Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Spectator as Filmmaker: Abbas Kiarostami's Shirin (2008)

The film opens with the illustrated pages of Khosrow and Shirin, a story of Persian origins that the great epic poet Hakim Nezami Ganjavi pushed to its romantic apex in the twelfth century.  After a final credit naming Abbas Kiarostami as the director and producer of the work, Shirin (2008) cuts to a close-up of an attractive dark-eyed, round-faced woman of early middle-age seated in a darkened movie theatre.  Off-screen we hear a door unlatching, water dripping and the sound of footsteps on a stone floor.  The woman chews on a finger-full food, nodding briefly to her left, before fixing her gaze back on an off-camera cinema screen.  The film cuts to a second, likewise attractive woman, also chewing, as she watches the same film.  She is younger with droopier eyes and a more ovular face.  As in the first shot, a woman sits in the much less illuminated row behind her (in this case an older woman in a crimson head scarf) as the sound of women mourning becomes audible from the off-camera screen.  A second cut leads to yet another woman staring up at the invisible projected image with the first lines of film dialogue voiced over: “It’s time for my story.”  With this, the tragic story of Khosrow and Shirin unfolds in a motion picture that remains for us audible but unseen.

While we hear the off-camera adaptation proceed in its entirety from Shirin’s ecstatic discovery of Khosrow’s portrait to the heroine’s suicide at the tale’s conclusion (through a series of dialogues, accentuated sound effects and a conventionally manipulative score) we watch as a series of more than one hundred Persian women, with the jarring exception of Juliette Binoche, react to the projected film on camera.  Kiarostami maintains the same framing for each: a woman wearing a head-scarf is composed in a carefully lit close-up with typically darker planes behind her featuring additional female and occasionally male spectators.  Variations in the lighting of the unseen film reflect into the auditorium, painting Khosrow and Shirin’s spectators intermittently as they stare up at the invisible screen.  The women laugh, gasp, recoil and frequently weep as they react to what they (but not Shirin’s viewers) see on screen.  With the graphic, squishing sound of Shirin plunging a small dagger violently into her torso, an aged female spectator glances down, wiping a tear from her cheek before casting her gaze back up at the screen.  A non-diegetic, male-female duet commences within the off-screen picture as both films fade to black.  The music continues as Kiarostami rolls the credits for his one hundred-ten on-camera performers and twenty-two voice actors.         


In Abbas Kiarostami’s cinema of half-finished diegetic worlds requiring the spectator’s active participation to bring the works to completion, no film sustains a larger absence, nor requires a greater act of collaboration, than does Shirin.  As a film that systematically refuses to cutaway or to reverse fields from its ubiquitous female spectators to the always audible events occurring on the unseen screen, Shirin not only allows but insists that its viewers imaginatively supply a style to what is proceeding out-of-view, to make the visual choices that are traditionally the purview of the filmmakers: namely, to decide how the off-screen film looks, how it is lit, how the actors are blocked, whether the dialogue sequences utilize shot/reverse-shot editing and so on.  Of  course, Kiarostami does offer his spectators cues, as for instance the off-screen film’s reflected nocturnal shadows that envelope the room in a greater darkness, or conversely the waves of brighter light, bouncing off the invisible screen, which break through the auditorium and suggest a sudden, luminous daylight in the off-camera narrative.  Likewise, through the unseen film’s competing panoply of sounds, Kiarostami invites us to imagine the off-screen of the off-screen film; a mise-en-abyme of off-camera space is produced accordingly.  However, both the places and the people featured in the off-screen retelling of Khosrow and Shirin remain hidden from our view, subject to our own making (to the extent that we participate) in tandem with the sounds of their voices, the opening illustrated credits or even our images of the characters that we bring into the viewing.  In other words, we are permitted by Kiarostami to cast the actors, scout the locations and create the mise-en-scène, albeit within the parameters of a film practice, like Kiarostami’s, that remains attentive to off-camera sound and thus space. 

In suggesting an off-screen for a screen that is itself off-screen, Kiarostami further expands the space depicted in his cinema, which as always far exceeds that which the director captures between the four edges of his frames. Kiarostami frequently constructs the spaces of his films to insist on the relative smallness of the on-screen visual field within the greater framework of a world that his camera only fleetingly – and restrictively – captures.  Beyond the visible in these films there is an abundance of existence, whether it is the souls of the director’s The Wind Will Carry Us (1999) or the mise-en-scène of the unseen Khosrow and Shirin adaptation. 

