Bogus Makhmalbaf Arrested
Recalling interviews he conducted separately with both Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Abbas Kiarostami, the film critic Godfrey Cheshire reports differing accounts of the origin of Nema-ye nazdik [Close-Up] (1990). Both are set around a momentous discussion between the two over Hassan Farazmand’s article ‘Bogus Makhmalbaf Arrested’, published that same week in autumn 1989 by Sorush magazine. The article is largely comprised of a lengthy interview with Hossein Sabzian, moments after his arrest for attempted fraud in impersonating Makhmalbaf to a middle-class family from northern Tehran. Makhmalbaf told Cheshire that he had brought the magazine to Kiarostami’s office and was only talked out of the idea of directing the film himself at Kiarostami’s insistence that he was too close to the story. Kiarostami recalled that the magazine was already in the office on the day Makhmalbaf came to see him.1 A few days later he visited Ghasr prison and arranged to film his first encounter with Sabzian. At Kiarostami’s request, the trial was brought forward to November and the rest of the film was completed by February 1990 when Close-Up was first screened at the Fajr Film Festival.
Within Close-Up’s nonlinear timeline the interview takes place off-screen, somewhere along the cut between the shot of an elated Farazmand kicking a canister after having obtained a tape recorder and footage of a printing press rolling out copies of the story. Despite Kiarostami’s decision not to dramatize this first interview, Sabzian’s statements come across with an uncanny familiarity. Returning to Close-Up reveals that much of the dialogue in the trial scenes strongly echoes the motivations divulged by Sabzian during the tense interview. Indeed Kiarostami made it no secret that he scripted much of the documentary-like trial scenes, including Sabzian’s testimony, but he was also careful to point out that it was all taken from things Sabzian had actually said.2
In light of Farazmand’s article, the trial scenes reveal Kiarostami’s efforts at recreating the persona from the pages of Sorush magazine that first caught his attention. The trial scenes are after all at the heart of the film, they offer an opening into Sabzian’s inner life and the coming together of the pain of destitution and an unrelenting passion for film. The trial scenes however invite an audience’s compassion, a sympathetic resolution, in a way the journalist’s line of interrogation does not.
In spite of the disapproval from his home community following the film’s release, Sabzian recognised that those who liked the film, and they have only grown in numbers since, are likely to see his desperate act as testimony to his love for cinema and the dreams it could lend.3 To a protagonist whose own life lacked in harmony, cinema returned refuge in an enduring legacy.
Bogus Makhmalbaf Arrested
It was only a few hours after hearing that Bicycleran [The Cyclist] had won an award at the Rimini Film Festival that I received a phone call from a friend saying that someone pretending to be Mohsen Makhmalbaf had deceived some relatives of his, a family from northern Tehran. He had been visiting their place every day claiming that he wanted to use their house as the set of a new film in which he also promised them roles. Some of the family members were also rehearsing under his guidance. Similar stories of Makhmalbaf and other well-known filmmakers working in households were not new to me, but since I was sure that Makhmalbaf himself was not in Tehran, I had no doubt that this person had to be a fraud.
This friend who called me had never met Makhmalbaf in person, but he knew that we had been seeing him at the publisher’s office and was telling me what had been happening hoping that we could do something to identify this anonymous person. I told my friend to come to my office and we’d go to the house in question together. Before heading to the house we went to Shemiran district local court, left a report on the events, and asked for their assistance. Shemiran court referred us to Ozgol police station and requested they investigate the subject. At Ozgol police station we asked for police agents to accompany us and arrest the suspect. They collaborated and we were accompanied by two armed police officers who would wait in a taxi parked at a short distance from the house and intervene when we’d ask them.
