Thursday, February 27, 2014

True/False 2014, Preliminaries: Every Cut is a Lie

The night before True/False opened, they launched their companion series, showing with the festival, of "neither/nor" films. This year's series features Iranian meta-cinema from the 1990s. True/False, as their name indicates, has always been fascinated by chimeras, films in which fact and fiction intermix. The documentary as a form has always been untrustworthy. It's a feature and a bug that goes all the way back to Robert Flaherty. Few films are as aware of this fact as Abbas Kairostami's Close-Up (1990), which launched this year's series. It's the ultimate chimera.

The narrative here reconstructs a case where a man insinuates himself into an upscale family by impersonating the filmmakers, Moshen Makmalbaf under the pretext of casting his next film. He's caught, of course, and tried. And here's where things get weird. Kairostami convinced all of the principles: the family, the con man, the mullah acting as judge, to allow him to not only film the proceedings, but to recreate them. As such, everything in the film comes at a slight remove from reality. Making this even more of an epistemic murk, the formal elements of the film itself are unreliable.

The film opens with a reconstruction of the arrest of one Hossain Sabzian, but the film doesn't show this to the audience. We follow the journalist on the case to the door, in the company of two policemen, then stay with the taxi driver who has brought them to the house. This is a strange way to begin, but there's method in it. The film eventually circles back to this event from other points of view. There's a bit of the Rashomon effect in this, but it's worth keeping in mind that the viewpoint with primacy in the film is the viewpoint of the filmmaker himself. Most of this is scripted, and there's a bit of business with a discarded spray can that gives it away as a movie. The cabbie unearths the can and the camera watches it roll perhaps longer than one would expect. Later in the scene, the journalist winds up kicking it in frustration. It totally a cinematic construction and by lingering on it, Kairostami exposes it as such. There's a lot of this sort of thing here, both overt and subtle.

Among its subtleties: the trial footage is obviously filmed on a different film stock, suggesting that that footage is "authentic." It was indeed filmed during the trial, but it was filmed at night on the days of the trial, after Kairostami had rescripted it. Indeed, it's strange to watch this proceeding because it seems like Kiarostami is running the trial itself. The documentarian is visibly shaping the story. The machinery of "non" fiction is naked to see here.

Meanwhile, Sabzian himself is layering the reality of the film by offering a performance as himself. Is he playing a part? I think he probably is. Is he offering any shade of truth in what he tells the camera and the judge? I believe that he probably isn't. The end of the film completely ruptures this performance when Sabzian is introduced to the man he has been impersonating, who attempts to reconcile Sabzian with his victims. The doppleganger and the original man share the screen. In order to regain entry to the house, Sabzian has to briefly impersonate the man standing next to him.

The elements of the film itself are untrustworthy. During the final scene, filmed from the vantage point of an automobile following Makmalbaf and Sabzian, the sound periodically cuts out as the voices of the filmmakers are on the soundtrack complaining about the glitch. Is this real? It turns out that it's not. It was created in post production. This film is the living embodiment of the filmmaking maxim that "every cut is a lie."

This was the first time I'd seen this film, which fills a considerable hole in my cinematic education. Close-Up's DNA is all over the contemporary documentary. This has its own problems for the experience of watching it. I see a LOT of documentaries these days so the narrative strategies Kairostami uses are perhaps overfamiliar. I can only speculate as to how I might have reacted to the film when it was new. Intellectually, I know how revolutionary it is, but I'm viewing it after the revolution has been fought. Still, I'm happy to have seen it, particularly in the company with whom I saw it. The screening itself had an introduction and Q&A with film journalist Godfrey Cheshire, who was among the first American film writers to champion post-revolution Iranian film. His comments were illuminating, not least because they give a picture of Kairostami himself as a man who is both genius and charlatan at one and the same time. Certainly, the web of lies and bamboozlement (Cheshire's word) required to make the film in the first place is astonishing.

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