Director: Abbas Kiarostami
An Iranian cinema. 114 Iranian actresses and a French actress, Juliette Binoche, mutely watch a Kiarostami film ‘Shirin’, based on the epic poem. With subsequent, quickly edited shots with a fixed camera, Kiarostami observes the reactions of these actresses to the film. The film is invisible to the audience, although it can be heard.
Although Kiarostami has been making films for several decades, since the production of ‘Where Is The Friend’s House?’ (1987), he has been consistently audacious and creative, reeling off masterpieces with some ease, especially with a run of films in the 1990s that included ‘Close Up’ (1990) and ‘Taste of Cherry’ (1997). Although his films have always been intellectual exercises, known mainly for being consistently self-reflexive, recently Kiarostami has entered more esoteric terrain, challenging cinematic forms and conventions. Perhaps never has Kiarostami been more daring in his narrative approach than with ‘Shirin’, a film that some have described as being more appropriate as an art installation than mere cinema.
The roots of ‘Shirin’ are in ‘Where Is My Romeo?’, Kiarostami’s contribution to the 2007 anthology ‘To Each His Own Cinema’, which used a “film the audience” conceit. ‘Shirin’ expands and develops this idea, but increases the significance and impact of his film by his choice of audience. As has been documented in each review of ‘Shirin’, Kiarostami’s ‘audience’ is over a hundred Iranian actresses, as well as the French actress Juliette Binoche. This ‘audience’ watches a cinematic adaptation of the famous Persian historical poem about Khosrow and Shirin, but of course, we, the second ‘audience’ don’t see the film, although it is audible. Kiarostami films the expressions and reactions of his actresses; a combination of joy, horror, surprise and sadness. There’s some important technical and stylistic aspects to note. First, it’s believed that the actresses aren’t even watching a ‘film’, but that Kiarostami elicited their reactions through merely using three dots on an otherwise blank sheet of paper (presumably with the sound of the ‘film’ composed and then added in post-production?). This is typical of the director to subvert the norms of film making. Kiarostami is ever so conscious of the artificiality of cinema. Even when his films seem
ostensibly ‘realist’ and deal with very real subject matter, there are always moments that undermine this and that remind us that this is a film. ‘Shirin’ is no exception.
‘Shirin’ has a narrative that’s difficult to define or identify. It is more of a tableaux; a series of static, close-up shots of the faces of these actresses as they react to what they watch. There’s no deviation from this method as Kiarostami spends a handful of seconds observing one actress before moving onto another. The use of the face as the means of giving ‘Shirin’ its momentum is incredibly significant. There’s surely a reference to Dreyer’s ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ as he gives his actresses full rein to outpour their emotions, but more importantly, this method allows him to subtly consider the role and position of women in contemporary Iranian society. Kiarostami’s actresses wear headscarves (although a couple seem to remove them during the ‘film’), a garment considered by some to hide the face of the woman wearing it. Yet Kiarostami is celebrating the female face, almost liberating it from the headscarf and demonstrating the emotional and intellectual complexity of women. Is Shirin, a tragic literary heroine, herself a symbol for Iranian women? Where ‘Ten’ began an overt interest in the standing of women in a patriarchal society, ‘Shirin’ continues. There are men watching this film but they are marginalised, barely in shot or focus. It’s not their film.
There will be inevitable reservations by some about ‘Shirin’ given the experimental nature of the film. Some will question how a film with this premise can play out for ninety minutes; that it falls into repetition. It’s a valid point but what the viewer gets out from ‘Shirin’ correlates to what the viewer puts in. Yes, ‘Shirin’ is a very demanding film but at the same time, it’s remarkably rewarding if the viewer is willing to engage with it and appreciate the director’s intentions. The current critical reaction to the film has been fairly mixed thus far, with Kiarostami accused of self-indulgent posturing by some, although it’s not an opinion I share. It’s a conceptual piece for sure, and whether that means it belongs in a gallery rather than a cinema is open for debate, although writing it off as a tedious, pretentious exercise means that the more vital aspects of ‘Shirin’ will be all too easily overlooked. As for the issues regarding only hearing the ‘film’, not seeing it – it’s not that important as the ‘film’ itself is almost a MacGuffin, merely a device to allow Kiarostami to subvert narrative techniques and pay homage to Iranian women. It’ll remain divisive and a critical talking point, but that’s no bad thing.