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Beyond Representation
Vered Maimon
Published online: 08 Jun 2012.

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Third Text, Vol. 26, Issue 3, May, 2012, 331– 344

Beyond Representation
Abbas Kiarostami’s and Pedro Costa’s
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Minor Cinema

Vered Maimon

1. Costas Douzinas and Slavoj Recent philosophical and political writings convey the ‘return’ of ideas of
Žižek, eds, The Idea of
Communism, Verso,
emancipatory politics. This return of the ‘communist imaginary’, best
London and New York, exemplified in the recent conference and anthology The Idea of Com-
2010. See also John munism, organised and edited by Costas Douzinas and Slavoj Žižek,
Roberts, ‘Art, “Enclave
Theory” and the
also underlines the writings of Alain Badiou, Antonio Negri and
Communist Imaginary’, in Michael Hardt, Jacques Rancière and Jean-Luc Nancy.1 Badiou, in par-
the special issue ‘Art, Praxis ticular, calls for the urgent re-instalment of the communist hypothesis,
and the Community to
Come’, Third Text 99, vol which he defines as a pure universal Idea of equality. He argues that
23, no 4, July 2009, the communist hypothesis has been actualised in different ways through-
pp 353 –367. out history and that ‘it is not the victory of hypothesis which is at stake
2. Alain Badiou, ‘The today, but the conditions of its existence’.2 Yet, while emphasising the
Communist Hypothesis’, necessity of the ‘return’ of the hypothesis, Badiou also stresses its
New Left Review 49,
January/February 2008, impossibility because of the inadequacy of the specific model of the com-
p 42 munist state-party to the current political context. The re-opening of the
3. Issues of collectivity and communist hypothesis therefore demands the experimental invention of
political subjectivity also new collective forms of political subjectivity that will move beyond a rep-
pertain to contemporary
artistic practices,
resentational model of politics in which the party ‘represents’ the
particularly those that workers or the sovereign state the people. Thus, in order to bring into
employ video and film. See existence the claims of emancipatory politics, one must take leave of rep-
my essay ‘The Third
Citizen: On Models of
resentation but not of creation or the powers of the imagination. In this
Criticality in regard, the need to move beyond representation is aesthetic as much as it
Contemporary Artistic is political. Consequently it is contemporary cinema (among other
Practices’, October 129,
summer 2009. See also the artistic forms) of the kind created by Abbas Kiarostami and Pedro
anthology Beth Hinderliter Costa, this essay argues, that offers the possibility to imagine new politi-
et al, eds, Communities of cal forms of subjectivity.3 After all, as the historical ‘art of the masses’,
Sense: Rethinking
Aesthetics and Politics, cinema was the site for the most spectacular visual representations of
Duke University Press, the idea of equality, for example in the films of Sergei Eisenstein.
Durham, North Carolina,
and London, 2009; Grant
It might therefore also become the site where this idea is no longer
H Kester, Conversation represented but enacted.

Third Text ISSN 0952-8822 print/ISSN 1475-5297 online # Third Text (2012)

Pieces: Community and MINOR PEOPLE

Communication in Modern
Art, University of
California Press, Berkeley
The resistance to representation triggers debates surrounding historical
and London, 2004 and current political forms of subjectivity. In Empire (2000), and its suc-
cessors Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (2005) and
Commonwealth (2011), Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt formulate the
term ‘multitude’ as a whole of singularities which is ‘diffident of represen-
tation because it is an incommensurable multiplicity’.4 They argue that
while the concept of the ‘people’ originates from sovereign transcendence
and therefore results in the abstraction and unification of singularities, the
multitude constitute the ‘real productive force of our social world’, that
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is, it is an ontological positive force that produces new subjectivities

