Often, when watching one of the many ridiculous documentary-style television shows on the Discovery Channel, TLC, or the like (e.g., I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant, anything on Shark Week, etc.), there are those cheesy moments in which the creators attempt to reenact the scene that the interviewees are talking about.
Often, when watching one of the many ridiculous documentary-style television shows on the Discovery Channel, TLC, or the like (e.g., I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant, anything on Shark Week, etc.), there are those cheesy moments in which the creators attempt to reenact the scene that the interviewees are talking about. For some bizarre reason unknown to the intelligent portion of mankind, the producers of these shows have decided that the best course of action is to hire more attractive, younger and remarkably awful actors to liven up these scenes.
Rarely, if ever, will you see this kind of action taken in a full-length documentary film. Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami decided to switch things up with Close-Up, which has proven to be a spectacular example of how to use reenactments successfully.
Kiarostami came across an interesting case in the late 1980s. Mr. Sabzian, an unemployed and divorced man, convinced a respectable family—the Ahankhahs—that he was the famous Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. The Ahankhahs proceeded to let him enter their home after Sabzian told them it would make a wonderful location for a film and that the children would be wonderful actors. They even gave the man money here and there. As soon as his lie was discovered, Sabzian was arrested.
After getting permission to film the trial, Kiarostami asked each of the characters to portray themselves in a reenactment of the scenario. What results is a cinematic first: A careful blend of real-life and redone events, and surprisingly, it works. There are moments—thanks to the drab cinematic style—in which it is difficult to decipher if what you are watching is real or reconstructed.
As it turns out, the Ahankhahs only accused Sabzian of fraud because of the money they gave him—it appeared as if he was attempting to rob them blind. Yet during the trial sequences—which are not reenactments, but actual footage—it becomes clear that Sabzian wanted no such thing. He only wanted to be a respected individual of society—a “somebody.”
It was because of this desire to not just be an average, unemployed, divorced man that he took on the role in the first place. It is this emotional depth that makes the film so incredible. Instead of looking at Sabzian as a criminal, Kiarostami challenges the viewer to look further and realize that he is merely human. The film transcends its original promise of telling the story of a bizarre case into something much more—a story about human nature, asking: How far will we go to be famous?
Grappling with this question, it’s easy to overlook the awkwardness of some of the reenactment scenes that are at times difficult to watch. There is a moment when the film focuses on a can that has been kicked down the street and is rolling for a dreadfully long time. The acting of the Ahankhahs is also not on the fabulous side—it’s rigid at best.
However, interestingly enough, it is Sabzian’s acting that saves these scenes. It is clear that he has studied film for quite some time, because he knows what he is doing. Granted, it is certainly not the best acting the world has ever seen, but it is far better than that of the men and women that he shares the scenes with.
A particularly moving scene—which is real-life—comes after Sabzian is released from the prison. He walks out and comes face-to-face with the real Makhmalbaf. Immediately, he begins crying as Makhmalbaf embraces him. Together, they ride the director’s motorcycle to the Ahankhahs’ and as the film ends, the viewer’s thought processes are far from over.
Close-Up is one of those films that keep the mind reeling long after you’ve finished watching. Because of this, it is easy to overlook the sometimes-sketchy acting. Kiarostami made some brave moves when he chose to blur the line between what is real and reconstructed, and it paid off. Close-Up is the perfect lesson for directors and producers alike on reenactments done right.