Three close-ups in search of truth: law, cinema, psychoanalysis

Three close-ups in search of truth


Law, cinema, psychoanalysis


Maria Aristodemou


The cases of Hossein Sazbian


Tehran 1990. A young man is reading a book on the bus. The lady next to him shows interest in the book and asks him where he got it. In a bookshop, he says, and offers it to her. When he says he is the author of the book and maker of the film, none other than the film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, her interest widens to admiration and we can see she is rather star-struck. She keeps chatting to him and suggests that her sons, who are big fans of his, would like to meet him. They exchange numbers and the rest belongs to journalistic, legal, cinematic, as well, as now, academic history – in that order. Except of course that order is not ready-made, waiting for us to consume, but has to be made: in each case by the writer. It belongs also more poignantly to the characters’ personal history and it is for the purpose of recording those case histories that I turn to psychoanalysis.


The media appears on the scene to tell its version of the story at the same time as the law. Indeed they seem to precede and facilitate the law’s involvement, as the journalist is much more interested in the case than the police are. The film starts with Mr Farazmand unable to contain himself with excitement as he rides in a taxi with two policemen on their way to arrest the defendant. Throughout the film, the journalist appears more in charge of the circumstances leading to and including the defendant’s arrest and conviction than the young, shy, and taciturn policemen sitting with their guns at the back of the taxi. It is no coincidence, therefore, that the taxi driver mistakes Mr Farazmand for a policeman.


Following the newspaper report, another film director, Abbas Kiarostami, just as intrigued by the defendant playing himself as the lady on the bus was intrigued by the defendant playing Mohsen Makhmalbaf, visits him in prison and asks and obtains permission to film the subsequent court proceedings. The result is a semi-documentary, semi-fictionalized depiction of the accusation and trial for deception of Sazbian, a poor unemployed cinema fan, who impersonates the famous film director and misleads the rather embarrassed and annoyed middle-class Ahankhah family who initially believed him. As the narrative unfolds, we learn that the Ahankhah family had welcomed Sazbian to their home where he became a regular visitor. Soon he suggested to them that their house would be perfect for a new film he had in mind, and that their young sons would be the perfect lead actors. Initially at least, the Ahankhah family hung on Sazbian’s every word; as Sazbian puts it, while, as Sazbian he could never get anyone to listen to him, as Mohsen Makhmalbaf, everyone did whatever he told them: ‘If I told them to cut a tree in their garden, or rearrange the furniture in their house, they would do it.’


Kiarostami’s film combines characters who play themselves with characters who simply play, court proceedings and questioning by the judge with questioning by the director, contemporaneous filming of the court proceedings with reconstructions of events leading to and including the defendant’s arrest. At first watching at least, the spectator is not certain which scene is constructed, and what reconstructed, what belongs to the director’s imaginative retelling of the story and what takes place contemporaneously (if not spontaneously). The borders between fact and fiction, art and reality are therefore opened to investigation and, thereby to contestation. It is impossible to say, legislate, or judge which is the more real, the more true, representation of the case. Art and law dissolve into each other through the medium of the film which creates its own history, which in turn rewrites the legal case and the characters depicted in it. Not surprisingly, following the release of Close-Up the ‘real life’ case, its journalistic as well as legal report, were eclipsed by its cinematic retelling, a development that further confused the inter-penetration between fact, law, and film.


There is nothing new about competing discourses trying to relate the same case and fighting for the right to have the last word. Close-up self-consciously blurs the genres of film, law, and journalism and therefore transgresses the law that ‘Genres are not to be mixed. I will not mix genres. I repeat: genres are not to be mixed. I will not mix them’. (Derrida 1992: 223). It also illustrates Derrida’s point that the law which tries to institutionalize and preserve the purity of genres always fails because genres inevitably exceed their boundaries and are open to contamination by other genres. In the process it problematises the nature of truth, of truth-searching, and of truth-telling, as imagined, if not dictated, by the different discourses and their representatives: from the defendant and his victims, to the director and his project, and from the ambitious journalist looking for a sensational media story, to the court judge seeking to reach some kind of ‘right’ answer. The lingering question is whether the truth can ever be fully unveiled, let alone represented, by any of the competing discourses.