4. Antonio Negri, ‘Towards and creative forms of socialisation and communication; what Negri
an Ontological Definition calls General Intellect.5 The multitude thus exists ‘within Empire and
of the Multitude’, Arianna
Bove, trans, available
against Empire’ as a vital immanent force that animates it, but that
online at: http://multitudes. ultimately will lead to its inevitable destruction.6 Yet is it precisely Negri and Hardt’s emphasis on the immanence of the
accessed June 2011
multitude and their rejection of any transcendental ‘negative’ form of
resistance that seem completely to vacate any notion of politics,
5. Antonio Negri and Michael
Hardt, Empire, Harvard let alone an emancipatory one. As Žižek analyses this problematic:
University Press,
Cambridge, Massachusetts . . . how does this ‘politicisation’ of production, where production directly
and London, p 62 produces (new) social relations, affect the very notion of politics? Is such
6. Ibid, p 61 (emphasis in the an ‘administration of people’ (subordinated to the logic of profit) still poli-
original) tics, or is it the most radical sort of depoliticisation, the entry into ‘post-
7. Slavoj Žižek, ‘Blows
Against the Empire?’,
available online at: http:// In a similar way Rancière argues that as an ontological formation the multitude ‘substantialises the egalitarian presupposition’ with the
htm, accessed June 2011 outcome that ‘everything is political’ because ‘political subjects ought
8. Jacques Rancière, ‘The to express the multiple insofar as the multiple is the very law of
People or the Multitudes?’, being’.8 With the concept of the multitude, politics as a specific sphere
in Dissensus: On Politics
and Aesthetics, Steven of practices disappears and its emancipatory claims become inseparable
Corcoran, ed and trans, from the ‘flow’ of global capital, yet, as Sylvère Lotringer points out:
Continuum, London and
New York, 2009, p 86. For . . . there is as much communism in capital as capital is capable of, too: abol-
a similar criticism see
ition of work, dissolution of the state, etc. But communism in any form
Ernesto Laclau, ‘Can
Immanence Explain Social would require equality, and this is what capital is incapable of providing.9
Struggles?’, Diacritics, vol
31, no 4, winter 2001. While Negri and Hardt dismiss the term ‘people’ because it eclipses
9. Sylvère Lotringer, ‘We, the
internal differences by representing the whole of the population under a
Multitude’, Social Text 82, hegemonic group, for Giorgio Agamben the term marks an inherently
vol 23, no 1, spring 2005, split form of collective subjectivity, a polar concept that evokes simul-
p 10
taneously a people in the popular sense of the unprivileged and excluded
10. Giorgio Agamben, ‘What is and in the opposing sense of The People as a constitutive political
a People?’, in Means
without End: Notes on subject.10 Meanwhile for Rancière political subjects do not form definite
Politics, Vincenzo Binetti groups but ‘surplus’ litigious names that enact or stage a dispute in
and Cesare Casarino, trans, relation to what is perceived as common and universal. As he explains:
University of Minnesota
Press, Minneapolis, 2000, p
32 (emphasis in the . . . freedom and equality are not predicates belonging to definite subjects.
original) Political predicates are open predicates: they open up a dispute about what
11. Jacques Rancière, ‘Who is
they entail, whom they concern and in which cases.11
the Subject of the Rights of
Man?’, in Dissensus, op cit, Politics thus consists of the capacity to open up processes of subjectivisa-
p 68 tion that demonstrate a relation of inclusion and exclusion. In this regard

