Shirin (2008)

Director: Abbas Kiarostami

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Several years ago, my blog partner Rod made a comment on one of my posts: “Stephanie Zacharek recently, and correctly, said that audiences go to the movies to see beautiful, exotic, or at the very least, vividly interesting people on screen, and that it’s one of the great pleasures of going to the cinema.” If nothing else, Abbas Kiarostami’s experimental film Shirin confirms this observation. He chose more than 100 of Iran’s leading actresses to play audience members watching what I took to be a film adaptation of the “Khosrow and Shirin/Fahrad and Shirin” section of Persia’s well-known medieval epic poem the Shâhnâma, and all of them are beautiful, exotic, or vividly interesting to look at. Are they interesting enough to look at for nearly 90 minutes? You’d better think about that before you decide to watch this film, for the entirety of what we see on screen is these women watching a story we only hear, and read, if Persian is not a language we understand.

Shirin is not the most compelling of films to watch, but I found it a fertile experience for monitoring my own reactions to what I was witnessing and bringing to the surface actions that human beings perform unconsciously when we take in a person’s face and figure. I also found it an interesting experience in multitasking, dividing as I had to the images Kiarostami shot while keeping track of the sad story of Shirin, an Armenian queen who left her kingdom for the love of Khosrow, a dethroned Persian king, and ended up alone and unhappy. Finally, I found distinct pleasure in moments of recognition. Not only did I enjoy thinking, oh look, it’s the actress I just saw in A Separation (Leila Hatami—I’m not that good at remembering Iranian names), but I also liked seeing people fidget with their clothes, hands, and faces as they settled into the picture, whisper to the person next to them, doze off for a few seconds—in other words, do the same things I do when I watch a movie.

An Iranian would have a much better time ticking off the names of all the famous women on screen, but since I do not have this familiarity, I found myself really looking at the faces, many of which looked familiar, and remarking to myself how beautiful many of them were. A natural extension of this realization, and something women almost always do with other women, was to analyze the various attributes that lent them distinction. I noticed how many of them had carefully shaped eyebrows, often with the thick inner brow squared off with the upper bridge of the nose. I examined their lips to see who was wearing lipstick and who was not; that appraisal led to an overall inquiry into how much make-up each woman wore. I also checked for jewelry, feeling a bit surprised to see earrings on a few of the women who didn’t appear to be wearing make-up. I also checked to see if all the women were veiled, and I think I spotted only one woman without a hijab, though it was hard to be sure. Even Juliette Binoche, the only Western actress in the film, wore a hijab, letting me know we were definitely in Iran, which subjects all women to this form of attire, regardless of religious affiliation.

Binoche also added artifice to the film, reminding me, as is Kiarostami’s habit, that I was watching actresses playing roles, not genuine reactions caught documentary-like on camera. For example, at one point, the actresses, including Binoche, shed tears. I know she speaks a number of languages, but as far as I know, Persian isn’t one of them. Since it’s unlikely the film would have been subtitled for showing in Iran, how could she have known what the characters were saying? Having witnessed Binoche’s ability to cry on cue in Kiarostami’s Certified Copy (2010), I assumed her reactions must have come some other way. It was not surprising to me to learn during my research that Kiarostami filmed the actresses in small groups, instructing them how to behave or what to think about as they stared at a dot-filled card near the camera lens.

Through careful editing to match the narrative of the unseen film, Shirin appears to take place in only one setting. To add more veracity to the illusion that marks the film as fiction, men were also in the audience, including one man who seemed to be accompanying his wife. The men, always at the periphery of the frame, served something like extras. They sometimes grabbed my notice, particularly the bottom half of one face that appeared to belong to Jafar Panahi, the beleaguered director who is awaiting “execution of the verdict” to begin a six-year prison term for sedition, as well as a woman with two black eyes and a bandage over her nose, which, given the composition of the “audience,” I thought was probably the aftermath of a nose job. Like many glancing encounters we have every day, the reason for her appearance can be guessed at, but never known. We thus create a narrative for the things we see that are as individual as our experience of life and the way we process data.

By bringing new faces into the frame throughout the film, Kiarostami seeks to engage the processes described above for the entire running time. I, however, got tired of the game. I might have turned the film off entirely except that the story of Shirin was really quite involving. In relatively short order, I mainly “tuned out” the faces and approached the film as a radio play, barely noticing that I was reading the dialogue. I have listened to radio dramas all my life, so this shift was not only natural, but also quite pleasurable, and allowed me to create pictures in my mind in the same way Kiarostami invited us to create narratives for the pictures of the peripheral members of his fictional audience.

Shirin is quite in keeping with Kiarostami’s usual approach to cinema, even if it seems more unorthodox than most of his films. His reflexive examination of illusion and reality is very much in play here, and is approached more subtly than in his controversial conclusion to Taste of Cherry (1997), though Certified Copy truly is the apex of his examination of this subject. Kiarostami also does one completely unique thing with Shirin that I don’t remember experiencing with any other film: he restores the oral tradition that was always associated with the Shâhnâma, in particular, and with epic poetry, in general. We actually get the chance to imagine the story of Shirin through audio cues and the faces of those who are listening as stand-ins for the storyteller who would emote during the recitation. Thus, not only do we get to learn an ancient tale from the classical Persian canon, we also get to time travel to experience it as it might have been experienced in medieval Persia. I, for one, enjoyed the ride.

