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Shirin (Abbas Kiarostami, 2008)


Capping a decade spent making films that are arguably better described as experimental works than traditional narrative features, Abbas Kiarostami delivers Shirin, a deceptively simple work that confounds initial impressions. The title, taken from the traditional Arabic story of Shirin and Khosrow, combined with the fanciful illustrations seen under the opening credits, promises a straightforward adaptation of a folk story, but the film that follows is anything but traditional. Instead of dramatizing a fairy tale directly, Kiarostamiís work combines two distinct elements. The first is the soundtrack to a supposedly filmed adaptation of Shirinís story. The second consists of a few hundred shots of roughly one hundred Iranian actresses (plus French actress Juliette Binoche, who does help to make the filmís messages more universally applicable), who sit in a movie theater, presumably reacting to the film that they see. Throughout the run time, all an audience can do is listen to the soundtrack and watch the responses of the women, which are shown for twenty or thirty seconds at a time. Never does the director deviate from this structure.


This is a simple setup for a film, and its meanings initially seem quite obvious. Given Shirinís announcement early on, that ďitís time for my story now,Ē and the directorís focus on female audience members (both here and in other works, such as Ten), Shirin initially seems to be sending a potent message about marginalized women. The character Shirin, after all, directly addresses an audience of women. But, while Shirin does indeed send that message, it soon becomes obvious that Kiarostami has other things on his mind as well.


As we watch Shirin, the illusion that Kiarostami has created begins to show its seams. At first we might notice, at the periphery of the screen, that men are in the audience watching the movie as well, even if Kiarostami never centers any of them in the frame. Then, it becomes apparent that the soundtrack that we listen to doesnít quite coincide with the flashes of light supposedly cast from the screen. The drama that we hear unfolding, too, will seem awfully ornate for anyone familiar with the history of Iranian cinema. Finally, it will become obvious that the women are not merely watching a film unfurl, but are clearly receiving direction from the off-screen Kiarostami. There is a reason, after all, that the director has only cast actresses here.


External knowledge of how Kiarostami really created the film, then, seems somewhat necessary if viewers are to extract much meaning from it. In interviews, the director has revealed a few important things. The movie that the women appear to be watching was never filmed. The soundtrack they seem to be reacting to was only created in post-production after all of Shirinís filming had taken place. The women were not watching a film at all, but instead were simply looking at a series of moving dots while the director quizzed them about love. The audience never existed as a whole, but were instead filmed in small groups, a few at a time.


The ramifications of this approach are manifold. For one, by casting actresses heís raised the question of whether we, as viewers, are performing while we watch a film. Shirin directly addresses the odd, communal combination of stoicism and catharsis that we undergo when we watch a narrative film in a theater. So, too, it reminds us the level of participation that our imaginations play in movie watching. The illustrations shown in Shirinís credits sequence visualize a story that the rest of the movie refuses to. Our minds, even once weíre aware of the contrivances of the experiment, inevitably will work to fill in the rest of the picture. Much as the use of off-screen space in the directorís more conventional work functioned, the decision to never show the movie screen in Shirin activates the audience.


Like Kiarostamiís Close-Up, then, Shirin is revealed to be something other than the documentary that it first appears to be. The knowledge that this is all a put on turns the ruse into a testament to Kiarostamiís skill as a manipulator of image and sound. Once you are aware that the women here are simply watching a series of moving dots, the illusion that they are collectively following the same narrative becomes all the more remarkable. Their reactions, while profuse, generally seem genuine, and well-timed to the bulk of the narration that we hear. As simple as Shirin initially appears to be, it must have taken a great deal of craftsmanship to realize.


Even discarding all of that external knowledge about Kiarostamiís experiment, though, Shirin still offers a unique viewing experience. The story that we hear is compelling in its own right. When combined with the tension created by seeing its audience, the film works on multiple levels at once. The mind inevitably wanders, from the image, to the soundtrack, to the contemplation of the directorís approach. While Shirin may be an experimental film, it is not an obtuse one. Many of cinemaís most generous gestures involve withholding visuals from the audience. I think of works from great filmmakers like Snow, Akerman, and Bresson. Shirin, its apparent minimalism rife with paradoxes, fits into that legacy. It powerfully reminds us of the persuasiveness of art as it simultaneously stresses the humanist perspective of its singular, innovative creator.





Jeremy Heilman