a political subject cannot be ‘represented’ by a pre-existing category but

12. Jacques Rancière, ‘From
the Actuality of has to be enacted or ‘performed’. While politics for Rancière is an inac-
Communism to its tual ‘intempestive’ event which marks the fact that ‘you do and do not
Inactuality’, in Dissensus, belong to a time’,12 for Badiou as well the possibility of reopening the
op cit, p 82
communist hypothesis demands the courage:
13. Alain Badiou, ‘The
Communist Hypothesis’, . . . to operate in terms of a different durée to that imposed by the law of the
op cit, p 41 (emphasis in world. The point we are seeking must be one that can connect to another
the original)
order of time.13
14. Gilles Deleuze and Félix
Guattari, What is Both therefore insist on the capacity to implement equality by a subject
Philosophy?, Hugh whose precise mode of existence is precisely what is at stake: both
Tomlinson and Graham
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Burchell, trans, Columbia present and absent, actual and virtual, real and fictional.
University Press, By formulating the problem of political forms of subjectivity in terms
New York, 1994, p 108
(emphasis in the original).
of becoming rather than being, these debates surrounding the term
See also their classic A ‘people’ seem to reverberate back to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s
Thousand Plateaus: urgent statements in What is Philosophy? That:
Capitalism and
Schizophrenia, Brian We lack creation. We lack resistance to the present. The creation of con-
Massumi, trans, University
of Minnesota Press,
cepts in itself calls for a future form, for a new earth and people that do
Minneapolis and London, not yet exist.14
While the political philosophy of Negri and Hardt is underlined by the
15. Paul Patton, Deleuze and
the Political, Routledge,
vitalist philosophy and terminology of A Thousand Plateaus, it is striking
London and New York, that they left out its major political terms: majority, minority and, most
pp 47 –48 important, becoming-minor or minoritarian. Minority is not a name for
16. See Sylvère Lotringer, ‘We, a marginalised social group but for a transformational group which, as
the Multitude’, op cit, Paul Patton explains, is defined by the gap that separates its members
p 5. See also the exchange
between Negri and Deleuze from a standard model or norm in the same manner in which the simula-
on these issues in Gilles crum challenges representation.15 Regardless of the fact that Deleuze and
Deleuze, Negotiations,
1972 –1990, Martin
Guattari’s political philosophy is inseparable from their ontology of
Joughin, trans, Columbia immanent difference and in this regard cannot be ‘re-coded’ without sig-
University Press, nificant difficulties into an antagonistic form of political struggle, their
New York, pp 169 –176.
analysis makes it clear that they qualitatively differentiate between a capi-
17. On the films of Abbas talist form of deterritorialisation and a minoritarian one and of course
Kiarostami see Mehrnaz
Saeed-Vafa and Jonathan
completely refrain from assigning any ‘telos’ to these processes.16
Rosenbaum, Abbas It is in his cinema books, in particular The Time-Image, that Deleuze
Kiarostami, University of gives a sense of what ‘inventing’ the people will consist of; not that cinema
Illinois Press, Urbana,
Illinois, 2003; Alberto or any form of art can create a people, but modern cinema can allow one
Elena, The Films of Abbas to imagine a form of political subjectivity that constantly hovers between
Kiarostami, Belinda belonging and not belonging, the real and the fictional, the present and
Coombes, trans, Saqi,
London and Beirut, 2005; the future. Following Deleuze, I argue that the films of Kiarostami and
Jean-Luc Nancy, The Costa constitute a ‘minor’ cinema in which the simultaneous absence
Evidence of Film: Abbas and presence of the people is manifested most clearly.17 What dis-
Kiarostami, Christine
Irizarry and Verena tinguishes their otherwise very different films is the fact that while they
Andermatt Conley, trans, focus on marginalised groups such as immigrant workers, drug addicts,
Yves Gevaert, Brussels, the poor and the illiterate, they resist representing them in either a ‘docu-
2001. See also the chapter
on Kiarostami in Hamid mentary’ manner in which their mode of existence is predetermined in
Dabashi, Close Up: Iranian advance in a pseudo-anthropological or sociological manner, or in a ‘fic-
Cinema, Past, Present, and
Future, Verso, London and
tional’ form in which personal identities are granted ‘interiority’ in the
New York, 2001. On Pedro form of deterministic biography and simplified psychology. In their
Costa’s films see James films ‘real’ characters play themselves rather than simply being them-
Quandt, ‘Still Lives: On the
Films of Pedro Costa’,
selves. The idea of ‘real people’ filming and directing themselves has
Artforum, September become a major marketing strategy for what is called ‘reality TV’, yet

