Constructing Subjectivity between ‘East’ & ‘West’

The question of self and what it means across cultural boundaries has always been interesting.  In this post, I aim to understand one Iranian director’s perspective on the construction of self in order to extrapolate broader themes underlying Iranian identity.  My perspective is informed by the ethnographic works of Marry Bateson and Roxanne Varzi. 

This post deals with Abbas Kiarostami’s construction of the self based on his film, Close-Up.  Critics are keen to point out a poetic pulse in Iranian new wave cinema in general, and Kiarostami’s films in particular, that signifies cultural and perhaps civilization differences with the west.[1]  It is only by juxtaposing two “cultures” that the construction of identity in either is possible.  In order to capture Kiarostami’s construction of the self, I intend to situate my investigation at the nexus of Iranian, and to a lesser extent, the “Western cultural” patterns.

Kiarostami would perhaps have nightmares about such inquiry, as he often tries to distance himself from cultural fault lines.  He has frequently claimed that his characters are not unique people, rather ordinary people in unique situations who portray “natural human characteristics,” and less cultural ones.  Yet, he mentions the following in describing his method:

I don’t have very complete scripts for my films. I have a general outline and a character in my mind, and I make no notes until I find the character. When I find the character, I try to spend time with them and get to know them very well. Therefore my notes are not from the character that I had in my mind before, but are instead based on the people I’ve met in real life. It’s a long process, it may take six months. I only make notes, I don’t write dialogues in full. And the notes are very much based on my knowledge of that person. Therefore when we start shooting I don’t have rehearsals with them at all. So, rather than pulling them towards myself, I travel closer to them; it’s very much closer to the real person than anything I try to create. So I give them something but I also take from them.[2]

What he describes is in fact similar to the anthropological approach of participant observation.  Even if Kiarostami’s characters show natural human characteristics, they also reflect other characteristics that are, all the while, ingrained in the Iranian “culture.”  The movie Close-Up was shot with a slightly different method than Kiarostami’s previous films, one that has many intersections with visual ethnography.

The people at the center of Close-Up, and the story that revolves around them, are not fictional creations—a man named Hossain Sabzian did impersonate Mohsen Makhmalbaf (the famous director), and it’s the real Sabzian we see on-screen. In fact, all the performers in Close-Up are non-professionals playing themselves, and this includes Makhmalbaf and Kiarostami, the latter of whom appears in the film interviewing Sabzian.[3]  Kiarostami’s Close Up, as a form of visual ethnography, can be used to say something about Iranian culture and in this case, the question of self as constructed by Kiarostami.

Before analyzing Kiarostami’s notion of the self, the following is a brief summary of Close-Up.  The story is about a shiftless printer’s assistant, Hossain Sabzian, who is also a film lover and a huge fan of popular Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf (director of Gabbeh and The Cyclist).  While riding the bus and reading a copy of Makhmalbaf’s novel, The Cyclist, he meets Mrs. Ahankhah.  She, too, is a fan of the book and the film.  After a short discussion about the film, Sabzian introduces himself as Makhmalbaf.  Mrs. Ahankhah is a bit puzzled at the spectacle of a famous director using public transportation.  Sabzian explains that he finds inspiration in doing so.  Mrs. Ahankhah tells Sabzian that her son adores him.  Sabzian in turn asks Mrs. Ahankhah to relay his phone number to her son.  Posing as Makhmalbaf, Sabzian visits the Ahankhah family several times over the next couple of weeks.  He often eats at their house and even flatters them by suggesting that he would use their house for his next film and their son as his main actor.

Eventually Mr. Ahankhah grows suspicious of Sabzian’s authenticity, especially when a magazine photo shows a younger darker-haired Makhmalbaf.  Mr. Ahankhah invites an ambitious journalist friend (Hossain Farazmand) over, who confirms that Sabzian is indeed an impostor. The police come to arrest Sabzian, while the reporter takes several pictures for his upcoming article: “Bogus Makhmalbaf Arrested.” Kiarostami intersperses these scenes throughout the film, which does not progress chronologically. They are re-enactments, and they are the only re-enactments in the film.

