BREAKING MIRRORS: disruptions of documentary form in American and Iranian cinema
“The truth is a mirror that shattered as it fell from the hand of God. Everyone picked up a piece of it, and each decided that the truth was what he saw reflected in his fragment rather than realizing that the truth had become fragmented among them all.”
DOCUMENTARY AS A GENRE
“Documentary is a clumsy description,” said John Grierson, “but let it stand” (2). Grierson, who coined the term (3), had his own reasons for maintaining its clumsiness: he saw documentary chiefly as a means of influencing and educating the masses—in his own words, “I look on cinema as a pulpit, and use it as a propagandist” (4)—and he saw himself as being in “the business of conditioning the imagination of mankind” (5). The conditioning Grierson had in mind was essentially authoritarian, believing in the supremacy of the state. “Since the needs of the State come first,” he wrote, “understanding of these needs come first in education” (6). In this context, the term “documentary” (meaning literally, something “providing a factual record or report”) is a pretty handy disguise.
Grierson’s basic principles are far from out of date, and his belief that “the only reality which counts in the end is the interpretation which is profound” (7) has become the only test of veracity most documentarians subject themselves to. The problem with this is, of course, that the most “profound” interpretation tends to be the one aligned with your own opinions and point of view. The result of this philosophy over the years has been to turn documentary into, in the words of independent filmmaker Rob Nilsson, “an art form often chosen by those who think there is truth to be told and that they're privy to it” (8).
Another reason for this has been the widespread standardisation of the documentary form, accelerated by the TV documentary industry. For documentary to become a staple of network broadcasting schedules, it had to fit into a straightforward and repeatable formula that would be both economic and accessible. The result has been the establishment of documentary as a bona fide genre, with its own predictable set of genre elements: the authoritative voiceover, talking-head interviews, stock footage, etc. Despite the statements of more progressive documentarians such as Errol Morris that “style can’t guarantee truth” (9), the effect of what D.A. Pennebaker called “the industrialisation of the documentary” (10) has been to create, in popular terms, exactly that guarantee: documentary equals truth.
As a result, the documentary form has become not an arena for the pursuit of truth—since the very signifiers of the form already promises you (the appearance of) that—but the battleground for opinions. Guys like Michael Moore make documentaries not to discover the way things are—but to convince others of the way he already knows things to be. The powerful secret weapon of documentary, and the reason for its resurgence in these divided times, is not its efficacy at getting at the truth, but its efficacy at appearing like it is the truth.
The actual power of all this, however, is questionable. As Bertrand Russell wrote
If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence. (11)
In other words, we tend to believe that which validates what we already thought we knew. Therefore, something like Farenheit 9/11 (Michael Moore, 2004) can be both straight documentary for your average Bush-bashing liberal and distorted, manipulative propaganda for your average Bush supporter. This is not to say that either point of view is right or wrong, but rather that a film’s documentary status depends to a large degree on a viewer’s opinions and (usually inseparably) their conception of reality. Comedian Jon Stewart has commented on the effective chasm that exists in these terms in American political discourse:
We can’t even get the two political parties to agree on what reality is. The Democrats look at Terry Chiavo and they’re like, “Ah, She’s been dead for 20 years. Take her water away”. The Republicans are like, “Ah, she’s a couple of Pilates classes away from, y’know, joining the Rockettes.” … Nobody can agree what reality is. (12)
In this environment, the tools of the documentary genre become a way of asserting one’s own political reality—a reality that is by definition already known and taken for granted. Rob Nilsson points out that “most current documentaries are about ideas” (13)—but because they are documentaries, they are also about asserting the reality of those ideas.
The effect of all this is that documentary cinema, for all its modern ubiquity, has become rather stagnant; an overused camouflage of authenticity under which people attempt to further their agendas. This may not be in conflict with what Grierson, the term ’s originator, had in mind, nor without any cultural value, as the exchange of ideas through visual media is certainly valuable—but it’s certainly at odds with what many of us associate with the term: the pursuit of reality, of perspectives other than our own and a truth we may not have realised before—films, in other words, of investigation rather than persuasion.