2006, pp 335 –359; Jean- what often underlies these programmes is precisely the logic of represen-
Louis Comolli, ‘Frames tation in which characters try to conform to a ‘model’ rather than diverge
and Bodies – Notes on
Three Films by Pedro
from it by presenting their ‘true’ self beyond ‘fictional’ or ‘false’ appear-
Costa: Ossos, No Quarto ances. Yet, in minor cinema of the kind that Kiarostami and Costa make,
da Vanda, Juventude em the issue is not to eliminate fiction, but, as Deleuze argues, ‘to free it from
Marcha’, Afterall 24,
Summer 2010, pp 63 –70;
the model of truth which penetrates it, and on the contrary to rediscover
Jacques Rancière, ‘The the pure and simple story-telling function which is opposed to this
Politics of Pedro Costa’, model’.18 The issue is not to become-conscious by adhering to prevalent
available online at: http:// models of subjectivity and ‘truth’, but to become-Other by opening
download/TATE- oneself to ‘another order of time’ to which one simultaneously belongs
PEDRO%20COSTA.pdf, and does not belong.
accessed June 2011. See
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also the booklet of essays What facilitates, but in no way initiates, Kiarostami’s and Costa’s
that is included in the DVD specific modes of film-making is the use of digital video cameras. In
box set Letters from their work the shift from film to video is inseparable from the invention
Fontainhas: Three Films by
Pedro Costa, The Criterion of forms of collaboration. The use of digital cameras enables them to
Collection, 2010. create films with limited crews, no sets, no professional actors and no
scripts. Most importantly, it enables them to work outside the pressure
of production time and budget. Video enables time: time for observation
and for the slow unfolding of stories which evolve out of the process of
working together and which are then restaged. In this regard it is a
cinema of double becoming in which, as Deleuze argues, the director
expresses himself through ‘real’ characters, while the characters speak
as if they are reported by a third person. Write for the illiterate,
Antonin Artaud said, and Deleuze interprets this comment as ‘not for
their benefit’ or ‘in their place’, but as ‘before’, as a question of becoming
in which the author becomes illiterate, while the illiterate becomes ‘some-
thing else and tears himself away from his own agony’.19


Critics often debate whether the films of Kiarostami and Costa are ‘docu-
mentary’ or ‘fiction’, but the sense of indeterminacy which underlines
these films is not simply stylistic, generic or rhetorical, the result of inten-
tional and scripted mixture between so-called ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’
points of view. Rather it emerges out of a much more radical reciprocal
and reversible movement between the actual and the virtual, the real
and the imaginary, the present and the past, which marks what Deleuze
defines as the ‘crystal image’ in modern cinema. With this kind of
image, the crucial issue is not to suppress the distinction between these
18. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: poles, but to make it indiscernible or unattributable. Relying on Henri
The Time-Image, Hugh
Tomlinson and Robert
Bergson, Deleuze explains this mutual coexistence in terms of the
Galeta, trans, University of relations between present and past: ‘The image has to be present and
Minnesota Press, past, still present and already past, at once and at the same time. If it
Minneapolis, 1997, p 150
(emphasis in the original)
was not already past at the same time as present, the present would
never pass on. The past does not follow the present that it is no longer
19. Gilles Deleuze and Félix
Guattari, What is
on, it coexists with the present it was.’20 What is especially fascinating
Philosophy, op cit, p 109 in this formulation in relation to the films of Kiarostami and Costa is
20. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2:
that Bergson himself explains it in terms of acting: ‘Whoever becomes
The Time-Image, op cit, conscious of the continual duplicating of his present into perception
p 79 and recollection. . . will compare himself to an actor playing his part auto-
21. Ibid, p 79 matically, listening to himself and beholding himself playing.’21
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Abbas Kiarostami, still from Close-Up, 1990, colour thirty-five millimetre film, ninety-eight minutes # The Institute for the
Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults – Celluloid Dreams, courtesy Celluloid Dreams