The rest of the film is a documentary (or what passes for documentary when the subjects know a camera shooting is them). Kiarostami obtains permission from the court to film the trial (Sabzian is being tried for fraud which is real). Occasionally, Kiarostami interrupts to ask a few questions from Sabzian. Kiarostami’s interventions have been permitted by the judge in advance.  There is a judge but no lawyers, and both sides tell their story themselves. Over the course of the trial, Sabzian is questioned persistently about his reasons for impersonating Makhmalbaf.  He gives a variety of reasons: he feels empowered as Makhmalbaf and people respect him and listen to his every word. Moreover, Sabzian loves cinema. He watches films over and over again.  And he “lives” for the movie, The Cyclist.  At the end, the Ahankhah family requests that their complaint be withdrawn.  The case is dropped, the legal crisis is resolved, and Sabzian is released.

In the next scene, Sabzian does not know that a camera is following him as he is released from prison.  On his way to catch the bus, he is confronted by the real Makhmalbaf who is there to greet him.  This encounter causes an emotional scene followed by Sabzian and Makhmalbaf riding a bike to Ahankhah’s house.  Sabzian, presumably, wants to see the Ahankhah’s one more time.  Once they have arrived at the door, Sabzian rings the bell and Mrs. Ahankhah asks, “who is it?”  To which Sabzian answers, “Sabzian.”  She asks again, “who?”  This time Sabzian replies: “Makhmalbaf.” Subsequently, the door is buzzed open and both Makhmalbaf and Sabzian are greeted by Mr. Ahankhah, which is the very last scene of the movie.

Sabzian, who is portrayed as essentially a good man throughout the movie, is mistaken for Makhmalbaf (the director), or rather sells himself as such. His crime is not merely the acceptance of the Ahankhah’s hospitality, rather doing so under false pretences.  Thus, the main dilemma in this movie is the crisis of identity.  There are two resolutions to this crisis: the less important one, which is the legal resolution; and the main one, which is the ethical resolution.  The legal resolution is arrived at by the court, via the eventual request of the accusers (the Ahankhahs), which sets Sabzian free from prison.  It is the ethical resolution, however, which signifies a point of cultural contrast to the West.

Kiarostami’s Close-Up challenges ideals rooted in the Enlightenment such as, individual rights, liberal democracy, and one-man-one-vote as notions that are natural or even desired.  It is an appeal against the Western idea that “Jack” is “Jack” and nobody else can be “Jack.”  Makhmalbaf’s identity is as much ingrained in his art – and by extension, in his society – as it is in him as an individual.  The very last scene in Close-up, where Sabzian introduces himself as Makhmalbaf while at Makhmalbaf’s presence, is a moment were ethics of individual rights has been transcended.  The right to Mahmalbaf’s name, fame, books, and his creativity are no longer important, as Makhmalbaf denies himself of such rights for the sake of friendship, community, and Sabzian’s reconsiliation with the Ahankhahs.  Honesty and authenticity are no longer valuable.  What is important is the social backbone, which must stay erect at all cost.  And it is not through individual rights or honesty that this goal is achieved, rather through shared identity and “hypocrisy.”

Mary Bateson, in the analysis of her ethnographic work that was published in the late 1970’s, explores some of the contrasts between the U.S. and Iran.  About America, she writes that there has been an increasing “assertion of the fundamental innocence and wholesomeness of the inner self and its right to expression.  Evil lies in the concealment itself, not in what is concealed.”[4]  She continues to suggest that,

Harmony is to be achieved by letting the outside directly express the inside.  Thus frankness and outspokenness are regarded by Americans as good, and honesty is preferred to kindness, tact, or prudence in the scale of virtues.[5]

This means that people are less likely to conform outwardly which provides the necessary predictability making Western social life possible.

Conversely, this is what she writes about Iranian culture:  “It explicitly accepts certain types of deception and dissimulation.  To begin with, the values of kindness, courtesy, and hospitality stand higher in many contexts than the values of frankness and honesty.”  Sabzian was the recipient of hospitality and kindness from the Ahankhah family even though the authenticity of his identity was always somewhat in question.

