Thinking of Abbas Kiarostami's Shirin
By Oscar Jubis

I recently had the opportunity to watch Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy during its theatrical run. At one time, the film was playing simultaneously at 57 movie theaters in the United States. His last film to play in theaters here, Ten (2003), was shown at only 4 screens nationwide. I figure that, like me, people who watch Kiarostami's films mostly watch them in private, robbed of the social dynamic of being part of an audience. This is also true of his fellow Iranians, who have not been able to watch a Kiarostami film in theaters since The Taste of Cherry in 1997.

I thoroughly enjoyed watching Certified Copy with an audience but it made me wistful about the straight-to-video Shirin, the Kiarostami film that has fascinated me the most since The Wind Will Carry Us (1999). There is something specific about the nature of Shirin that would generate a special frisson during theatrical screenings; more so than most films including, for instance, Kiarostami’s own Five (dedicated to Ozu) and ABC Africa.

shows us the illusion of a movie theater audience responding to what we presume is a film adaptation of the foundational Persian story of Khosrow and Shirin, particularly the version written by the great medieval poet Nezami Ganjavi (1141-1209). The opening credits use the common device of showing the illustrated pages of an ancient book to signify "period film". We get to hear the soundtrack of this tragic, medieval epic film but, once the credits end, all we see are people presumably watching the images denied to us.

It is significant to note that the story of Khosrow and Shirin revolves around a love triangle and contains lyrical passages exuding sensuality and eroticism. Khosrow and Shirin may be a seminal Persian narrative but filming it would run counter to strict, coded restrictions imposed by Iranian authorities on filmmakers. If he wants to tell this story, Kiarostami has to do so without images. Instead, he gives us intimate views of audience members presumably responding also to “Khosrow and Shirin”.

This strategy makes us conscious of the separate narrative contributions of sound and image to the experience of film. More importantly, one of the effects of watching Shirin is a heightened awareness of the conditions of being a spectator. I hypothesize that a theatrical screening would, additionally, make the viewer self-conscious about the conditions of public spectatorship, about being part of an audience experiencing a film.
In a sense, a work of art is not completed until it provokes an experience in the hearts and minds of human beings. A film is art because of its potential to have an effect on the viewer, to be transformed by the viewer’s subjectivity, and to be exposed to the vagaries of interpretation.

Kiarostami had explicitly broached artistic reception before, in Looking at Tazieh (2004), a video installation in which a screen showing an outdoor, theatrical performance of the Shiite Passion play Tazieh is flanked by videos showing the reactions of its audience. The installation was shown only in Europe and without subtitles. “The faces of the Iranian spectators are the subtitles,” (1) Kiarostami explained. Both Looking at Tazieh and Shirin partake in the essentiality of the viewer to that which constitutes film.

Shirin endeavors to expose the final stage in the creation of a film: the effect on the viewer or, more specifically, the aspect of the reception of a film that may be gleaned from observing the behavior of a group of would-be spectators and everything that a human face can reveal. Shirin gives us unique access to these faces while restricting our access to the part of what they are presumably responding that can only be perceived through the eyes. Shirin involves acts of disclosure and concealment on the part of the filmmaker.

What is taken away or concealed are the images that presumably accompany the soundtrack we hear. Kiarostami has referred to this “not showing” as “a means to object, a reaction to films which show everything”2. We are meant to understand the narration and the dialogue from “Shirin and Khosrow”, which are subtitled. We can follow the story, whose telling is augmented by sound effects and a gorgeous, unmistakably Middle-eastern music score. We naturally form private mental images in our mind’s eye to visualize “Khosrow and Shirin” that are influenced and compete for attention with the images of the faces of spectators shown by Kiarostami. Perhaps at a primarily subconscious level, Kiarostami’s spectators offer a model of responses to the story of “Khosrow and Shirin”.

There is a human phenomenon called “mirroring” involving a miming of responses when two individuals engage in conversation. It is an empathy with gestures observed in the face and movement of another person. I think this is something that also can happen naturally when viewing faces on film, especially in close-up. Shirin has the effect of bringing this insight into awareness. In Shirin, the viewer becomes conscious of how his reaction is similar and dissimilar than that of the spectators in the world-on-film; conscious of how we may deviate from the models offered.

Because I wanted to address it separately, I have heretofore concealed one fact about the spectators in Shirin: even though there are a few men among them, all the spectators viewed up-close by the camera and privileged by the lighting scheme are women wearing the Islamic hijab. These images of women cannot be extricated from the context of women’s issues in a country defined as an Islamic republic. ”When you see these women crying, you can’t help but think of martyrdom.”3 From the beginning, we hear princess Shirin addressing her “sisters” and speaking of a common pain. Female affiliation and solidarity emerges most intensely when, following Khosrow’s death, Shirin asks: “Are you shedding tears for me or for the Shirin that hides in each one of you?” Moreover, by removing Khosrow from the film’s title, Kiarostami has already placed Shirin above Khosrow in the narrative hierarchy and made the female the sole protagonist in the story.

It seems logical to me, at this juncture, to ask: Who are these women who emote unselfconsciously for Kiarostami’s camera and for our pleasure and edification? The answer to this question relates to the unique mix of realist and fictional elements characteristic of Kiarostami’s films. The illusion that Shirin is set in an actual theater begins to crumble gradually because all we get are shots from a fixed camera of a very small frontal section of what could be a theater. There are no establishing shots to orient us spatially.

Depending on your exposure to Iranian cinema, and your memory, you may find some faces familiar. You may even recognize that, at least some of, these presumed spectators are actresses, even if you don’t know their names. Perhaps Niki Karimi, who was so good playing Fereshteh in Two Women (2000) and The Hidden Half (2001). It is more likely that viewers will recognize Golshifteh Farahani, who played a romantic interest in Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies and was punished by the Iranian government by banning her from working in films (Ms. Farahani has since left for Paris).Most viewers will recognize Juliette Binoche, who appears 34 minutes into the film, and wonder what precisely is motivating these expressions.

Are the emotions “real” or just actors doing what they do, and is there a difference? Can they hear what we hear? Are they seeing the images corresponding to the soundtrack that have been denied to us? If this is a regular movie theater in Tehran, what is Ms. Binoche doing there without make-up and wearing a hijab? I read a quote in which Kiarostami calls Binoche’s cameo an “act of generosity”. Is it also an act of solidarity with Iranian women?

As I sit delighting in the ambient sounds, the operatic intonation of the voice actors, and the strange, majestic music, I find myself entertaining conjectures about the lives of these women I can gaze at so intimately through the power of film. I find myself making up stories to explain their myriad gestures, and glances, and mannerisms. There is only one time when our gaze is directed at someone in the second row. The fact that this woman is wearing a bandage on her nose shifts out attention away from the woman in the foreground the film has taught us to privilege. I cannot help but wonder whether she got rhinoplasty, a punch from her husband, or a make-up job just to stimulate these thoughts.

Mostly what I find fascinating about Shirin is this stream of thought that it provokes in me; the way it stimulates and lingers in my imagination. These thoughts cannot be separated from the exalted experience of contemplating the beauty of the human face. There are 112 of them in Shirin, all actresses it turns out, doing that very real thing they do.




(3)Rosenbaum, Jonathan and Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa. “A Dialogue about Abbas Kiarostami’s Shirin”, The Chicago Reader, October 22, 2009.