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Edinburgh International Film Festival 2009: Watching the Watchers (“Shirin,” Kiarostami, Iran)

Abbas Kiarostami’s Shirin continues his journey into the avant-garde world of Five Dedicated to Ozu.
Abbas Kiarostami's Shirin continues his journey into the avant-garde world of Five Dedicated to Ozu, his 2003 excursion into long take minimalist cinematography. Ostensibly the film presents shots of an audience watching a film. We see only close-ups of the women in the audience, with a few blurry men behind them. The soundtrack of the film plays, and the women react to it.
But all is not as it seems.
The women are all actors (French star Juliette Binoche has inveigled her way into the auditorium to join the Iranian cast) and the film they are watching doesn't exist. Kiarostami has revealed that the women were simply watching moving dots. The film's soundtrack is effectively a radio drama, and the interaction between the audience and the movie is entirely fictional. And the illusion is, purposely it seems, not wholly convincing. When the women cry at the sad scenes, they all do so in the photogenic way traditional to Hollywood drama, with a single tear running down one cheek. Each close-up is brightly and carefully lit, suggesting only vaguely the dark of a screening room. It's all deliberately artificial.
Meanwhile, the soundtrack, a mixture of dialogue, music and sound effects, seems to have been fragmented in such a way that the story is impossible to follow, at least for western audiences unfamiliar with the very famous Persian epic from the 12th century, The Story of Khosrow and Shirin. All we can do is observe the women's reactions to it on a scene by scene basis, crying at the tragic moments, raptly attentive to the romantic high points, alienated or repelled by the bone-crunching battles (by virtue of its soundtrack alone, this is by far Kiarostami's most violent movie).
The obvious artifice of the picture track, scarcely less stylized than the mythic soundtrack, seems to exclude the kind of obvious appeal documentary might have—we don't share an intimate moment with this audience, but are instead presented with an unusually abstract form of sedentary performance art. Yet the public attending a rare screening at Edinburgh International Film Festival was attentive, almost hypnotized. Sleep beckoned, but was resisted. A relaxed, slightly stoned attentiveness was nurtured. In fact, I discovered a phenomenon unique in my film-going experience. A couple of times, when I closed my eyes for a moment too long, then remembered to reopen them to read the next subtitle, I caught flashes, a couple of phantom frames only, of the non-existent film Shirin's spectators are pretending to see...
Unfortunately this is sounding worst than I thought. If there is no unity between what they are watching and shooting, or rather, if the only unity is an artificial one constructed after the fact…then this game of trying to show some truth out of completely disjointed elements, sounds like a really bad idea. The interviews say that he just told the actresses to pretend they were watching a love story. I call bluff. Through the Olive Trees was wonderful. But I think this sounded good on paper only. I guess I will have to see it to really find out. But at this point I am no longer interested.
It definitely doesn’t do the obvious thing, which we can all imagine working, of spying on real people watching a real film. For better or worse, it’s something else.
I’m not sure why this film is making such gentle waves on the festival and distribution circuit. Is it the film’s experimental nature? I suppose Five didn’t tear it up either, but still, this is a new Kiarostami feature!
Yeah, I would think people would like to see it for themselves. It played to a packed house in Edinburgh.
Kiarostami never sold it as a documentary, did he? All women in the film are the best Iranian actresses (plus Binoche), so the Iranian audience, or cinephiles familiar with Iranian cinema could easily tell that this is not a random movie audience. This is a fiction. The point of the film is not to document an audience reaction, but to study female faces in a theatre (remember this is in Iran! and women cannot take off their veil in public, and are not normally stared at in such manner…) The work of Kiarostami is to capture individual shots, and they edit them together to mean something in relation to the soundtrack added later (which is continuous and follow a linear plot we can read in the subtitles). It’s no different than any other directors shooting a script disorderly and then putting the story back together in order on the editing table… There is no deception, no loss of the meaning of performance. It is a conceptual movie (film within a film, shot without reverse shot, sound without images + images without sound). But it is remarkably easy/intuitive to understand what is going on. No need for theory before the viewing.
According to the director himself, in a different context, a film that makes you doze off is not necessarily a bad one. It was a tough watch but I’ve never forgotten those beautiful faces shedding tears over a soundtrack. A good movie is one that remains with you long, rather than one that keeps you on the edge of the seat for a while, leaving you emptied out finally.
Can anyone tell me where to get the full soundtrack of this movie? Thank you.

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