Rob Nilsson argues that, paradoxically, the only place to go for that kind of truth is fiction “because it does not have the onus on it to be somehow true. … In fiction,” says Nilsson, “you're free to realize that the impulse to see and know is often extremely personal and subjective … Fiction offers freedom.” (14) But there is a middle place: films that adopt neither the guaranteed authenticity of the documentary nor the protective safeguard of fiction, but engage in both practices in a way that subverts the status of documentary as the “reality genre”, questioning their own production processes and initiating audiences in a more active and attentive viewing process. These are films that defy any either/or attempt at categorisation, but rather work against the stagnation that such categories—whether imposed by broadcasters or critics—tend to create.
Interestingly, some of the strongest example of this inbetween form have come out of the strict and insular culture of Iran. America, on the other hand, for all its openness and free speech, has tended to adhere quite rigidly to its established forms—although a combination of foreign influences, the liberating impact of digital technology and the “reality TV” phenomena has led to the emergence of some exceptions to this.
This essay will look at four films from Iran and America that exist in this inbetween place:
- Close-Up (Abbas Kiarostami, 1992), is a true account of Hossein Sabzian, who befriends a family of strangers by impersonating the famous Iranian director Mohsen Makmahlbaf. The film is made up of a combination of documentary footage of the imposter’s trial and re-enactments in which all the original participants play themselves.
- Here to Where? (Glenn Luchford, 2001) takes the true story of Alfred Merhan, the Iranian refugee who has been living in Charles de Gaulle Airport in France for more than 15 years, and filters it through the fictional framework of a failed American filmmaker trying to make a film about him.
- I Don’t Hate Las Vegas Anymore (Caveh Zahedi, 1994) documents a road trip Iranian-American Zahedi takes to Las Vegas with his father and half-brother. Zahedi introduces the film, not unambitiously, as an attempt to prove the existence of God by refraining from controlling the film himself and allowing God “direct” it instead. Much of the film’s drama (and humour) comes from Zahedi’s inability to stick to his own plan.
- The final film and in many ways odd one out in this selection is the recent box office hit, Borat: Cultural Learnings Of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, (Larry Charles, 2006), in which Sasha Baron Cohen’s fictional Kazakhstani reporter is placed in a series of ostensibly “documentary” situations with real and unwitting ordinary Americans.
DOCUMENTARY AS REALITY
In Close Up, the distinction between documentary scenes and re-enacted scenes is, at first, fairly clear-cut. Sabzian’s trial is shot on 16mm, mostly from one long-lens angle directed at Sabzian himself. The lack of variation both compositionally and editorially in these scenes give an unequivocal impression of “grabbed” images, taken without time to pre-plan or get much coverage. The scenes of re-enactment (shot on 35mm), while no less naturalistic (Kiarostami’s skill at coaxing performances out of non-actors is unparalleled), have a design and rhythm to them that is clearly staged—and, by contrast, serve to reinforce the authentic status of the trial footage.
But the film’s final scene offers a convergence of these two strands that make us retrospectively question our relationship to the scenes that have preceded it. Following the trial, Sabzian is acquitted and released from prison and Kiarostami arranges a meeting between him and the real Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who Sabzian impersonated because of the profound impact his films had had on him. As the scene continues, its status becomes hard to place. It’s clearly shot in a documentary manner: Kiarostami and his crew have a mike on Makhmalbaf, and are filming on a long lens from across the street. When Makhmalbaf gives Sabzian a lift on his motorbike, the camera crew follow behind them in a car. Yet the encounter has also clearly been staged for the film. Narratively, the meeting of the imposter and the original is a perfect ending—and Kiarostami must no doubt have realised that when he arranged it. The scene is not a re-enactment of anything that has happened before, and yet it is an enactment in a sense distinct from simply documentary filming: it is, via the setting up of a real situation, an enactment of the perfect ending Kiarostami can see in his head—and also no doubt an enactment of something Sabzian has long been imagining himself.