We rang the bell and entered the Ahankhah family residence. We were quite familiar with Mr Ahankhah, he greeted us warmly, and as he walked us through the front garden towards the stairs leading to the entrance of the building, we informed him of our intentions. As we approached the stairs, a man vaguely resembling Mohsen Makhmalbaf walked out of the house and nervously asked Mr Ahankhah’s son to introduce us. The son introduced us as distant relatives of his father’s and the man appeared to relax a bit. We entered the house together and met the other family members, sitting back to rest a while on the living room couches.
Mr Ahankhah introduced Mohsen Makhmalbaf as an accomplished director and we acted as if we were thrilled to meet such a personality. After exchanging a few words about the works of Makhmalbaf, the imposter asked us to excuse him and for some family members to join him in another room and continue rehearsing. As he left for the next room, it was an opportune moment to call the police to come arrest the guy, and so we did. I immediately went out to talk to the officers. They were led to the house and into the rehearsal room right after filing a quick complaint, collecting Mr Ahankhah’s signature, and taking a look at the officer’s Basij card. The imposter immediately realized what was happening and appeared totally lost.
Then nothing happened. The imposter surrendered his hands to the handcuffs without any resistance. Only a few moments ago he sat in front of us proudly posing as a successful director, and now he had suddenly changed into a weak, humiliated individual, thoroughly ashamed and relentlessly apologizing to the family. But it was too late; he was caught by the long arm of the law.
It seemed as though it was only another façade of his persona. We went out to the yard, I took out a camera I had been hiding in my bag, and started taking pictures. He started playing innocent and acting like he was crying. We headed to the police station and before the police made any investigations I took out a tape recorder and interviewed him. What you read here is the sum of my hour long interview with this person.
It must be noted that Mr Ahankhah was present for the interview and made some comments and corrections himself.
Hassan Farazmand: What is your name?
Hossein Sabzian: Hossein.
And where are you from?
Where in Tehran?
I’m not living in Tehran but I’m from Tehran.
Where do you live now?
Around the north of Varamin.
Where in Varamin?
Mamazand, in the north of Varamin.
What’s your job right now?
I don’t have a job.
Where did you hear about Makhmalbaf?
The first film of his I saw was Repentance [Tobeh nosuh, 1983].
And did you see his next ones?
The next one was The Pedlar [Dastforoush, 1987], it had three episodes, and I watched Fleeing from Evil to God [Este’azeh, 1984] as well.
You first watched Fleeing from Evil to God and then The Pedlar?
No, first I watched Repentance and then Marriage of the Blessed [Arousi-ye khouban, 1989] and by then I adored him.
How far did you go with your education?
Have you done some reading in any field of art?
Art… I have done some theatre.
I had my own group.
Having said all this, do you confess to having pretended to be Makhmalbaf?
Why did you do that?
Where did you first see a photo of him?
In Film magazine.
And how did you realize that you look like him?
From an image of him in Marriage of the Blessed.
Would you like to be him?
[silence] … No, I don’t deserve to be him, you shouldn’t diminish him.
You don’t deserve it? What do you deserve to be then?
To be the dead man that I am.
Are you a dead man now?
Would you like to be alive from now on? To live your life?
You’d like to meet Makhmalbaf? Yes?
What would you have to say if you met him?
[silence] … Nothing, I will apologize.
Apologize? Do you think that will sort things out?
Do you have any criminal record?
Any for theft?
Can you prove that?
I don’t have any records… You can look it up.
You never thought you’d get caught?
Yes, I had my doubts.
Doubts about what?
That this would happen.
So why did you do it?
Come on, tell me why did you do it?
My passion has blinded me.
My passion for cinema, which I have loved since childhood. I used to go to the movie theatres a lot. I was very young when I went to see I Want to Live! [Robert Wise, 1958] with Susan Hayward. I went to many Iranian movies after that.
What were you planning to do? What was your intention pretending to be Makhmalbaf? Were you thinking of committing a robbery?
No, not at all.
And what were you going to do with this family at the end? You rehearsed with them, and then what?
I have some friends who have recording cameras and I wanted to make a movie out of this.