The best example for this ceaseless temporal process of mirroring

occurs in Kiarostami’s 1990 film Close-Up.22 Kiarostami read a piece
in the newspaper about a man named Hossain Sabzian, a poor unem-
ployed printer, who was arrested and put on trial because he imperso-
22. For information on the
nated the famous film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and decided to
making of the film see make a film about the event. On their first meeting in prison Sabzian
Godfrey Cheshire, ‘Prison asks Kiarostami to send a message to Makhmalbaf: ‘Tell him his last
and Escape’, in the booklet
included with the DVD of
film is my life.’ Close-Up is composed of re-enactments of the event
the film issued by The with the real individuals playing themselves and the filming of the
Criterion Collection in actual trial in which the wealthy Ahankhah family, whom Sabzian
2010. For an excellent
analysis of Close-Up see deceived by promising to make a film in their house using their son as
Gilberto Perez, ‘Film in the main actor, confronts him. The main question that arises in the
Review’, The Yale Review, trial is that of Sabzian’s motives. He replies that in his films Makhmalbaf
vol 85, no 1, 1997,
pp 171 – 184. See also Jared portrays suffering and speaks for people like him. In one of the strongest
Rapfogel, ‘A Mirror Facing scenes of the trial, while the camera is fixed on Sabzian’s face, the follow-
a Mirror’, available online
at: http://www.
ing dialogue between him and Kiarostami takes place:
17/close_up/, accessed June Abbas Kiarostami Now that you played this part do you think you’re a
2011. better actor than director?

Hossain Sabzian I don’t want to be presumptuous. . . but I’m more inter-

ested in acting. I think I could express all the bad experiences I’ve had,
all the deprivation I’ve felt with every fibre of my being. I think I could
get these feelings across through my acting.
AK Aren’t you acting for the camera right now? What are you doing now?
HS I’m speaking of my suffering. I’m not acting. I’m speaking from the
heart. This isn’t acting. For me, art. . . is the experience of what you’ve
felt inside. If one could cultivate that experience, it’s like when Tolstoy
says that art is the inner experience cultivated by the artist and conveyed
to his audience. Given the positive feelings I’ve experienced, as well as
the deprivation and suffering, and my interest in acting, I think I could
be an effective actor and convey that inner reality.
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AK Then why did you pretend to be a director instead of an actor?

HS Playing the part of a director is a performance in itself. To me, that is
AK What part would you like to play?
HS My own.
AK Haven’t you already done that?

What is striking in this intensive encounter is the irreducibility of Sab-

23. Godfrey Cheshire states
that ‘It should be noted that zian’s performance, which constantly shifts between what he is (a poor
Kiarostami scripted most printer) and what he becomes (an actor in a film whose words while
of Sabzian’s speeches at the attributed to him were also scripted),23 between his actual present role
trial, though he based them
on things Sabzian had (an actor in Kiarostami’s film playing himself) and his virtual previous
actually said.’ See Godfrey role (that of the director Makhmalbaf ), between his ‘real’ character,
Cheshire, ‘Prison and
Escape’, op cit, np
whatever that might be, as it is not possible to know him through the
film, and his staged character, the highly emotional and dramatic act he
24. A documentary film on
Sabzian titled Close Up
performs of himself in front of the camera and the court.24 What is there-
Long Shot was made in fore crucial is not the conflation or blurring of the real and the imaginary
1996 by Mahmoud but their inseparability, their coexistence in the very formation of Sab-
Chokrollahi and Moslem
Mansouri. In contrast to
zian’s cinematic role and subjectivity. Kiarostami’s film allows him to
Close-Up, this film become an actor who watches himself playing and to play himself
concentrates on his rather than be himself, thereby allowing him to become-Other, not be
biography and psychology,
in particular his ‘obsession’ an Other, a fixed emblem of an Iranian poor man.
with cinema, which led, the By juxtaposing staged re-enactments of the real event together with
film suggests, to his edited footage of the trial, Kiarostami is creating a new mode of story
personal destruction. The
film is included with the which affects the very division between fiction and reality. Close-Up
2010 DVD of Close-Up, manifests what Deleuze calls ‘the power of the false’ or fabulation where:
op cit.

25. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: . . . what is opposed to fiction is not the real; it is not the truth which is
The Time-Image, op cit, p always that of the masters or colonisers; it is the story-telling function of
150. On Deleuze’s concept
of fabulation see Ronald
the poor, in so far as it gives the false the power which makes it into a
Bogue, ‘Fabulation, memory, a legend, a monster.25
Narration and the People
to Come’, in Constantin V The forger, Deleuze argues, is the most emblematic character of this kind
Boundas, ed, Deleuze and
Philosophy, Edinburgh of cinema because he constantly transforms himself and in this way
University Press, mobilises the story. What therefore makes Sabzian a ‘real’ character is
Edinburgh, 2006, pp 203 –
223. See also his book
not his subordinated adherence to a model of pre-existing subjectivity,
Deleuzian Fabulation and even though he pretends to be a specific famous person, but the way his
the Scars of History, singular impersonation marks an affirmation of fiction (and of cinema)
Edinburgh University
Press, Edinburgh, 2010.
as a power of becoming rather than a model of truth. What this kind of
cinema demonstrates, Deleuze argues, ‘is not the identity of a character,
26. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2:
The Time-Image, op cit,
whether real or fictional’ but ‘the becoming of the real character when he
p 150 himself starts to “make up fiction”’.26

Deleuze links the ‘power of the false’ to a form of narration in

modern cinema in which vision takes the place of action and the experi-
ence of time becomes liberated from its subordination to movement or
chronology. This emphasis on time leads to films in which either move-
ment is reduced to zero or it is incessantly exaggerated. Significantly,
this is precisely what marks Kiarostami’s cinema, which constantly
focuses on cars and immobile figures driving in films such as Life and
Nothing More (1992) and Taste of Cherry (1997).27 The car is both a
private and a public space, a self-contained environment cut off from
the outside and a site for encounters with the outside. The car is also
a framing device and a machine for seeing and observing, since in
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modern cinema, as Deleuze points out, the character becomes a seer

rather than an agent, someone who records more than acts or
reacts.28 Jean-Luc Nancy has argued in his book on Kiarostami, The
Evidence of Film, that the car window is an opening of a gaze into a
27. On Kiarostami’s use of cars world, a way to mobilise and animate it. The car reinforces for him
in his films see Stephen
Bransford, ‘Days in the
the way cinema is the motion of the real, a motion that is not simply
Country: Representations a movement between two places but a situation in which a ‘body is com-
of Rural Space and Place in pelled to find its place, a place it consequently has not had or no longer
Abbas Kiarostami’s Life
and Nothing More, has. I move (in matter or mind) when I am not – ontologically where – I
Through the Olive Trees am – locally.’29
and The Wind Will Carry This focus on characters driving culminated in Ten (2002), a film shot
Us’, available online at:
http://www. in its entirety in a car using two digital video cameras attached to the dashboard, one facing the driver and the other the passenger. The main
space_and_place/, accessed
character of the film is a recently divorced woman whose name is not
June 2011. given but is played by Mania Akbari, whose own life story as a young
28. See Laura Mulvey, ‘Abbas
divorced mother struggling to find a place in society that assigns highly
Kiarostami: Cinema of submissive and limited roles to women became the basis for the character.
Uncertainty, Cinema of The film follows her as she drives around Tehran picking up her young
Delay’, in Death 24x
Second: Stillness and the
son and female passengers, some of whom are Akbari’s real family and
Moving Image, Reaktion, friends and some strangers who share their life stories with her. There
London, 2006, p 129. was no script for the film and Kiarostami only gave the characters
29. Jean-Luc Nancy, The general instructions on what to talk about. He was not present in the
Evidence of Film, op cit, car when the acting and shooting took place.30 Yet while the film has a
p 28
main character, it lacks a ‘consciousness’ or identity because of the way
30. On the making of Ten see it refuses to link images to either ‘objective’ or ‘subjective’ points of
Geoff Andrew, 10, British
Film Institute, London, view or to create an identity between what the character sees and what
2005, pp 35 –39. See also the camera sees, both necessary strategies of the conventional ‘model of
Mahmood Khoshchereh,
‘Kiarostami: The Man with
truth’ of classical cinema. In Ten, because of the way the two cameras
the Digital Camera’, Film are positioned and the highly limited points of view they give, mainly
International: Iranian Film close-ups of the characters, it is not possible to assign to them an ‘objec-
Quarterly, vol 10, no 2,
autumn 2003 –winter
tive’ status; on the other hand, it is also not a case of what the characters
2004, pp 56 –63; Rolando see – in fact what the viewer sees is precisely what the characters cannot
Caputo, ‘Five to Ten: Five see: a full frontal view of the person sitting next to them – and what they
Reflections on Abbas
Kiarostami’s 10’, available
do see, a broad frontal view of the streets of Tehran, is not seen in the film.
online at: http://www. What is actually seen is highly limited but not ‘subjective’, and frustrat- ingly static and fixed but not ‘objective’. Moreover, in a number of
accessed June 2011. scenes, such as Akbari’s first encounter with her son and her subsequent
Kiarostami talks about Ten meetings with a religious woman and a prostitute, the viewer sees only
in the master-class one of the speakers while hearing the voice of the other. In these largely
documentary 10 on 10 that
is included in the DVD emotional scenes, specifically those with her son, who verbally abuses
Ten, Zeitgeist Films, 2004. her because she left his father, the voice triggers an image in the
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Abbas Kiarostami, four stills from Ten, 2002, colour thirty-five millimetre film, ninety-four minutes, # Abbas Kiarostami