Bateson continues:  Iranians often question why the truth should be told if feelings are to be hurt.  Why, indeed, linger of painful truths?  Deaths in the family are sometimes not reported to the bereaved until the information can be passed along tactfully and supportively.  It is important to understand that this is not the case where honesty is not valued, rather given a particular set of circumstances where honesty can cause pain, a minor deception is preferred –  which cannot be regarded as a lie, as real lies are very much condemned.

She goes to suggest that in all such cases, “dissimulation is a response to external forces, which may be negatively conceived, and goodness lies within – an inversion of the Western situation where hypocrisy conceals something ugly.”[6]  Indeed, in Iranian folk psychology, the main source of evil is in social life; it comes from without, not from within.

During the court scene in Close-Up, Sabzian is able to buy the Judges’ sympathy by articulating that his trickery was not for material gain, rather it was a push against a society which had stripped him of all dignity and esteem.  The appeal in becoming Makhmalbaf was the gain of sudden fortune and respect that society had all but denied him.  The courts attraction to Sabzian is rooted in his inherent goodness; it is the evil in the social life which has made a joker out of him.  Not surprisingly, as the court interrogation continues, Sabzian is transformed from a charlatan to something vastly more meaningful, and the movie from a semi-documentary to a poetic narrative, during which Close-Up becomes fully Iranian.

“There are a multitude of contexts in Iranian culture in which what is concealed and covered is purer and finer than what can be seen from outside.”[7]  Both object and subject have an “exoteric” meaning (zaher) and an “esoteric” meaning (baten).  The exoteric meaning which requires seeing through the esoteric is the higher one.  It is the esoteric dimension of Sabzian that saves him from himself and turns his hypocrisy to social commentary.

Kiarostami is fully aware of zaher and baten, which is why two sets of questions are asked during the court scene.  The first category of questions, asked by the judge, deal with the exoteric values.  Such questions have to do with formalities and are rooted in legal procedures:  On what day did you meet the Ahankhahs?  Did you take any money from them?  How much?  And so on.  The second sets of questions, presented by Kiarostami, are the esoteric (baten) questions.  These latter sets of questions present to us the real Sabzian; a man who is a movie lover, who has strong convictions about how a director should act in public, and what subjects must he explore.

It is important to note that Western audiences are amazed to see that a director is allowed to ask questions of his own during a court hearing.  In American courts, when a prosecutor starts his routine by declaring “the people verses Jack,” the “people” are in fact divorced from the process.  A defendant can ask for a jury trial in which the jury is encouraged to limit its contact with external links in order to prevent bias judgments.  Again, concepts of one-man-one-vote and “objectivity” are at play in Western legal procedures.  In Iran, however, the court system has no identity of its own.  If the accusers withdraw their complaint, the case is over.  This suggests that individual rights take a back seat to social cohesion in Iran.

Moreover, the predictability seen to be necessary for proper social functioning in the West, does not work in the same way or to the same degree in Iran.  Jean Baudrillard suggested that predictability has become institutionalized in the West to the extent that even death is not given a chance to occur on its own terms.  Death, the most spontaneous and enigmatic event is regulated by institutional bio-power.

To use an analogy, a merchant at an Iranian Bazaar does not have a set price for his commodity.  He bargains his way by overbidding in order to fall back.  An Iranian merchant may even sell his items below the redline, at which point he will endure losses, if the person the item is being sold to holds such a position where he could exert his influence in way potentially useful for the merchant.  Even shopping, then, is shrouded by uncertainty.  A Westerner in general may endure a week of shopping masked by such ambiguity.  But, after a while, the Westerner needs to know “what the damn price is?”  The Americans, Baudrillard says, understand nothing in this whole psychodrama of bargaining.[8]

To demonstrate the level of unpredictability that Iranians are comfortable with, one can point to the daily ritual of taarof.  Taarof is characterized as a host offering anything that a guest might want, and the guest usually refusing it.  This ritual may repeat itself several times before the host and guest finally determine whether the host’s offer and the guest’s refusal are real or simply polite.  Taarof which enacts the virtues of generosity and humility are nonetheless surrounded by a degree of ambivalence.

