Can you imagine doing anything more boring than watching an audience watch a movie or play? Until I saw Abbas Kiarostami’s Shirin, I could not. Now that I have seen it, it is hard to imagine anything so thought-provoking. The film is an hour and a half of close-ups of over 100 Iranian actresses watching a performance of the Persian Romance “Khosrow and Shirin.” There is not a single reverse shot. We hear the voices of the characters in the performance, and we hear what we assume is diegetic music, although this is a Kiarostami film, so we cannot be sure.
This is a film that has no right to be as interesting as it is, but if you are willing to accept Shirin as an avant-garde film, it becomes an exercise in the relationship between sound and image, in female spectatorship, in viewer identification, and in the aesthetics of the cinema itself. Can we follow a story that we can hear but not see? In this case, it appears the answer is, for the most part, yes. There are a couple instances where you may lose track of a voice, but if you do, that tells you far more about yourself and the relationship between sound and image than about Shirin or the story on its soundtrack. It’s a shame that to so many (myself included) subtitles will dilute the purity of this relationship, as we will have to depend on what we read instead of the words we hear, but you will still very consciously finding yourself paying attention to either the expressions of the actresses or the dialogue in the play. But what is it that triggers our emotional response? Is it the story of Khosrow and Shirin, or is it the reactions to the story by the actresses? At various points, the audience is in tears. Do we sympathize with the fictional characters they sympathize with, or do we sympathize with the real people suddenly realizing the limits of love and the tragedy of female sacrifice that they themselves may one day experience (or have already experienced)? Sometimes, you might be pretty sure it’s one or the other. Other times, it could be both, or perhaps you are not so sure.
Ultimately, each viewer of Shirin will probably have a different answer, or, more accurately, have a varying response to each. But there’s a curveball: Kiarostami did not film these actresses as they watched the tragedy. He filmed them staring just above his camera, either telling them how to emote or letting each actress imagine her own story, and then he edited the footage and decided to set it to the story we think they are watching. He is very deliberately asking—no, requiring—more of us than most directors would dare. Is just the dialogue in a tragedy or just the image of women relating to a tragedy enough to elicit and deserve an emotional response? The mere construction of the image is in itself a question about the very nature of the cinema, something not too far from listening to Michael Snow tell Hollis Frampton’s first person story of a photograph we have not seen yet in the latter’s (nostalgia). This is ontological, avant-garde filmmaking at its best.
That it is impossible to tell that these women are not watching a film calls into question our ability as an audience to distinguish reality from fiction, a theme perpetually present in Kiarostami’s work. Does knowing that these “audience” reactions are partially scripted effect what we think? That’s a question that depends largely on your approach to art. Do you isolate the artwork, or do you consider the artist and the production, too? That’s another question that Shirin raises with its documentary-fiction aesthetic, and it’s a question that no other filmmaker can raise so audaciously.
Asking these questions for 90 minutes should get redundant, but luckily the story we listen to, about the attempted romance between a princess of Armenia and a prince of Persia, is a charged one on its own. The idea of love itself and the role of sacrifice and responsibility of rulers are all raised, elevating Shirin from a deconstruction of cinema to a deconstruction with its own narrative and thematic agenda. Our story is told without images, but its power still comes through. The images we are given are full of small nuances, particularly in lighting, that create a new train of thought. It is hard to be sure, but it appears that there is a male in the audience. Is that the person who visibly asks a question to another audience member, and/or plays with his phone (or other device) toward the end? To this viewer, it looked like yes, although I’d have to watch again to be certain.
Gender politics are indeed an exploration of this film. It is not a coincidence that the close-ups are all on women, and that they cry at the story that I did not makes me wonder if it’s because I cannot relate enough to the themes or simply because I was denied the face of the character’s in the story. I was, however, profoundly moved by the reaction of the women when asked by a character in the story if they are crying for the Shirin inside of them. I relate more to the real actresses faking emotions than to the fake characters experiencing them in their own world. It’s classic Kiarostami, but in all other ways, it’s another way in which Shirin is effortlessly innovative.
If you go into Shirin not as a narrative film or a documentary film, but rather an avant-garde work about perception and the cinema, like a work by Stan Brakhage or Hollis Frampton, your mind will be racing like very few films allow it. Even if you don’t, the unflinching dedication on display (again, we never see the stage) will clue you in quickly. Check your expectations at the door and simply observe, and you will find yourself first beginning to think and then to experience. Shirin will empower you as a viewer like nothing else has ever attempted.
Because I have only seen the film once, I cannot award it a definitive A+. A re-watch will determine if this film is the masterpiece that it struck me as the first time.