This kind of re-enactment of the imagination is not actually unusual in documentary film—but what’s exceptional here is how Kiarostami foregrounds its questionable status. Everything about this final scene’s mise-en-scene says “documentary”—but Kiarostami almost goes too far, giving the game away. Throughout the scene, Makhmalbaf’s mike crackles on and off, making most of his conversation with Sabzian unintelligible. This is, at first, both narratively frustrating (we want to know what an imposter and an original would talk about) and a reassurance of authenticity (the scene must be real since no director would willingly sabotage his movie’s climax). Yet one added element makes it cease to be either: we hear an off-screen Kiarostami, ostensibly watching the scene unfold with us, complain that the mike must be broken—yet whatever microphone is on Kiarostami is clearly working fine! It’s implausible, of course, to think that Kiarostami would actually have a mike on himself during the scene; his voice is clearly added later.
In fact, the entire sound problem was pure fiction. As Kiarostami has since admitted, he added it because of his dissatisfaction with Makhmalbaf’s behaviour.
What was very difficult was that one of the characters did not know that he was in front of a camera whereas the other one did. And the one who did was ready with his "script". Makhmalbaf discussed many issues that he had intended to bring to the film, so he was very much an actor. … So after a sleepless night, I came to the conclusion that what I should do is say that there was a problem with the sound. (15)
But with that one element of illusion, the focus of the scene shifts from Sabzian meeting his idol to Kiarostami trying to film Sabzian meeting his idol; the scene’s tension is no longer “what will Sabzian do?” but “will Kiarostami be able to film it successfully?”—or rather, the scene’s tension is both at the same time.
In Here to Where, Glenn Luchford might be said to have taken this tension as his starting point. The film opens with black-on-white text (that age-old signifier of actuality) explaining the situation of Alfred Merhan, the airport refugee. Yet what follows does practically nothing to expand on this text. While the tension of Alfred’s story—“will he leave the airport?”—underlies the whole film, and is established with this text, the film’s real focus is the tension of Paul the filmmaker’s story—“will he make his film?”—and the bulk of the narrative consists of Paul talking about his ideas, ambitions, insecurities and doubts about the project.
In some ways, Here to Where is an essay on the implications of Close Up that mimics that film’s form in order to expand on it. While Close Up ends by allowing the making of a Kiarostami film to become, if only temporarily, the film itself—Here to Where is from the beginning essentially about an American filmmaker trying to make a Kiarostami film: complete with re-enactments, and a lead character playing himself.
Kiarostami has said:
My understanding of the documentary is no movie is documentary enough to be called a ‘documentary’. Because in every document, it’s our view of the document; the filmmaker’s point of view is reflected in it. When we go with a particular angle, and disregard three other alternative angles, that’s when we make a choice, and thus are altering that document. … Whatever subjects you approach, you interfere in the reality of the subject. (16)
However, this interference is not lamented; with Kiarostami’s bold dash of self-reflexivity in the final scene of Close Up, one gets the sense that the film is if anything a celebration of it. As Paul says in Here to Where, although Sabzian (posing as Makhmalbaf) lied to the family he befriended when he said they would be in a film,
…. well they ended up being in a Kiarostami movie. So it’s true… Everything for everybody, it all ended up to be true, and it was cinema that did it.
Kiarostami has said, quoting screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere, “we should continue dreaming until we change real life to conform to our dreams.” (17) Cinema is the perfect engine for this transformation, and it’s this notion Here to Where explores. Kiarostami (and Paul) take cinema’s inability to observe without altering not as its limitation but as its greatest power. As Tag Gallagher said of neo-realism, “It no sooner ‘discovered’ or ‘captured’ reality than it reconstructed it, and created a new reality, which bore the maker’s mark.” (18) Along these lines, Paul also outlines early on in Here to Where his intentions for his film:
I don’t want to impose on Alfred a way that he has to act, a way that he has to be. I want to give him the space… I want to use cinema to give him the space to improvise his own life anew.