It would be easy here to rehearse the postmodern debate about the end of the grand narratives of modernity and in particular the claims made by science on behalf of knowledge as truth, even as the only truth. Knowledge as truth in science takes one of three famous forms, the debate raging between (a) the correspondence theory, according to which something is true if it ‘corresponds’ to the way things are, (b) the coherence theory, according to which something is true if it forms a harmonious part within a system and (c) the confirmation model, according to which something is true if it falls within the class of what we count as evidence for that class. All three forms, however, have more in common than they have apart: they all share the assumption that there is a reality out there that we can access, represent, and measure our statements as well as judgments against. Or as Thomas Aquinas put it ‘A judgment is said to be true when it conforms to the external reality’.1


Modernism further insisted on the possibility, as well as desirability, of ‘scientizing’ this external reality, preferably through the accumulation of facts. Proceeding on the assumption that oral testimony is both valuable and reliable, the journalist, film maker and judge (in that order), set out to interview the defendant. They therefore follow the tradition, or prejudice, that the presence of the speaking subject will confer origin, unity and authority to their utterances, whether the latter concern their past actions or future purposes. The judicial process in this story, as with every story the law attempts to tell, also aims to be the author, origin, and source of meaning, with the trial narrative trying to give an appearance of causality, order and closure. The fact that different characters give different accounts and different interpretations of the same events, however, quickly disabuse us of the illusion that the speaker’s presence will deliver the ‘truth’.


From a law and literature perspective, one that I argued for passionately in the past, we can point out that modernism’s fetishism of facts has led us to lose sight of law’s kinship (if not origins) in the literary imagination. To extend Hayden White’s protest, whether one is a historian, lawyer, journalist or film-maker, “our attempt to accord diverse sources with meaning cannot take place without selecting, hierarchizing, supplementing, suppressing and subordinating some facts to others. This process cannot be other than literary” (White 1978: 99). The film-maker’s tools, like the lawyer’s or journalist’s, are the same as those of the writer: that is, the techniques of figurative language.


Kiarostami’s film therefore, just like the trial narrative and the journalist’s report, is a construction, not a reflection of the past, dictated not by the events themselves which are now irretrievably lost, but by his interpretation and retelling of those events. So rather than one right answer, the truth of Sazbian’s case is again deferred: in Kiarostami’s depiction of the events, while the accumulation of facts may aim at an empirical explanation of the events, the Apollonian impulse towards rationality is continually subverted by asides that hint at a different truth inspired less by Apollo than by Dionysus, less by reason than by imagination and less by fact than by literature. Participants in this minor drama for example, continually appeal to metaphors to make sense of the story only to find that metaphors also defer rather than confer meaning. Despite the resulting accumulation of facts, characters, statements, images, and metaphors, simultaneous and retrospective, the ‘truth’ remains elusive.


It would be easy, in other words, and not at all insupportable, to suggest that there is no such thing as one truth here, that the case, and the truth, depend on the lenses we wear with which to see, as there is not one overarching, Platonic perspective which would enable us to see it all. However, this is not the argument I will make. In contrast to so-called postmodern hermeneutics of suspicion, and endless language games, I will venture the suggestion that there is such a thing as truth that we can try to reach, and that, as Edgar Allen Poe put it, it is not necessarily at the bottom of a well but quite often superficial: ‘there is such a thing as being too profound. Truth is not always in a well. In fact, as regards the most important knowledge, I do believe she is invariably superficial’ (Poe 1967: 204). Superficial but not, as we will find out, simple.


