Whether a film does or does not present the truth seems considerably less important to us than whether or not it intends to do so. That is, we don’t really care whether a movie is based in fact or based in fiction so much as whether it’s explicitly presented to us as fact or as fiction. We assume that a film will be true to its intentions, or that it will cohere with our idea of the reality which informs it. This is one of the most pervasive but least discussed assumptions we share about the cinema, and if it’s difficult to acknowledge it’s even more difficult to get over.
That assumption is the cause of widespread outrage when a documentary is revealed to be even partly fabricated, and it’s why every word of discourse surrounding, say, Casey Affleck’s I’m Still Here revolved around its status as raw exposé or elaborate hoax. Maybe it’s rooted in some sort of antiquated faith in photography and verisimilitude—we assume what we see is in some way true because we know that the most basic function of the photographic (and by extension cinematic) apparatus is to record reality, to transpose movement and duration onto a celluloid strip, or to translate it into ones and zeroes, as the case may be. But we’re not stupid; we know photography lies, that it’s readily manipulated. So why is it so important to us that film tell the truth?
There’s a moral question in there, of course—we can object to deceit on ethical grounds. But that’s sort of our own problem. A film should have no particular obligation to adhere to a consistent idea of truth or fiction, and the quality of a film shouldn’t be effected should what was explicitly presented as “true” turn out to have been constructed or manipulated. Sometimes fiction is truer than reality anyway: when Robert Flaherty fictionalized a few key dramatic sequences for his seminal Nanook of the North, he did so because they better matched his vision of life as it is lived in the arctic—they weren’t “real,” but they felt real, and the value they add to the film greatly outweighs any sense of documentary integrity lost by lying. There’s nothing intrinsically valuable about striving for total transparency and truthfulness; the idea that they are not only commendable but somehow necessary to the documentary practice is almost entirely baseless. And there is perhaps no more compelling interrogation of these assumptions than that found in Abbas Kiarostami’s masterful Close-Up, a “documentary” of sorts about truth and fiction that is itself a confluence of the two.
By presenting himself as Makhmalbaf, Sabzian attempts to pass a fiction off as truth. But by documenting the reality of the lie, Kiarostami effectively transforms fiction into truth—we’re given the truth of its occurrence, the facts of his story.
The set-up is deceptively simple: Kiarostami, hearing of a man facing criminal charges after impersonating famed Iranian film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, decides to film the impending trial and interview the accused—a depressed, unemployed film buff named Sabzian—as well as the family to whom he misrepresented himself. But as the film unfolds, we witness events Kiarostami clearly couldn’t have, including Sabzian’s initial introduction to the family he deceives and, as the film opens, the reporting of the very article which inspired the movie. We understand that these sequences are fiction—that they are reenactments, dramatizations of interesting and relevant events Kiarostami simply couldn’t have captured in earnest. But they’re indistinguishable from those sequences which we assume were in fact captured in earnest; it’s all presented, whether deliberately or incidentally, in the style of a documentary, and thus under the pretense of truthfulness. Kiarostami’s calling that assumption of truthfulness into question. By presenting himself as Makhmalbaf, Sabzian attempts to pass a fiction off as truth. But by documenting the reality of the lie, Kiarostami effectively transforms fiction into truth—we’re given the truth of its occurrence, the facts of his story.
And then the truth of that story is further complicated: the “pure” record of its reality is combined with at least partly fictional reconstructions and reenactments, and in the end what we’re left with is a falsified document of a true story of a lie. That it’s unclear whether a given scene is a direct document of an event or a reconstruction of an earlier one is central to the film’s argument: truth is relative, fiction a matter of context. Kiarostami undermines the power of the documentary form in order to show just that fault line: that power is problematic in the first place, with or without his fictions. There’s a moment mid-way through Kiarostami’s Certified Copy when the male lead, shown a forged painting which remains on display in a gallery for its infamy as a fake, complains that the gallery has made a grave mistake. It’s not enough, he explains, to celebrate a forgery for a falseness; what they don’t realize is that its falseness is irrelevant, and that it should be displayed as authentic. Close-Up does just that, presenting its “real” documentary sequences and its “fictional” reenactments as ultimately identical, all of it equally authentic—or perhaps equally inauthentic. And if accepting that means rejecting the assumption that a documentary be wholly true, so be it—because that’s probably the more truthful approach anyway.