His intentions are only half-ingenuous, however: it becomes clear Paul is more intent on persuading Alfred to leave the airport than allowing him to simply “improvise his own life”. Alfred’s departure, like Sabzian’s encounter with Makhmalbaf, would be the perfect ending for the film—but one gets the impression it would also be the perfect ending for Paul, who begins to emerge as emotionally troubled and stuck-in-the-mud as Alfred, seeking some sort of redemption for himself by trying to change his subject.
In the end, Paul’s film falls apart and Alfred goes nowhere, suggesting that the effort to follow Kiarostami’s example was in some way misguided: cinema may be able to orchestrate a meeting with your favourite filmmaker, but it can’t fix lives. Here to Where could also be taken as a critique of Kiarostami’s method of filmmaking—in one scene in particular Paul is berated by an actor he has hired for exploiting Alfred, who, with his weird non-sequitirs and spacey manner, doesn’t appear to be in full mental health.
The only problem with this is that the film itself is doing the exact same thing. While it’s clear that the film we are watching is not the film Paul is making, both put Alfred in semi-fictional situations (whose artificiality he may not be aware of) and see what happens. Just as Paul sets up scenes between Alfred and an actor (who is scripted), Luchford has set up scenes between Alfred and Paul, who we eventually realise is an actor himself, skillfully played by Paul Berczeller (also the film’s writer.) The issues of exploitation and dubious motivation that the film brings up through the character of Paul could just as easily be leveled at Luchford, the real director, who we never see.
At times, all this awareness takes the film into depths of self-reflexivity that makes something like Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002) look practically straightforward: take the scene where Paul, talking to camera, describes Alfred as a voyeur while acknowledging, “when you’re making a film about him, you’re a voyeur also”—we can fill in the rest ourselves; that in the end we’re voyeurs watching a film by a voyeur about a voyeur making a film about a voyeur. But for all this self-consciousness, allowing the fictional story of Paul and his failed film to intermediate between Alfred’s real-life situation and the film that’s really being made, gives the filmmakers’ a certain comfortable distance from the ethical quagmire they’re depicting.
Caveh Zahedi, however, has always lived his ethical quagmires in the first person, squarely in front of the lens. His second feature I Don’t Hate Las Vegas Anymore is his most extreme example of this. Unlike Here to Where (which mostly adopts an ostensibly documentary style but gives the game away in a few scenes clearly staged for camera), we are allowed no point of realisation where it becomes clearly, in part at least, an act: the obsessive, disturbed filmmaker we see on screen trying to use cinema “to change real life to conform to his dreams”, really is the guy making the film. If Here to Where dramatised what Close Up inferred, Zahedi in I Don’t Hate Las Vegas is its flesh-and-blood actualisation.
As Zahedi puts it, “I'm always trying to make films that, in the making of the film itself, somehow improve my life or relationships.” (19) In I Don’t Hate Las Vegas, this takes the form of an attempt to reconnect with his family and a desire to learn to accept things as they are. In aid of this, Zahedi essentially tries to relinquish control of the film, let God “direct” it, and have faith that things will work out. Because of this absence of directorial control, I Don’t Hate Las Vegas is undoubtedly the most truly “documentary” film in this discussion, and it’s also the most honest about its own processes.
Unlike Close Up (which brings attention to its own making through a fictionalised technical problem) and Here to Where (which fictionalises an entire film-within-the-film in order to deal with these questions, effectively deflecting attention from the film’s real production processes), what we see in I Don’t Hate Las Vegas is really the making of I Don’t Hate Las Vegas. In essence, the dual-narrative approach suggested in Close Up and developed in Here to Where, are taken to a level that is so self-reflexive and at the same time so purely documentary that they return to being a single narrative, since “will Caveh reconnect with his family?” and “will Caveh’s film work out?” are essentially the same question.