At the same time, the visible in Shirin provides excesses of its own.  First, there are the more than one hundred women who populated Kiarostami’s static, close-up framings.  Though, in obedience with Iranian law, each wears a headscarf – thereby facilitating modesty by reducing the emphasis on the wearer’s outward appearance – the director’s method of framing each woman in extended, intimate close-up counteracts the logic of these coverings as its asks us to contemplate each woman’s appearance.  In our prolonged study of the film’s nearly uniformly beautiful set of actresses, we come to notice the smallest physical differences, whether it is a suppler lower lip or wider set eyes.  In this regard, Kiarostami pursues both the extreme repetition of works like Fellow Citizen (1983) and The Wind Will Carry Us, while also demanding the subtler, minute variation-based spectatorship of his landscape film Five Dedicated to Ozu (2003). 

Similarly, the responses of Shirin’s on-screen performers to the off-camera narrative provide us with an additional category of excess.  In contrast to the frequently inattentive, normative film spectator, or to the even more distracted, fragmentary viewer of the art gallery – Shirin’s original mode of exhibition – Kiarostami’s on-camera female spectators remain uniformly attentive to the unseen narrative; they almost never stop reacting to the film they are watching.  As such, we become aware of the fictitiousness of their gesturing and thus, of the gap between the performer and the feelings they articulate.  Nevertheless, the emotional tenor of the performers’ responses invite us to see in Shirin’s travails those of the modern Persian women.  In this concern, as in the film’s systematic use of close-ups to frame female faces, Shirin points back to the director’s feminist Ten (2002).  Both films also reaffirm, along with Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth (2006) and Wang Bing’s Fengming: A Chinese Memoir (2007), that the baseline for twenty-first century minimalism resides in close-ups of the human face.   

Yet, Shirin offers another, very different spectatorial experience to its viewers.  By placing the greatest emphasis on what we hear rather than what we see, Shirin becomes a much more conventional narrative experience: a story, replete with romantic intrigue and graphic violence, told chronologically following an opening framing device.  It becomes in other words its off-screen adaptation of Khosrow and Shirin, which notably differs substantially from the director’s personal idiom.  Indeed, though it is easy to speculate that Kiarostami himself would never make the film-within-the-film in the conventional form that his soundtrack suggests, the director permits this right to his spectator by leaving Shirin’s meta-narrative off-screen, and thus, unfinished.  Again, he leaves it to his viewers to “make” the film as they see fit.

English Title(s): Shirin, My Sweet Shirin
Original Title: Shirin
Country of Origin: Iran
Production Company: Abbas Kiarostami Productions
Director: Abbas Kiarostami
Producer: Abbas Kiarostami
Executive Producer: Hamideh Razavi
Based on Khosrow and Shirin by: Farrideh Golbou
Inspired by the work of: Hakim Nezami Ganjavi
Screenplay: Mohammed Rahmanian
Based on the 12th century poem by: Nezami
Cinematography: Mahmoud Kalari, Houman Behmanesh
Editor: Abbas Kiarostami, Arash Sadeghi l.n.
Sound: M. Reza Delpak
Sound Recording: Mani Hashemian, Reza Narimizadeh
Music: Heshmat Sanjari, Morteza Hananeh, Hossein Dehlavi, Samin Baghchehban  
Conductor: Manouchehr Sahbaie
Singers: Hossein Sarshar, Solmaz Naraghi
Lyrics: Sheikh Farid, Aldin Attar
Runtime: 92 mins.
Genre: Art Gallery Instillation
Color: Color
Cast: 132 credited on-screen performers and voice actors including Mahnaz Afshar, Taraneh Alidoosti, Juliette Binoche, Golshifteh Farahani, Niki Karimi
Year: 2008


Lasse Winther Jensen said...

Have you seen Like Someone in Love yet? I haven't but I'm curious to know what you think.

Michael J. Anderson said...

I will be seeing "Like Someone in Love" next month (March) with a review certain to follow.