Truth and her sisters


In common with Poe, Lacan suggests that truth is not in a well, but manifest and indeed on the surface. That surface is none other than the surface of the signifier: speech. Not just any speech, however, but speech that implicates the subject’s desire. Truth in psychoanalysis has nothing to do with correspondence to reality, or coherence within a system, or with facts, or with knowledge, but with enjoyment. Since every subject has her own idiosyncratic, and invariably embarrassing (if not perverse) way of enjoying herself, that ‘truth’ is not a universal truth but a particular truth, unique to each subject: The truth of the subject, as Lacan puts it, is not a superior law but ‘a truth that we will look for in a hiding place in our subject. It is a particular truth’ (1992: 24). And it will come as no surprise that for Lacan that place is not far from the place where the subject’s enjoyment resides: truth, he says, is ‘the sister of that forbidden jouissance’ (Lacan 2007: 61).


How do we access this truth? Since for Lacan truth is not an epistemological or ontological entity but a place, indeed a ‘hiding place’, the only chance we have of accessing it is if we speak topologically. That is, we need to explore and inhabit more than one universe since, for psychoanalysis, all human beings inhabit, to a greater or lesser extent, and with various degrees of success, the distinct yet intertwined registers we refer to as real, symbolic and imaginary universes. Topologically speaking, truth lies at the intersection between the three registers and the task of analysis is to find out how they are knotted together in the case of each subject.


Do the combined forces of three discourses, that is, of law, film, and psychoanalysis enable us to get closer to the subject’s truth? This chapter will chart the attempts made by the different discourses to make sense of Sazbian’s tale, pointing out the problems and pitfalls they encounter along the way. We look first at the imaginary register, that is the tale as ‘reflected’ by the participants in the drama, Sazbian in particular but also his alleged victims, the Ahankhah family. Psychoanalysis, as we’ll see, is quick to cast doubt on the truth afforded by the participants’ imaginary reflections: for Lacan what the subject sees, of herself or of others, does not guarantee knowledge, at least not knowledge of the ‘truth’, because there is always one point from which we can never see, that is, the point from which we are looked at. This is the point Lacan famously refers to as the gaze or blind spot: as he explains, ‘I see only from one point but in my existence I am looked at from all sides.’ (Lacan 1977: 72). There is, in other words, always a ‘missing bit’ in our field of vision, just as there is always a ‘missing’ bit in our attempts at representation.2


The tale as told by the media and the law in our case, represents the intrusion of the symbolic dimension into the imaginary register Sazbian and his victims have been inhabiting. Do the law or the media succeed in understanding the complex web of Sazbian’s and his victim’s motivations? Psychoanalysis is not so sure: that is, if psychoanalysis is suspicious of the truth to be had from the image, it is no less suspicious of the truth to be had from language and representation. For psychoanalysis the symbolic register focuses on ‘reality’, on what we can know and represent, at the expense of what Lacan called the Real, that which is contingent and unknowable (Lacan 2006: 296). The distinction here is between ‘reality’, which dwells in the realm of the symbolic, that is, in the register of language, and the Real, which exceeds our capacities for representation. The significance of this distinction is to point out the limits of our capacities of knowing: Lacan’s intervention confuses our confidence in seeing and in knowing it all and alerts us to that which is beyond representation and beyond knowledge.3


Does Kiarostami’s film succeed where the media and the law fail? Significantly Kiarostami chooses to call his film “Close-Up”, after the special lens he uses to hone in on Sazbian during the court hearing. Does this lens get closer to the subject’s hiding place? My argument in this chapter is that Kiarostami’s cinematic lens, and indeed metaphor generally, does have a greater potential to approximate the truth than the participants’ imaginary reflections, or the symbolic interventions of the law and the media. Cinematic lenses and metaphors, however, even great ones, also come to an end, even, as the film suggests, a dead end. At that point Kiarostami resorts to a trump card and draws the film to a winning, if not necessarily true, conclusion.


Imaginary: journey of misrecognitions


What is the unconscious truth that we remain in ignorance of? For Lacan it has a name and it is called the objet petit a