What results is a film that is at once out of control—the film crew mostly left to their own devices to decide how and what they film—and a careful study of attempts to control, since every manipulative, artificial aspect is foregrounded and put on screen. Zahedi’s crew are featured in the film as much as his family, and their problems (both technical, such as a roll of film that is accidentally loaded twice, and emotional, such as the sound recordist’s alcoholism) are given equal narrative weight. But most of all, Zahedi’s desperate attempts, despite his original intentions, to direct his family and effectively stage the reconnection he’s looking for become the film’s central drama. If this film was directed by God, it was a God determined to call us out on our own bullshit, both stylistic and behavioural.
The more one thinks about these films, the more one begins to question whether any of it is really documentary at all. Could Kiarostami really have gotten access to an Iranian court the way he ostensibly does in Close Up—and permission to effectively take over the proceedings at times, asking Sabzian questions himself? Did he really start shooting the film at a day’s notice after reading about Sabzian in a magazine? In Here to Where, how clueless is Alfred really about the films—the real one and the fictional one—being made around him? How aware are the other participants in the film? Are any of them scripted? When one of the actors pleads with Paul to stop making the film, is he talking to “Paul the filmmaker” or Paul Berczeller, the writer and actor? And how out of control is I Don’t Hate Las Vegas really? The way Zahedi owns up to his own manipulations in a way makes the film more believable….like a friend who tells you an embarrassing secret in order to gain your trust. Yet even his film is carefully edited and presented and the degree to which he is “playing” himself on camera is hard to discern.
In a way, determining the status of these images is besides the point. From Close Up onwards, these films move the question of authenticity from the distinction between a documentary image and a fictional image, to the distinction between documentary and fiction elements within a single image, and eventually to a level that, as Fergus Daly put it, seems “to make nonsense of the distinction” (20). The result is a cinema that, in the words of Tony McKibbin “finds a meditative position that asks us neither to trust in fact, nor assume the techniques of fiction, but to find in their combination a space for a more intense inquiry.” (21) It’s this intense inquiry that is the most interesting product of these films, suggesting that the most important thing is not whether these films are “real”, but what they do.
DOCUMENTARY AS A SUBVERSIVE ACT
Over the past fifteen years or so, Iranian cinema has built up quite a reputation for blurring the lines between documentary and fiction. Abbas Kiarostami’s Close Up is perhaps the greatest example, but far from the only one. In Mohsen Mahkmalbaf’’s A Moment of Innocence (1996), the director seeks to recreate an incident from his youth when he stabbed a state guard. Makhmalbaf enlists the help of the actual guard, and each of them casts and directs their own younger selves—the film becoming as much about their attempts to revisit and reimagine their past as about the actual event in question. In Jafar Panahi’s The Mirror (1997), a young girl has to make her own way home through the streets of Tehran—but halfway through, she tires of being a movie star and walks out of the film; or tries to. The rest of the film consists of the little girl actually trying to get home, while the film crew follows her.
Even Iranian films working closer to the familiar TV-standard documentary form tend to undermine their own authentic status. In Massoud Bakhshi’s Tehran Has No More Pomegranates (2006), an hour-long made-for-TV documentary about Iran’s capital city, we are assured early on that “Due to problems verifying facts, this film is probably full of mistakes” and “Persons and events in this film may appear real, but none of it is true.”
The origins of this tendency in Iranian culture are hard to pinpoint, and attempting to do so without an indepth knowledge of its society and history may be inadvisable—yet a few obvious sources do suggest themselves. One is the strict censorship under which Iranian cinema exists. With many restrictions on the kind of scenes they are allowed to represent (sex and violence, obviously, are out of the question), Iranian filmmakers are forced sometimes into compromise, but more often than not into subtlety. It has meant that the subversive elements of an Iranian film tend to be carefully implicit, and often essentially formal.
The way in which Iranian films tend to undermine their own veracity, bringing attention to their own processes and manipulations, could be seen as a sort of disarming tactic—a way of saying “don’t worry, we’re just making it up”. At the same time their incorporation of documentary elements provides a reverse defense against allegations of tendentiousness: “don’t worry, we’re simply presenting other people’s point of view”. Either way the impact on the viewer—as we will look at later—is subversive and radical in a way Michael Moore could never even imagine. Moore and co. may be able to fill their films with controversial content and arguments that would get an Iranian documentarian arrested, but unlike Iran, their styles are restricted by the dictates of the Western distribution market. The Americans may have freedom of speech, but they don’t have freedom of forms.
