It’s difficult to begin to describe what Shirin actually is. The reality is simple: a 90 minute series of individual women watching and reacting to the play Khosrow and Shirin. But while that’s the technical makeup of what one actually sees, that’s not necessarily what the film is or rather what it is trying to be.
While the idea of watching an hour and a half of reaction shots to something the audience never sees might sound dull, in reality, there’s something even more immersive and engaging about watching it in this manner. This is because the audience is left with only the audio of the off screen play and the women’s reaction to construct the entire play in their head. In this way, Shirin almost has literary roots as the visualization is up to the audience. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising given that the play is based off an old Persian poem.
The way Abbas Kiarostami also goes about capturing the audience suggests some interesting ideas. The most obvious element is that he excludes men from being the subject of any shot. Only women are the subjects of shots and this is not because there are not men in the audience. In fact, a number of them can be seen behind the women that fill the frame.
The framing of each shoot places each woman as an individual in isolation. It is never explicitly made clear whether or not these women have come to see the movie by themselves, but the visual frame certainly suggest that they are alone in this experience, shutting off almost everything else around them.
These decisions feed back into the actual story that is being told. Shirin is a character that, in a lot of ways, exists in a state of emotional and interpersonal isolation which Kiarostami expresses by consistently placing these women visually in the same form of isolation. In this way Kiarostami both shows how these women are able to empathize with Shirin and how the audience watching the film might be able to sympathize with this audience.
It’s surprising how powerful and moving this film can be given how minimalist it is. Or perhaps that is the very reason. By also having to project and immerse oneself into this audience of women, the audience of Shirin is given an intimacy and engagement that exists on a more abstract and imaginative level, one in which they are asked to see themselves both as a member of the audience and as a part of the story they are hearing.
This makes Shirin a film that is hard to classify. Is this a documentary? It’s literally captured footage of one hundred and fifteen women watching a play. But does the inclusion of the audio of the play make it almost an abstract video audio book? Or even though the film doesn’t show a single shot of the play, is it a film translation of that play?
Shirin challenges what a film can be. It doesn’t easily fit into categories, but serves as an interconnected bridge between artistic mediums. What is important is that the literal subject of the film is the audience’s reaction, which strongly suggests that that is art to be found within the audience’s own engagement and reaction to art.
© 2011 James Blake Ewing