What is cinema? The ontological question can be approached from a plurality of perspectives, from the nature of its physical being to the loftier ideas of its place in the art world. Salaam Cinema is an answer to the question through an enactment of ideas. Instead of presenting a definitive idea of what cinema is, the film collects a swath of ideas that constitute cinema.
First and foremost, cinema is an obsession. As a car drives through the throngs of people gathered to audition for a role in Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s film, the passion and desire to be in the movies is almost irrational in its fervency and power. And as Makhmalbaf talks to many of these actors throughout the film, the people have a deep love of the cinema, and they might have an compulsion to be in his film.
Cinema is also a form of wish-fulfillment. The people in the film all desire to be in the movie, and by creating a movie about casting the film, Makhmalbaf uses this examination of cinema as also a way to realize the dreams and aspirations of those who come to try to be in the film. Cinema becomes a place where dreams can become a reality.
Likewise, cinema is a place of play. The entire film has people act out scenarios or fulfill commands as Makhmalbaf calls them. These loosely structured commands quickly enter the realm of child-like play, such as when Makhmalbaf pretends to shoot down all the actors in a mock action sequence.
The cinema is also subjugation. As Makhmalbaf commands these orders, he exhibits power in a way that might be abusive. He commands people to cry on will and then demeans them when they are unable to do so, which occasionally results in tears. His manipulation to get what he wants to see can often come across as cruel. In many ways, this evokes the scene in Abbas Kiarostami’s Homework where, during an interview, he brings a young child to tears .
Makhmalbaf eventually gives two young actresses his spot in the director’s chair, having them interrogate the next group of women. Placing them in power demonstrates that the ultimate worth and value of what is seen on screen is also judged by the audience. Eventually the director must relinquish control and cinema becomes the domain of the viewer.
It’s also worth speculating at how the film poses itself as a documentary about a casting call, but it becomes unclear whether or not everything is truly a document. Is Makhmalbaf able to induce some of these reactions on the fly or is he getting these people to act out a story he’s already fabricated? Certain moments seem too coincidental to be uncontrolled moments of reality,
Salaam Cinema is the kid brother of Close-Up, the complex documentary by Kiarostami about a man posing as Makhmalbaf. Many of the ideas of cinematic obsession and cinema as wish-fulfillment are explored in a more tightly controlled and nuanced space in Close-Up. In contrast, Salaam Cinema is a loosely structured, more playful exploration of many of the same ideas and an equally provoking piece of cinema.
© 2014 James Blake Ewing