The other factor in Iranian cinema is less tangible, but arguably more intrinsic in its culture. Makhmalbaf is fond of quoting the 13th century Persian poet Rumi—particular the passage this essay begins with. When it comes to documentary, the metaphor of the mirror is an apt one: mainstream documentary cinema could be said to trade on the image of documentary as a “mirror” to reality, but the kind pioneered in Iranian cinema does everything it can to shatter that image. This rejection of any stable, absolute truth—a position essentially post-modern in nature—seems characteristic of a lot of early Eastern thought, something modern Islamic fundamentalism tends to overshadow.
But, though it may have taken us a bit longer, it seems us Westerners are finally beginning to catch up. The other three films in question illustrate different ways in which this Eastern influence has begun to emerge west of Tehran.
In Here to Where, the influence isn’t hard to identify; Paul, the film’s filmmaker-within-the-film, talks about Kiarostamion screen, and the Iranian influence can be seen both in the form of the film itself and in the film Paul is trying to make about Alfred. In I Don’t Hate Las Vegas Anymore, the influence is far less explicit. Though Caveh Zahedi’s parents are Iranian, he’s never visited himself and his contact and engagement with its culture has been minimal. After discovering Iranian cinema in the late 90s, however, Zahedi was struck by the similarities it had with his own work:
I’ve noticed that my films are very “Iranian” in the sense that they exhibit a lot of the self-reflexivity that is a defining characteristic of that national cinema. My own use of self-reflexivity preceded my exposure to Iranian cinema, so I can only conclude that it is either a remarkable coincidence or that it evinces some kind of genetic pre-disposition. (22)
However, Zahedi’s autobiographical cinema (all of his films star himself and are structured around his own problems and experiences) may have as much to do with his Californian upbringing; certainly there is an almost immodest exhibitionism apparent in them that is distinctly un-Iranian—for example, it’s very hard to imagine a film like Zahedi’s latest, I am a Sex Addict (2006), ever coming out of his country of origin.
These are all small (and in the case of Las Vegas, undistributed) films, however, and the question of whether these kind of techniques have really infiltrated the mainstream where, particularly in the culture of competing “realities” described by Jon Stewart, they’re sorely needed, is up for debate. But if you’re wondering what an inbetween-form Hollywood film might look like, it’s worth going to see Borat.
The way this film has been positioned within American culture is revealing. On the one hand, its enormous box office success is no doubt related to the fact that it is simple very funny—but it has also garnered a lot of critical praise for its insight into American culture, with one critic even calling it “one of the most politically charged and important comic documentaries to hit screens in a long, long time.” (23) In a way, the film seems torn between these two sources of appeal: and there is a distinction in the film between the kind of laughter you get from Borat mistaking an elevator for his hotel room, and that which emerges when an old cowboy responds to Borat’s description of Kazakhstani gay executions with “That’s what we’re trying to get done around here”. Sasha Baron Cohen is conscious of the political aspect. As he said of his character:
People really let down their guard with him, because they’re in a room with someone who seems to have these outrageous opinions. They sometimes feel … much more relaxed about letting their own outrageous, politically incorrect, prejudiced opinions come out. (24)
This comment (made before the making of Borat) indicates that the film had two agendas: as well as making people laugh, there was also the intention to reveal American prejudice. This makes Borat’s relation to the inbetween form problematic however, since both those agendas require a certain amount of belief in the film’s world.