Make a movie out of what?
This job… I have some friends who are ready, they said they might help.
So you seriously wanted to start making films?
Yes, I wanted to ask them to invest in it, to help me make it.
You’re not telling me what you wanted to do with this family eventually…
But I just told you, I wanted to make a movie.
Then why did you want them to vacate their house?
I didn’t want them to vacate the house. I wanted the father to see this movie… So we went with his son to watch the film in case they’d like it.
Mr Ahankhah, what had he told you?
Abolfazl Ahankhah: He insisted that we should all go to the cinema… By seven in the evening, he had tired us with his demands. His idea was to go see Makhmalbaf’s movie in one of the theatres, so we said okay, let’s go. My son suggested that we go to Azadi theatre, he said Jomhouri was better… The more I think of it, maybe it was because he thought Jomhouri is further away. And he didn’t want to go in with us either. He said that if he went in with us people would swarm up to him once they saw Makhmalbaf in person and create chaos in the theatre. He said he would come to the cinema in another vehicle and that he’d come sit next to us discreetly once we were seated. I said I didn’t have any other vehicle but he said he’d arrange for one. Eventually I told them I was not going, I would stay at home but they should go. So both my son and he enjoy riding motorcycles and they were planning to go to the movie together. But before leaving he asked my son to show him any backdoors to the house we’d use in the event of some commotion. My son drove him around through the back alleys showing him the routes; he said he needed this for his movie.
Mr Sabzian, what was your movie scene about? Did it contain any quarrels?
Sabzian: I thought of maybe adding some chase scenes to the movie.
Is there a script?
What is the title of your script?
I wanted to call it The Atrocity.
Has it been written?
No, I have not written it yet.
Ahankhah: But he said he wanted to call it The Web of the Spider.
Sabzian: The House of the Spider.
But The House of the Spider has already been made.4
Sabzian: Yes, I wanted to copy that one.
Ahankhah: And he was looking for a house of nobility for which ours was doing the job.
But your house is not much of a mansion…
Whatever it is, it seemed to be suitable to him.
Did you believe Mr Ahankhah’s home was a mansion?
Sabzian: No, I didn’t.
So why did you choose that one?
I had no particular reason… I just showed some interest…
Interest in them or their house?
No, in them.
Did it make for a good set?
What do you mean by set?
You don’t know what a set is?
Never heard of it.
The set is where a film is shot.
Ahankhah: For some scenes he insisted that we bring whatever antiques we had out on the shelves to make it look like an affluent household.
Sabzian: I said I would bring the antiques myself.
Ahankhah: You said you’d bring them if I didn’t have any.
Excuse me interrupting, where did you want to bring the antiques from?
Sabzian: It was just something which popped out of my mouth… Let me say one thing… I had no intention of robbery… I swear all of this is not what it seems. I wouldn’t do all of that…
Ahankhah: Anyway, since I said I wasn’t going to the movie and my wife didn’t want to go from the start, he first decided to go with my two sons. Then my son showed him the back alleys, [Sabzian] told them to go to the cinema, he would leave from the back alleys, and that he’d catch up with them later. My son went to the Azadi Theatre with his friend and got 3 tickets, one for when Sabzian arrived. But to their surprise he arrived very early… That was unexpected because they went straight away with their motorbike, no stops and no traffic, but he arrived only a few moments after them. So I assume he had someone waiting for him at our doorstep to drive him or to help him with what was next in their plans.
Sabzian: This is wrong…
Why is he wrong?
Because when I left… I went to the cinema and they were there when I arrived…
Ahankhah: In any case… They took their seats in the theatre to watch the movie. When they were seated, someone asked [Sabzian] to change his seat, separating him from my son and his friend. When the movie was over and they were out of the theatre he asked my son why he didn’t come by himself… The previous night my son drove him to Mokhberodole square, just the two of them… and on the way there he said he had lost his wallet and borrowed 2000 tomans from my son.