Bateson notes that taarof is an exchange which encompasses a degree of risk and trust.  Person X offers more than he can conveniently give and person Y must show restraint in accepting it.  The point is that X has given Y the opportunity to refrain from injuring him.  Y will usually give more in return than the negative offering or restraint – for instance, he will give thanks for the gift he has not, and was not expected to accept.  Thus, a genuine taarof portrays a degree of trust as it involves risk or the acceptance of vulnerability vis-à-vis the other, who must then show self-restraint.

The story in Close-Up unfolds to the backdrop of such peculiar unpredictability.  Sabzian is forgiven by the Ahankhah’s in court.  But with this forgiveness comes a total termination of social relations between Sabzian and the Ahankhahs.  While Sabzian is physically free, he is still socially shackled by his ethics.  He therefore has to pay the Ahankhah’s one last visit during which he will not offer his apologies, since he has already done that.   Rather, Sabizan, during his most vulnerable moment, will offer the Ahankhah’s a chance to strike back verbally and physiologically.  The Ahankhahs, having understood such extreme variation of Taarof, show great self-restraint by opening the door to him with smiles and kisses.  Thus, the trust is restored, at least temporarily.

Roxanne Varzi, in her book titled, Warring Souls, adds another dimension to our understanding of the self in Iran.  The two key terms that she uses as a way of describing the construction of self in Iran are Khodsazi and BikhodiKhodsazi is the accumulation of knowledge.  Bikhodi, “can be defined simply as self annihilation, it is a slippery term that can in one instance refer to martyrdom, a final, physical death, and in another instance refer to self annihilation and madness, which marks the death of constructed self ego, without a physical death.”[9]

The mystical definition is the transcendence of the ego, which may or may not lead to physical death.  This becomes important in Ibn Arabi’s story of Laili and Majnun.  “The annihilation of the self is the moment of divine epiphany, a notion that is illustrated when Majnun says that he no longer knows himself and has death inside of himself.”[10]  He has forgotten himself and abandoned subjectivity in order to find truth.

As Close-Up unfolds, scene by scene, Sabzian moves closer, bit by bit, to total acquittal from trickery.   The Cyclist (a Makhmalbaf movie) has had a tremendous effect on Sabzian, to the degree that he can only see the world as if it were the stage for a movie production.  He only sees himself, society, and the world through the eyes of Makhmalbaf, which is why he becomes Makhmalbaf.  And he can only do this by annihilating Sabzian.  Again, it was strange for the audience to see Sabzian introduce himself as Sabzian during the last scene of the movie.  Incidentally, it was awkward for Sabzian as well, which became clear once he introduced himself a second time, and much more confidently, as Makhmalbaf.  Sabzian’s khodsazi materializes first, by viewing Makhmalbaf’s movies and getting into each one of their characters.  Then, there is a departure from khodsazi to bikhodi, were Sabzian becomes the characters and ultimately, Makhmalbaf.   Indeed, when Makhmalbaf greets Sabzian upon his release from prison, Sabzian almost faints, breaks down, and can hardly utter words that make sense.  This is the moment that he has lost all of his identities, for he is no longer Sabzian or Makhmalbaf.  Of course, this problem is resolved at the very end of the movie where Sabzian, while at Makhmalbaf’s presence, introduces himself as Makhamalbaf, and is allowed to regain an identity and, therefore, his composure.

In a lecture on Abbas Kiarostami’s films at Penn, Luara Mulvey, a film critique who was introduced as the Einstein of cinema, suggested that those who know anything about Iran must understand the role of poetry there.  But, she failed to articulate what she meant by Iranian poetry, or whether poetry in Iran is an artistic lyrical form of expression or something broader.  Aristotle once said poetry is “something more scientific and serious than history.”[11]  The former is represented by events “either likely or necessary;”[12] and the latter by events both specific and “real.”  The mystic poet Farid al-Din Attar’s Conference of the Birds is a lyrical allegory of Persian mysticism.  And it is mysticism, according to Varzi, which pervades the very foundation of Iranian society.