Borat contains many elements of the other films we’ve looked at—in particular the apparent juxtaposition of self-aware performers with unaware participants (eg Makhmalbaf with Sabzian, Paul with Alfred)—but while Kiarostami, Luchford and Zahedi all play up the indistinguishability and uncertainty of these scenarios, Borat, despite being the most contrived out of the four, is conspicuously reliant on the credibility of its semi-documentary status (25). We know Borat is really Sasha Baron Cohen the talented comedian, but we laugh more often than not because we assume the authenticity of the people and situations he comes into contact with. The joke would certainly not be funnier if we knew the processes that went into setting up each situation, the degree to which participants may have been aware of Borat’s artificiality or to which their statements may have been coaxed or taken out of context. Instead, the film’s narrative structure, perfectly in synch with the traditional “hero’s journey” paradigm, does everything it can to create a seamless experience.
Consequently, while it may not make a coherent argument in the way much mainstream documentary does (its own anarchic sketch-show roots undermines any thesis it may have had in mind), it still requires a level of unquestioned acceptance of its credibility that does nothing to generate the kind of “intense inquiry” imagined by McKibbin: the only forms of intensity Borat provokes is laughter, and in the case of individuals like that cowboy, disdain and condescension.
One could say one of the key effects of the first three films is something directly opposed to that kind of belief: an experience of profound doubt. Each film is so multifaceted that one could begin to question its authenticity earlier or later in the film, depending on prior knowledge, film literacy, and one’s own degree of scepticism or gullibility. But when one does, everything changes; prevented from taking the film’s status for granted one way or the other, we are forced to engage with the material moment by moment. These are films that effectively train us to judge them, forcing us into an attentive, questioning position—and they do so by being films that we can neither trust nor rely on. With their connection to reality and morality ambiguous at best, they force us to fend for ourselves. While conventional opinion-docs try to make us believe them, the inbetween film warns us to keep an eye on it. It’s a cinema of action rather than argument, and in empowering the viewer in this way, it’s also a profoundly ethical one.
Fergus Daly called it “an ethics of choice” as opposed to “a morality of imposition” (26)—a completely anti-Griersonian position in other words, and something that can be directly related to the way the participants in these films are treated. One could say that the two great ethical questions of cinema are how to treat the people you film and how to treat the people who watch your film. In the case of the former, our inbetween films are interesting examples. Since the main agenda of each of them is the exposure and questioning of agendas, they are not required to direct or edit their participants to conform with any thesis or line of argument—giving the likes of Sabzian in Close Up, Alfred in Here to Where and the Zahedi family in I Don’t Hate Las Vegas Anymore an amount of freedom to be themselves and to tell their own stories that would be impermissible within a conventional documentary form.
This freedom also creates the possibility that it’s the filmmakers, not the participants, that are really being fooled. In Las Vegas, when Zahedi convinces his father and brother to take ecstasy (one of his directorial attempts at familial connection), their deception (they only pretend to get high to shut him up) is discovered by Zahedi only after the film has been shot—but we find out a few minutes later when a crewmember speaks privately to the camera, wondering whether he should let Zahedi know about his family’s secret performance. In Close Up, which is all about a man pretending to be somebody else, the family accuse him of continuing to “play a role” during the trial.
When Kiarostami asks Sabzian “What part would you like to play?”, he replies “My own.” Kiarostami’s tells him that he is “playing his own part”—and in this line encapsulates the great power of these films, not least because that same challenge of playing “oneself”—in this case, enacting one’s own judgments, opinions, perceptions—is offered to the viewer as well. Kiarostami once claimed “The cinema and all the arts ought to be able to destroy the mind of their audience in order to reject the old values and make it susceptible to new values” (27)—but the new values are ones we have to make ourselves.
Throughout this, I have referred to central tension-creating questions that each film implies, but it’s worth noting that none of the films ever answer these questions. What matters is the engagement and attention they create and our own attempts not just to answer the “what” questions that create narrative tension, but the “why”s that lie under them. Whether Caveh ever truly reconnects with his family is less intriguing and mysterious than why he tries to reconnect with them in the ways he does; what Sabzian and Makhmalbaf talk about is less interesting than why it is so moving for Sabzian to meet this filmmaker; and the biggest questions in Here to Where are, of course, why Merhan stays in that airport and why Paul tries to make a film about it. Likewise, the value for the people making them isn’t in those clear tensions but in what they learn—and un-learn—along the way. Even Paul, at the end of Here to Where, is left asking himself an endless list of questions including “Do I really give a shit at all about Alfred?” and “If I had a choice between helping Alfred and helping myself, which one would I do?”
