Friday, April 6, 2012
The immersive, emotional power of the cinema is the subject of Abbas Kiarostami's formal experiment Shirin, in which the director focuses on the faces of a cinema audience full of women while they watch a film. The women are watching, supposedly, a recording of a stage production of a classical Persian poem relating the tragic tale of Shirin and Khosrow, rulers of ancient lands who fall in love but are forever kept apart by war and political circumstances. Kiarostami never shows what these women are watching, though: Shirin consists entirely of a series of static closeups of the women in the audience as they watch the film, with the soundtrack and dialogue providing the text of the story but not the images.
The women watch in silence, their eyes darting back and forth to take in the action, rapt and immersed in the emotionally draining narrative of the doomed lovers. The flickering, pulsing light of the screen lights up their faces or shrouds them in shadows, so that the events of Shirin's tale are reflected in the faces of the spectators, in their mute reactions and the light that plays across their faces or shines in their often watery eyes. They smile at the romantic or humorous moments, and stare with enraptured sadness at the tragic scenes, their eyes glossy, their cheeks streaked with tears. Kiarostami is crafting a tribute to the power of the cinema, a tribute to the power of narrative, to move and to charm us, to produce intense emotional reactions. The narrative plays out, not in concrete images of events happening, but in the faces of those who watch the film, whose faces change and shift subtly in response to the unseen events onscreen.
The women's faces, young and old, are all striking and beautiful, which provides one clue to the fact that many (if not all) of the women in the film are in fact not ordinary spectators but famous Iranian actresses, some of whom had appeared in Kiarostami's films previously. Kiarostami even includes some shots of the French actress Juliette Binoche, whose presence in the crowd might be taken as a way of signaling the fact that the women in the film are actresses to Western audiences who might not be familiar with the Iranian stars. The women's status as performers adds an additional layer to the film, causing one to doubt their reactions, to wonder how much of this work is artifice and how much is reality. Kiarostami is often concerned with problematizing the boundaries between documentary and fiction, and here he does so by presenting these emotional reactions with no way of knowing whether the women are genuinely moved and entertained by what they're watching or if they're simply acting, performing every bit as much as the actors in the play they're watching.
For that matter, we can only assume that they are even watching anything at all, that the film's premise is sincere and not a further bit of gamesmanship. As it turns out, though it's impossible to tell from Kiarostami's film, they're not actually watching the movie that they seem to be watching. They're not even sitting in an actual movie theater, but in Kiarostami's living room. There are clues in the presentation of the film itself that not everything here is to be taken at face value, so to speak. The way in which Kiarostami films each of these women in intimate, nearly head-on closeups itself shatters the illusion, since in an actual movie theater, a camera this close to an audience member couldn't help but be distracting, breaking the immersion in the narrative that Kiarostami is seemingly capturing here. It's a paradox: the women onscreen seem to be totally engaged by what they're watching, but the fact that they're being filmed, seemingly with a camera placed almost directly in front of them and not too far away, suggests that they couldn't possibly be as engaged and immersed as they seem to be.
This suggests a familiar problem of documentary film, in that it is difficult to capture unscripted reality because the mere presence of a camera transforms a situation, causing people to consciously or unconsciously act differently than they would without a camera's presence. Thus Kiarostami is continually raising questions about film, performance, emotion, documentary and fiction. Is what we're seeing real? No, it's not: these women are actors playing spectators, aware that they're being filmed and that an audience of actual spectators will someday see these performances. But even if they weren't actors, even if these weren't performances, would this be "real"? Or does the camera's mere presence already signal that there's a layer of artifice here that makes it impossible to view the women onscreen as simple spectators in an ordinary theater?
At the same time, Shirin suggests just how powerful the lure of narrative can be, because even though in many ways the film deconstructs and frustrates the narrative potential of the cinema by denying visual access to the story, it proves that it's possible to get swept up in a great story even without the images. The narrative component of the film is like a radio play or an audio book, the dialogue and sound effects telling the story even in the absence of the accompanying visuals. It's a predictably tragic but compelling melodramatic tale, the kind of archetypal doomed romance that nearly every culture has produced at one time or another, and its effect is amplified because the film's audience is watching another audience react to the story with seemingly real emotion.
It's also a story with special resonance for women. Kiarostami films only women; there are men in the audience, glimpsed stone-faced and staring in the background of the frame sometimes, but they are never the focus of the shot. It's not their emotional reactions that Kiarostami is interested in here. That's because the tragedy of Shirin is primarily a woman's tragedy. It's a the story of a woman who devotes her life to a great love, but finds that her love, and her life, is wasted because of the foolish ambitions, the thirst for power, the violence and pettiness, of men, including the man who she loves and who claims to love her so intensely. There is great significance in choosing this particular story, a story about a woman betrayed by the political games and senseless wars of men, a woman who wanted only peace and love and was instead made a pawn in various struggles over power and thrones. Thus the women who appear in the film are not only crying at a tear-jerking romantic tragedy but a film that reflects their own lives, their own absence of power in relationships with men, their own struggles in a country ruled by violence and male hypocrisy. Even in such an ostensibly apolitical film, this political subtext subtly and potently burbles up.