Sabzian: 2000 tomans… I borrowed 1900… Just let me tell you, now that you are recording my voice, I had no intentions of stealing. If you see my file there is nothing about such things, I’m not that type of person. If I’m taken away you shouldn’t lead him on, saying that he may say whatever he wants now that [Sabzian] is not there…
Let’s say we exclude the intent of theft… Then what was your intention here?
My primary intention was to make a movie out of the situation.
Make a movie out of which situation?
And let’s assume this is true, why didn’t you present a proposal to the Ministry of Culture?
I wrote a film script in 1352.5
No, sorry, it was 1360 to 1361,6 titled 2 rials Salavati,7 and I presented it to the Arts department of the Islamic Republic Broadcasting. They just archived it, never followed it up. I thought maybe I could produce something again.
Was it about the same subject?
No, it was about class differences. It’s a long story but if you’d like me to tell you… There was a doctor, practicing as a doctor, but as he crosses the street… I have written the whole script, it’s available somewhere.
How did you learn all of this about Makhmalbaf’s personality and behavior?
I’m not imitating Makhmalbaf, it’s my own style.
And how did you come to know of his personal affairs, like his interviews, conversations here and there… Where did you hear of them?
I read them in Film magazine.
Did you know that Makhmalbaf is a religious man?
Yes, I didn’t intend to spoil his reputation.
You did not intend to spoil his reputation, you did not want to steal anything… You had no intention of fraud or to feign somebody’s name. Then what was your intention?
[sad expression] Just say fraud…
No, we’ll go through each possibility one at a time; we want to know your real intention.
I told you I wanted to produce a movie… And Insha’Allah make a plan… And get some money from the family as an investment… I have my cameramen too.
You wanted to make a movie?
Do you know about cameras?
No, but I have friends who do.
Do you know how to direct a movie?
I could have started to learn.
You have no idea about filmmaking, how did you want to direct a movie…
Here in the newspaper it says that Makhmalbaf won a prize, the news came out this morning. Do you know where he is now?
Do you want to know where he is now?
What if he’s right behind the door? Would you want to see him?
What’s the first thing you’d want to tell him?
[tearful with regret] I’d just apologize.
I think you are a sensitive person… and you knew how much respect this family has for Makhmalbaf. Then why did you play games with their feelings knowing how much they loved Makhmalbaf’s works? You knew this man’s wife, his sons, and he himself loves Makhmalbaf.
I have apologized and I’ll apologize again… I didn’t mean to play with their emotions, I swear, I only hoped for an investment in this…
Who would have invested?
They, this family.
They would have invested in your movie?
This man is not a producer, he can’t invest in a movie.
It would have been good if they did anyway.
Mr Ahankhah, did you wish to invest in it?
Ahankhah: No, I don’t know anything about film business.
Sabzian: I said they could take part in a film… Maybe invest some money in it…
Now would you like your photo and a report to be printed in a magazine so Makhmalbaf himself and others read about you? Would you like that?
Now I’m nothing more than a piece of meat with which any butcher can do anything.
We don’t want to butcher you, we just don’t want you to lie, to be honest. I don’t want to make a glass statue of you, an easy target in the press, I just want to know the truth so those reading our magazine will have just that, and you should tell me the truth.
If you were to walk out of the police station now, what would you do out there?
I swear I’ll be a good person.
Assuming you were not caught and no one knows anything, would you tell anyone about all of this?
Yes, I have a request, can you please make a call to my mother, please let her know.
We will inform your mother, give us her phone number.
Okay… No… It’s a friend’s number.
We can’t call one of your friends, give us your home address.
It’s in Mamazand, Yebr village, please tell her in a way not to make her panic.
What should we tell her?
Tell her I’ve gone on a trip… I don’t know… Just tell her in a way that she won’t have a heart attack.
Mr Ahankhah, do you have anything to add?
