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by  Dr. Pirooz Kalayeh

My PhD dissertation examines Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s cinema for its ability to create authenticity by melding fiction and documentary elements together, and how these juxtapositions create openings for audiences to enter their imaginations – a technique that can be examined through Francois Lyotard’s idea of the sublime – or what has often been called “spiritual cinema.”


I then compare Kiarostami’s techniques to those of Iranian American director Caveh Zahedi as a form of counterpoint and to show how he adds additional tools with the advent of YouTube and social media (Messenger, Skype, Zoom, etc.), before moving into a series of short films I created to put my theories to the test.


Each of these films – BLUSH, SERBIAN STAR, and MAKE FILM GREAT AGAIN – illustrate how juxtaposing documentary and fiction elements together can create authenticity for the viewer and allow them to enter the sublime.


To illustrate how this operates, please imagine a proscenium stage:

The expectation for the audience is that actors will enter the frame and then our performance will begin.

If the actors simply begin “husking corn” for 15 minutes before a performance, as was done in Sam Shepard’s BURIED CHILD (pictured here), we will soon begin questioning our contract on whether this qualifies as theater.


Eventually, as the performance continues, we forget about our traditional contract, and simply become part of the spectacle we are witnessing.


Kiarostami uses this same technique in his cinema by offering long takes that challenge conventional cinema and offer us moments of meditative reflection.

Take for example this scene of a can rolling down a hill in CLOSE-UP (see link). It comes unexpectedly and takes us completely out of the narrative entirely, so much so that we are left wondering about its importance and forget about what has just transpired. It pulls us out of the theater and into our imagination.


This is not unlike Zen Buddhism, when Zen monks who meditate upon koans, such as, “What is your original face before your mother and father were born?” bring them outside of their “thinking minds” to the present moment – or now – from which Francois Lyotard says the sublime can enter.


If we then keep shifting awareness of the viewer by changing their relationship to what is being seen by having them suddenly see what’s happening behind the stage (in our proscenium example) our question of reality is again put into question and a state of confusion like our initial “corn husking” scene.

Like the WIZARD OF OZ, Kiarostami offers us glimpses of behind-the-scenes moments, which create friction for what has just transpired and makes us believe what was hidden is actually reality and not our previous scene of “husking corn”.


This continual reframing of our perspective can then extend beyond the walls of the theater itself – if what is behind-the-scenes is pulled out from under us and we are placed outside the film itself.

For example, at the end of CLOSE-UP, Kiarostami has been recreating a real incident where a man has been impersonating the famous Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf.


Throughout the film, we see him interacting with the very people who have placed him under criminal charges for extorting money from them.


Yet every scene that we see is a dramatic re-enactment of what happened with the real participants.


Kiarostami cannot control their performances and that creates a level of authenticity for the viewer, because the behaviors they exhibit are uncontrolled.


Although Kiarostami allows these accidents to occur initially in the film, by the last scene we are given a glimpse of how this can become a controlled accident, when he has the impersonator actually meet the famous director he was impersonating.

In the film, after Makhmalbaf goes on a religious tirade, Kiarostami pretends he lost the audio for the scene to prevent the accident – and this faked accident makes us further believe in the authenticity of what we are shown, as we listen to the crew arguing about what to do as the film ends (see link).


This is a true, tour de force in manipulating our sense of reality. Kiaroastami’s cinema keeps shifting our perspective to achieve what he has called the true test of whether a film is good or not – and that is to fool him into believing that what we have seen is actually real.


Like Kiarostami, my three exercises seek to manipulate reality by using real participants, and both controlling and allowing accidents to help audiences believe that what is transpiring is not constructed.


BLUSH, for example, begins as a dramatic re-enactment (see link) of two PhD students goading me to make advances to a local bartender in Saas-Fee, Switzerland.

After recreating the scene that actually transpired, and then telling audiences that this is a recreation, audiences are hooked into believing that everything that will transpire is reality.

What then follows, according to this contract, is an actual conversation with the real bartender (see link). Although what occurs is as close to reality as we would see in a documentary film, I am still controlling how the film is edited – and can further control the film, by reframing yet again, when the bartender refuses to act in the film anymore – and we tell the audience she has now been replaced by a professional actress who will be playing her.

What then follows is a conversation with the actress who discusses her performance – and how the audio was lost from the scene we had done (see link).


Like Kiarostami, I pretend the audio has been lost, but unlike him, I re-involve the performers, allowing the actress to end the film with a real discussion on what she believes the film was about – although this was simply another constructed reality to create authenticity and reframe the audiences’ perspective, so they are left wondering what was real and what was not.


After completing these exercises, and graduating, I decided to continue pushing this idea of allowing and denying accidents further in my next film SOMETIMES I DREAM IN FARSI.

In order to create true authenticity, I decided to remove all control all together. Initially titled APOCALYPSE LATER, the film began as an experiment, where a group of actors would tell me what the film would be based on the title alone. Whatever they said would be the film, would then be filmed (see link).


After Kevin Ramsey, the actor, asks me what my apocalypse was, I recollect a traumatic racist incident in my childhood when I was refused a haircut and the police were involved after my father conducted a sit-in in protest. As I tell this story, I begin crying uncontrollably on camera. This was unplanned – and a true authenticity in cinema I had always been searching for.


Thereafter, instead of constructing realties, I could allow the film to be a journey of self-discovery and healing of this incident.


Unlike my previous films, where I would ordinarily do dramatic re-enactments, I would instead use Gestalt Therapy and do roleplays of the incident, moving back and forth between the stage, behind the scenes, and outside the theater itself, by shifting between my camera address narrating the story, the actual events that happened, and using two dimensional paintings and animations to offer further re-framings to create the friction necessary between these different ways of looking to allow audiences to enter and exit the film into their own imaginations.


My only control of the film would be in setting up roleplays, how I would narrate what happened, and the editing of what would be seen (see link).

This created a wholly unique cinema, which I am continuing to explore in my web series STORIES BETWEEN IRAN & AMERICA (see link), where storytelling can be intermingled with dramatic re-enactments, camera addresses, and animation.  

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