No feature film has ever been made this way.
Shirin, the latest work of Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami is based on a love myth of Khusrow and Shirin, a literary 12th century love saga of a prince and a young woman named Shirin, a tragic tale cutting across the borders of Persia and Armenia. And then again, the film is not about the love saga because you don’t see the film, you only hear the sounds of an elegantly made film and see the corresponding light and darkness of the virtual film falling on the faces of 114 of the best actresses in Iran and of Juliette Binoche, a famous French actress of cinema. What you hear is what would be a delightful radio drama of the tale made into film that you never get to see. What you see instead is a canvas of beautiful women emoting to this virtual film.
The film Shirin is an audacious experiment, in which for 92 minutes you are subjected to watching the faces of different women in a movie hall watching a movie of the tragic love tale of Shirin and her two lovers Khusrow and Farhad, one is a prince and the other a sculptor. The interesting trivia you need to know is that during the packed screening of the film at the 14th International Film Festival of Kerala that the entire audience stayed enraptured in their seats for 92 minutes of the film without a single cat-call, totally in awe of what was happening. Earlier, delegates, like me, had stood in line hours in advance and many had to go back disappointed unable to enter the theatre.
For those who have not heard of Abbas Kiarostami--he is a 69-year-old poet, photographer, painter, graphic designer, screenplay-writer, film editor and an art director of films.
Two questions bounce at you while watching Shirin.
Are there any men in the film? There are two men Khusrow and Farhad, in the virtual film that we only hear voices of. However, in the filmed audience too there are men but you see them in rows behind the female faces. Kiarostami has made a film on the reactions of women towards a famous tragic epic poem. Tears flow, eyes look away and then back again, each subtle movement capturing the emotions of the viewer. Obviously, the director is not interested in the men’s reactions. He is interested in the women’s reactions. This becomes apparent towards the end when the virtual film is heard stating “There is a Shirin in all women..” or words to that effect.
Will such a film ever make money? It is a minimalist film that would surprise even the most dyed-in-the-wool cineaste. Once you are inside a film hall watching Kiarostami, you are hypnotized. You would not leave the hall. I did not, nor did the hundreds who saw the film with me, some sitting on the aisles. But the moot question is would I have come to see the film in the first place, if I was aware of what I was going to see? Probably not, having assumed that it would be boring experience. Yet having seen the film, I would state otherwise.
Kiarostami is a genius, an audacious one. He has realized one fact. The audience matters as much as the story. Therefore, you need to look through the camera-eye at your audience. Through close-ups. In a way, the entire film is an ode to close-ups in cinematography. It is a also a formidable work of editing, one could point out the range of emotions do not include laughter and contentment. Theatre directors and film directors all know the importance of their audiences. After all they succeed or fail because of the audience. Here's a film that captures the all-important audience through close-ups. Kiarostami, the filmmaker, turns into a psychiatrist and a Svengali of the audience instead of the actor!
This work of Kiarostami is at a deeper level capturing the fears and hopes of the average Iranian through a catharsis of a movie watching experience. Had he used only the ugly faces of Iran’s women this might not have worked but actresses like Golshifte Farahani (Sepideh of About Elly) and Niki Karimi (The Hidden) are faces of the gifted beautiful women, whose faces never make the audience of Shirin look away.
Kiarostami and Dariush Mehrjui are great filmmakers on par with best in the world. Kiarostami set up a famous film institute when Mehrjui made his famous film Gaav (the Cow). That institute can take the credit of being instrumental in making Iranian classics like Naderi's The Runner. But these film-makers can never be taken for granted and have to work within a system that reduces the scope of what they can film as subjects. Documentary and fiction merge often in Kiarostami’s cinema just as it does in Shirin. So do themes of love and death. That too plays a role in Shirin.
P.S. Abbas Kiarostami's Tickets (2005) has been reviewed elsewhere on this blog.
Try to catch up with this film—because it is a totally different experience you’re not likely to forget. It is on one plane a folk tale, on another a tale of what makes an audience react the way they do, on yet another the options of entertainment for a woman in Iran how she reacts to those limited options, and finally how a clever director can manipulate the audience.
P.S. Some major Iranian films including Gaav and The Runner have been discussed earlier on this blog.