Ahankhah: The other night when he wanted to leave the movie theatre, he asked my son to take him somewhere around Jomhouri Street and said he’d be meeting someone there at 9. But when they arrived at 8:50, he said: “Oh they are not here, so I suppose I have to be a guest of my son Mehrdad for the night.” Then Bahman said let’s go to our home and he replied: “You can cut me in two, and each takes half of me home.”
How did you feel when you saw the handcuffs?
Sabzian: I thought my life was over.
You thought your life was over? Did you feel that all you invested in that business was lost for good?
It was not my business, it was myself, my character.
You had no character, it was a false one.
Everybody has a character.
But this was not your real self; you’re Mr Sabzian, who was not wronged. Makhmalbaf is the injured party.
Do you think you have gone astray?
And would you like to return to the right path?
I’m a hundred percent sure I will.
You say you’re a piece of meat…
This is what I am now… I will change.
Do you think you have the capacity to change?
I will change, if I don’t, it’s my responsibility… If a disabled person does not become a track champion, it is his own fault…8
Anything else to add, Mr Ahankhah?
Ahankhah: I have a message for people like him, I ask them not to play with people’s emotions. My children were fooled by him because they were so passionate about working with Mr Makhmalbaf. As for myself, I’m an experienced man and I noticed something odd from the beginning.
When did you realize he was not Makhmalbaf?
On the first day he showed up. My family was talking about him being on a minibus, I didn’t believe it… I didn’t think Makhmalbaf is so idle to be going round in a minibus. And he had an agent who called us and said he wanted to come to our place and interview us on behalf of Makhmalbaf. His name was Baqery or something similar and my son said that we should go to see him.
Sabzian: Let me explain, I was Baqery…
Ahankhah: My son told me he made an appointment under Hafez Bridge and arranged to meet him there the next morning. Since my daughter had met Makhmalbaf before [on the minibus], I asked my son to go with my daughter and that would help them recognize each other. They went there but didn’t manage to meet him. A few days later, my son called Makhmalbaf’s office but couldn’t get through. Then I managed to speak to him when he called a few days later, saying that he wanted to meet us. I hung up and told my family I thought he might be coming by in a couple more days, but he called again twenty minutes later and came to the house right after. We sat down together and the rest, as you know, is history.
- 1Godfrey Cheshire provides a number of revealing anecdotes on the making of Nema-ye nazdik [Close-Up] in his essay ‘Close-Up: Prison and Escape’, published by The Criterion Collection on June 22, 2010.
- 3Sabzian speaks of his complex relationship with Kiarostami’s film and cinema in Mamhoud Chokrollahi and Moslem Mansouri’s documentary Close-Up Long Shot (1996).
- 4Khane-ye Ankaboot [The House of Spider] (Alireza Davoudnejad, 1983).
- 51352 of the Solar Hijri calendar, or 1973 of the Gregorian calendar.
- 61981 to 1982 of the Gregorian calendar.
- 7In Farsi, Salavati refers to an offering that people give away out of faith in the Prophet. It is derived from salavat, an offering of peace in the form of a prayer or a blessing.
- 8Sabzian is refering to the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.
Abbas Kiarostami’s Nema-ye nazdik [Close-Up] (1990) is a special film for us: our website was named after Hossein Sabzian, the main character of this masterpiece. Close-Up is the most beautiful film ever made about the love for cinema. Read Sabzian’s words in Close-Up Long Shot (Mamhoud Chokrollahi & Moslem Mansouri, 1996) here and here in our article section.
Many thanks to Andrew Ricca
Images (1) and (4) from Nema-ye nazdik [Close-Up] (Abbas Kiarostami, 1990)
Image (2) Hossein Sabzian in Nema-ye nazdik [Close-Up] (Abbas Kiarostami, 1990)
Image (3) Hassan Farazmand in Nema-ye nazdik [Close-Up] (Abbas Kiarostami, 1990)