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In Kiarostami's Shirin, 113 actresses' faces are filmed as they watch a sentimental drama
There's a horrific irony that Neda Agha Soltan should become an icon of Iran's struggle
in the same week a sensitive study of the Iranian female face opens in cinemas. Abbas
Kiarostami's Shirin is an ingenious film that deserves the widest possible audience. It
cannot, of course, match the horror and power of those images of the 26-year-old
student as she lay dying on Karegar Avenue after being shot in the chest last Saturday
Eyewitnesses maintain she was targeted by the Basij militia,
despite playing a peripheral and wholly peaceful part in the
protest. But, as Shirin also suggests, it's the impact of the image
on the screen not the truths behind it that dictates the
spectator's emotional response.
Iran's women face the camera
As images of Neda Agha Soltan's lifeless face circumnavigate the
globe, Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami has made a compelling
study of the female face with Shirin
Production year:
Country: Rest of the
Cert (UK): PG
Runtime: 90 mins
Rarely has the status of women in the Muslim world been
explored with such devastating simplicity as in Shirin. By
exclusively employing close-ups of the shifting expressions of 113
actresses as they appear to watch a sentimental romantic
melodrama, Kiarostami demonstrates the cultural, political and
emotional intelligence that is often downgraded in patriarchal
societies. Expanding upon 'Where Is My Romeo?' Kiarostami's contribution to the
2007 portmanteau, Chacun son cinma and his 2008 multimedia installation,
Looking at Tazieh, this is a masterly variation on the 1920s Kuleshov experiment that
demonstrated filmic meaning's heavy dependence upon context.
Moreover, it continues his audacious attempt to put the abstract into arthouse and even
seems to reinforce the contention that Iran has developed a cinema of moral anxiety
similar to the one that emerged in Poland in the late 1970s, when Andrzej Wajda,
Krzysztof Zanussi, Agnieszka Holland and Krzysztof Kieslowski anticipated the
rebellious spirit of an oppressed society prior to the formation of the Solidarity trade
It's tempting to suggest that Iranian film-makers like Kiarostami, the Makhmalbaf
family, Jafar Panahi, Abolfazl Jalili, Rakhshan Bani-Etemad and Bahman Ghobadi have
been reflecting a similar undercurrent of popular discontent, as so many recent releases
have explored topics that would previously have been considered taboo. And what is so
intriguing is that the majority of these insights into women's rights, urban poverty,
prostitution, drug addiction, bureaucratic incompetence, legal intransigence and the
growing student fascination and familiarity with outside ideas and new technologies
have been granted export licences by a regime that is supposedly stricter than Poland's
pre-glasnost communists.
Shirin consists of a group of women watching a movie adaptation of Nezami Ganjavi's
12th-century fable about the rivalry for an Armenian princess between Farhad the
sculptor and the Persian prince, Khosrow. The storyline is an irrelevance, however,
despite the impassioned performances of an ulterior vocal cast and an emotive score.
What does matter is the art of screen acting, the perceptiveness of the camera and the
persuasive power of cinema.
Kiarostami reportedly mocked up an auditorium in his living room and coaxed his cast
into exhibiting a range of emotions while following three dots on a blank sheet of paper.
With Hedieh Tehrani, Niki Karimi, Leila Hatami and Juliette Binoche among those
enduring the relentless gaze of Gelareh Kiazand's camera, this is a compelling catalogue
of such basic audience responses as rapture, distraction, longing, fear, laughter and
However, it's also a subversion of narrative norms that lauds cinema's ability to offer
consolation, as it compels the viewer to speculate upon the personality and domestic
Directors: Abbas
Cast: Golshifteh
Farahani, Juliette
Binoche, Mahnaz
Afshar, Niki Karimi
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What's this?
situation that prompts each woman's reaction to the unseen scenario. Moreover,
Kiarostami courageously confounds fundamentalist attitudes by challenging the
wearing of burkas, as he showcases the expressive beauty of the hijab-framed face in
close-ups as affecting as those of Rene Falconetti in Carl Theodor Dreyer's silent
masterpice, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928).
Kiarostami's use of subtle shifts in expression to celebrate life is mesmerising. But Neda
Agha Soltan's lifeless face will rightly and undoubtedly leave the deeper impression.
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