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, 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.