These aren’t questions to answer but to ask again and again, in different ways. If they are answered it would only be with other questions anyway, like why the films themselves were made, why we should watch them, why I’m writing about them, and why you’re reading about it.
Quoted by Hamid Dabashi, Close Up, Iranian Cinema, Past, Present and Future (Verso, 2001), p212
- John Grierson, “First Principles of Documentary” in Catherine Fowler (ed.), The European Cinema Reader (London, Routledge, 2002)
- In his article John Grierson, “Flaherty's Poetic Moana”in Lewis Jacobs (ed.), The Documentary Tradition (New York: Norton and Co.), p25.
- John Grierson as quoted in Peter Morris, “Re-Thinking Grierson: The Ideology of John Grierson”, http://wwwmcc.murdoch.edu.au/ReadingRoom/hfilm/MORRIS.html
- John Grierson as quoted in“Quotes about Documentary Film and Filmmaking”, http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/MRC/reellife/quotes.html
- Rob Nilsson, “The 15,000 Newsletter”, May 8, 2005, http://www.robnilsson.com/ newsletter0505.html
- Errol Morris interviewed by Tom Ryan, “Errol Morris”, http://www.sensesofcinema. com/contents/01/16/morris.html
- D.A. Pennebaker interviewed by Lee Gardner, “DV, TV and the New Documentary Boom”, http://www.citypaper.com/news/story.asp?id=3425
- Bertrand Russell, Roads to Freedom (Routledge, 2005)
- Jon Stewart interviewed by Larry King, “Larry King Live”, February 27, 2006, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5uNGudUtffQ
- Rob Nilsson, “The 15,000 Newsletter” (February 1, 2005), http://www.robnilsson.com/ newsletter0502.html
- Rob Nilsson, “The 15,000 Newsletter” (May 8, 2005), http://www.robnilsson.com/ newsletter0505.html
- Abbas Kiarostami interviewed by Geoff Andrew, Guardian/NFT Interview, April 28. 2005, http://film.guardian.co.uk/interview/interviewpages/0,,1476326,00.html
- Abbas Kiarostami, “In conversation with Antony Sellers at the 13th Galway Film Fleadh” (Galway Film Fleadh Publication, 2002), p.11
- Abbas Kiarostami interviewed by David Walsh, "Human beings and their problems are the most important raw material for any film", http://www.wsws.org/arts/1994/ oct1994/kiar.shtml
- Tag Gallagher, The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini (Da Capo, 1998), p277
- Caveh Zahedi interviewed by Chris Chase, “Shaman of the New American Cinema”, http://www.cavehzahedi.com/chase.html
- Fergus Daly, “Abbas Kiarostami: The Mirror of Possible Worlds” in Film West 32 (1998), p35
- Tony McKibbin, “Iran: Beyond Fact and Fiction” in Film Ireland 93 (July/August 2003), p42
- Caveh Zahedi interviewed by Gean Moreno, “A Cinema of Poverty”, http://www.cavehzahedi.com/fanzine.html
- Tom Hall, “The Joke’s on You” on The Back Row Manifesto blog, http://blogs.indiewire.com/twhalliii/archives/011688.html#comments
- Sasha Baron Cohen interviewed by Robert Siegel on “All Things Considered”, National Public Radio, July 23, 2004
- This is partly due to its technique’s origins which, Borat’s Kazakhstani heritage notwithstanding, are decidedly un-Eastern. Born as a sketch on Sasha Baron Cohen’s Da Ali G Show, Borat is essentially a descendent of Candid Camera-style programmes where real people are manipulated through set-up situations—not ancient Persian philosophy.
- Fergus Daly, “Abbas Kiarostami: The Mirror of Possible Worlds” in Film West 32 (1998), p37
- Quoted by Fergus Daly, Ibid., p37