  • Ed Howard spoke:
    22nd/03/2012 to 6:49 pm

    Great piece, Marilyn. I saw this recently too and thought it was really fantastic and interesting. What seems like a fairly simple formal experiment at first gets more and more complex and layered the more one thinks about it. There are layers of artifice here, from wondering if these are really just random women, which quickly begins to seem unlikely even if one doesn’t recognize the actresses, just because they’re all so uniformly beautiful and striking-looking. Binoche’s presence of course makes that unambiguous for Western audiences who might not recognize many of the Iranian actresses. I like the form of your review, because it really suggests the same experience I had: constantly thinking about what’s onscreen and why, about how real or performed all of this is. Kiarostami leaves a lot of room for thinking about performance and reality and fiction and narrative.

    I think it’s a pretty interesting companion piece to Certified Copy, which, in a more submerged way, hints at similar issues of performance and reality.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    22nd/03/2012 to 7:11 pm

    Hi Ed. Thanks! Honestly, I don’t know how one could review this film in any traditional sense. The film forces the audience to provoke their own reactions, make choices the director normally would make. Yet he satisfies our desire to be told a story, he understands us and lets us see ourselves in the faces of these women.

    As for a companion piece with Certified Copy, certainly, but many of his films reflect on performance and reality, perhaps most brilliantly in Close-up.

  • Greg Ferrara spoke:
    22nd/03/2012 to 9:13 pm

    I’ve not yet seen this (or CERTIFIED COPY – I caught the first 10 minutes last month before being pulled away and have yet to give it my attention proper) but after reading your review and Ed’s comment, I’m curious about something. You write, and Ed seems to back up, “Binoche also added artifice to the film, reminding me, as is Kiarostami’s habit, that I was watching actresses playing roles, not genuine reactions caught documentary-like on camera.”

    This seems to suggest there is some kind of progression or complexity to what’s going on here. So, I’m curious, for you and Ed, would it have been any different, or better, if in fact he had just filmed a real audience and their reactions? Is artifice the goal? Or, if there’s no linear plot or story, would it be better to just film actual patrons?

  • Marilyn spoke:
    22nd/03/2012 to 9:29 pm

    Greg, good question, and I honestly don’t think he would have been able to get the same effect from a real audience. He’s not interested particularly in people being real – he’s interested in the line between artifice and reality. I highly recommend you see Close-up, which I have to think set him on this path. A man finds all doors open for him when he pretends to be a famous director, and the film is done as a documentary with reenactments. I believe that ever since, Kiarostami has wondered about the effect of fictional narrative on people, creating fictions on top of fictions to deliver truth. I’m not sure I really answered this question, but all I’ll say is that it would give us nothing to think about if we saw a real audience without the baggage he loads into this particular audience – recognizable actresses reacting to his instructions, not a movie in front of them. We’d get Andy Warhol’s Empire otherwise, just the thing itself.

  • Greg Ferrara spoke:
    22nd/03/2012 to 9:46 pm

    So… that’s a really excellent answer. Do you think he could have achieved the same thing with a short? I mean, are the reactions random or is there some sort of progression?

  • Ed Howard spoke:
    22nd/03/2012 to 9:52 pm

    The reactions progress with the story that’s heard from offscreen, so they’re definitely not random. I think one of the things Kiarostami is exploring here is the power of narrative.

    I’d say a short wouldn’t be as effective, because part of what’s interesting about this film is that it gives time for reactions to shift and develop, and for the viewer to think about the ideas about narrative, fiction, artifice and emotion raised by this work.

    As Marilyn suggests, Close-up is a great place to start, if you’ve never seen it, to really get a sense for Kiarostami’s ideas.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    22nd/03/2012 to 9:53 pm

    That’s a little hard to say, Greg. I think he might have meant us to immerse ourselves in the lives of women with this film and identify with the plight of women. The final speech Shirin gives is sort of a universal lament for the unhappiness of women. I could have read something political into the film, but I just didn’t see it that way and even felt it would be a trap to go that direction by trivializing our own reactions to these encounters with some sloganeering. At the same time, I found it interesting how many faces there were, how many types of women, even if they were all in the same profession. It helped to individualize women, even actresses, who tend to become types or even archetypes. They were much more humanized in this film.

  • RJ Spector spoke:
    23rd/03/2012 to 10:52 am

    A good portion of Ingmar Bergman’s film of the Mozart Opera _The Magic Flute_ consisted of watching the audience of the staged opera, largely during the overture. That device provided several things to the viewer: part of the setting — that is, a filming of a staged opera, rather than a normal movie; something to look at when there was no action on stage; a little side-story in the audience reactions; and the chance to look at a lot of faces beautiful in various ways.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    23rd/03/2012 to 11:32 am

    RJ – I saw Bergman’s use of the audience as more of a solution to the problem of the overture. But I agree that the effect is much the same

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    26th/03/2012 to 9:54 pm

    Glad to hear the ‘illusion vs. reality’ theme is in strong play here. Sad to say this is the one Kiarostami film have not yet seen, though I nearly saw it on a few occasions. Splendidl, beautifully- written effort full of passion and authority and a terrific selling point to see it as soon as possible. I have seen the masterful CERTIFIED COPY that you make compelling comparison with here, but this is a subject Kiarostami is practically incomparable with.

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