The story of The Conference of the Birds is about the journey of a group of birds in search of a mystic leader named Simurgh who lives in an inaccessible place behind mountain Oaf.  The leader of the birds claims to have hidden knowledge of the Simurgh, and she leads them in the search.  For years, they navigate through dangerous terrain.  During the quest, many birds are petrified by the difficulty of the journey and make excuses to quit.  The complaints and replies narrated during the journey form mystical tales that are at the hart of this lyrical quest.  Attar tells us, “the only way to understand what they suffered…is to journey with them.”[13]

During the quest, the nightingale is the first bird to come forward with an excuse as to why he cannot continue the journey toward the Simurgh: He cannot be without the love of the rose.  The leader of the birds tells him:

The love of the rose has many thorns….although the rose is fair her beauty is soon gone.  One who seeks self-perfection should not become the slave of a love so passing.  Forsake the rose and blush for yourself, for she laughs at you with each new spring and then she smiles no more.[14]

The leader warns the rest of the birds that the image (zaher) is the most powerful of manipulations.  The hardest lesson for the birds to learn is that image tricks, betrays, disintegrates, and manipulates reality leading to simulation.  It is for this reason that in Close-Up, the court resolution, which is a legal and thus a zaher type of decree is of less significance vis-à-vis the ethical resolution which deals with the baten.

In Attar’s story, many of the birds make excuses during the journey, most quit and all but thirty birds remain.  Once the birds reach the mythical peak of Mt. Qaf, they find that there is no Simurgh (the mystical leader they were searching for).  In fact, they were all alone.  Si in Persian means, thirty.  And murg means, bird.  Thus, Si-murgh means, thirty birds.  When the remaining group of thirty birds reaches the peak of Mt.Qaf, they find that together they are the Simurgh.  The Simurgh is the very group that journeyed toward a mystical leader.

It is generally said in Iran that all one needs to know about mysticism – and by extension, about Iran – is in Attar.  The Conference of the Birds seems to suggest that oneness derives from the group and the only way to achieve it is through one’s selflessness (bi khodi).  It is in fact the virtue of selflessness portrayed by Imam Husain that made him one of the most iconic figures of Shiite Iran.  It is alleged that Imam Husain, Muhammad’s descendant through his daughter Fatimah, knew of his fate before engaging in the battle of Karbala.  His “martyrdom” represents utter selflessness in Iranian folklore.  Ayatollah Khoamani, the leader of the Iranian revolution and a student of Islamic mysticism (Erfan) is credited for his effective usage of the discourse of selflessness (bikhodi) which is said to have allowed him to institutionalize the culture of martyrdom during the 80’s.

Close-Up, The Conference of the Birds, and the story of Imam Husain’s martyrdom all point to a conception of self that is vastly different than Western notions in that it challenges ideals ingrained in the Enlightenment such as individual rights and liberal democracy.  It is thus, not ironic that Kiarostami’s movies are not popular in the Iranian mainstream.  His movies are redundant for the domestic viewers as they show nothing new and instead, reflect poetry that represents the essence of everyday life in Iran.  And perhaps, it is precisely for this reason that Kiarostami is adored by Western critics.

[1] Laura Mulvey is a prominent avant-garde filmmaker who is currently a professor of film and media studies at Birkbeck, University of London.  She has published many influential essays on cinema.  During her lecture at Penn in 2008, she noted that many Western critics, including herself, are fascinated with the poetics of Iranian new wave cinema

[2] Andrew, Geoff.  “Abbas Kiarostami Interveiw.”  The Guardian, April 2005.,,1476326,00.html

[3] Ibid.

[4] Bateson, Mary. (1979). This Figure of Tinsel: A study of Themes of Hypocrisy and Pessimism in Iranian Culture.  Daedalus Vol. 108, No 3. Pg 125.

[5] Bateson, Ibid.

[6] Bateson, Ibid.

[7] Bateson, Pg 127.

[8] Baudrillard, Jea. (2005). The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. Indiana: Indiana University Press.

[9] Varzi, Roxanne. (2006). Warring Souls: Youth, Media, and Martyrdom in Post-Revolution Iran.  Duke University Press.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ginzburg, Carlo.  (1999).  History, Rhetoric, and Proof.  Brandeis University Press.  Pg 38

[12] ibid.

[13] Varzi, Ibid.