran shahr-e eshgh (Tehran: City of Love, 2018)

I can’t say I was expecting a Nordic-style deadpan multi-strand story of three misfits looking for love from an Iranian film (in a post-screening Q&A the filmmaker quoted Kaurismäki, Roy Andersson and Jim Jarmusch when naming his reference points), though the fact that it’s shot through with a sort of hangdog melancholy feels a bit more in keeping with what I’ve seen from the area. It’s lovely, though, both in its filmmaking and the performances — lots of carefully-composed frontal shots, with very low-key interactions as we watch the characters’ faces carefully for signs of reaction: brief flickering smiles from the cosmetic surgeon’s receptionist Mina (Forough Ghajabagli); anything that’s not utter gloom from funeral singer Vahid (Mehdi Saki); and a hint of same-sex attraction from bodybuilder Hessam (Amir Hessam Bakhtiari). Nothing quite goes as you think it might, but equally nothing goes truly dark, there’s just the constant undercurrent of potentiality as well as absurdity, and it’s sort of lovely to see each of these three characters come out of their respective shells, even briefly.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Ali Jaberansari علی جابر انصاری; Writers Jaberansari and Maryam Najafi مریم نجفی; Cinematographer Mohammad Reza Jahanpanah محمدرضا جهان پناه; Starring Forough Ghajabagli فروغ قجابگلی, Mehdi Saki مهدی ساکی, Amir Hessam Bakhtiari امیرحسام بختیاری, Behnaz Jafari بهناز جعفری; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at Vue West End, London, Friday 19 October 2018.

.قضیه شکل اول… شکل دوم Qazieh-e shekl-e avval… shekl-e dovvom. (First Case, Second Case, 1979)

For my week of Iranian cinema I can’t really avoid Abbas Kiarostami. He is, by some way, the pre-eminent figure in Iranian cinema, certainly the best-known, though some of his earlier films can be difficult to see. Many have been banned in Iran for political reasons, not least his 1979 documentary First Case, Second Case which was filmed on either side of that year’s revolution.


At one level this feels like a dour, controlled and apparently innocuous morality lesson with a documentary-like precision, as a series of talking heads comment on two different examples from a classroom where disobedient boys are being punished: one in which one the boys denounces his colleagues, the other in which they stand united. However, it was made at the time of the Iranian Revolution, and the moral questions are ones that pierce to the heart of any society, especially this one at this time: should we stand with our colleagues who are being unfairly treated, or denounce them for personal gain (and even if do, have we really gained anything). The first people we hear from are the fathers of each of the boys, and then a series of governmental, religious, cultural and educational figures, who broaden the debate to one of fairness and indeed about whether the teacher was in the right. Of course, these lines of argument become rather leading at a time when the entire country was in turmoil: the film was banned and many of those speaking in the film were suppressed later.

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Abbas Kiarostami عباس کیارستمی; Cinematographer Houshang Baharlou هوشنگ بهارلو; Length 53 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Arlecchino, Bologna, Friday 28 June 2019.

Two 2017 Films Directed by Expatriate Iranian Women: They and Gholam

Iranian cinema may have its own domestic identity, but plenty of creative talents from the country have been nourished overseas, in exile (whether formal or self-imposed) from their home country. Women like Mania Akbari or Ana Lily Amirpour have become quite well-known in their respective areas (whether visual art or genre cinema), and there are several others who have had some success. I focus on two below who made films in 2017.

Continue reading “Two 2017 Films Directed by Expatriate Iranian Women: They and Gholam”