viewer’s imagination but the film refrains from linking it to a visual

representation of a specific face or a defined individual.
The film gets its title from its framework of ten segments of different
dialogues, separated by graphics that mimic the countdown figures on a
film leader; each number appears accompanied by the whirring sound of
a film projector followed by the ring of a bell.31 This structure not only
emphasises the serial as opposed to chronological structure of the film,
but also contributes to a strong sense of ‘before’ and ‘after’ in the characters
and the film: their entering the car signals the beginning of a scene that sets
conversation in motion, and the moment they exit the end; in other words,
placing the characters in the car means setting them in the film itself. What
the film triggers is thus not a chronology of events but an ‘incessant passage
from one state to another’, a movement of becoming in which characters
constantly reach a limit in which they oscillate between what they no
longer are and what they are in the process of becoming.32 This sense of
temporality especially pervades Akbari’s two encounters with a young
woman whom she picks up from a local shrine. In their first encounter
the woman tells her that she is going to pray in the hope that it will
make her boyfriend marry her. In their second encounter the woman
informs Akbari that her boyfriend has ended the relationship and that
she is sad but that she will overcome this separation. And then in a
highly provocative and moving scene Akbari urges the woman to loosen
her tightened head scarf – and it slips to reveal her shaved head. As tears
drop on the woman’s cheeks Akbari’s hand is seen wiping them away
(the only case in the film of an actual touch). This gesture of empathy
breaks the basic binary segmented structure of the film in which each
camera shows only the gestures and movements of one character. The
power of this scene lies not only in the brave gesture of an Iranian
woman who exposes her bald head (which led to censorship of the film
in Iran), but in the way it stages a political process of subjectivisation in
31. Geoff Andrew, 10, op cit,
p 39
which the woman’s unmarried status and Akbari’s divorced status
become a positive force, not a mark of a failure or a lack, but an
32. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2:
The Time-Image, op cit, affirmative power of becoming-minoritarian, a refusal to conform that is
p 153 at the same time an opening of the possibility of solidarity and community.
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While in the films of Kiarostami characters mainly talk to each other, in

Costa’s films characters become storytellers who tell their own stories not
as confessions but as reports. This effect is no doubt created because each
scene, while evoking a strong sense of intimacy and proximity, was in fact
rehearsed and shot many times. Costa’s trilogy of films, Ossos (1997), In
Vanda’s Room (2000) and Colossal Youth (2006), were all filmed in Fon-
tainhas, a recently demolished slum in Lisbon. In these films the residents
of the neighbourhood, mostly immigrants from Cape Verde and drug
addicts, play the main characters; but only with the second film, In
Vanda’s Room, did they start to play themselves and Costa to do most
of the shooting in video, sometimes recruiting local sound assistants.
The second film focuses on Vanda Duarte’s room, which functions as a
private place where she sleeps and shoots heroin together with her
sister Zita, and a meeting place for her friends where they talk about
their family, what happened to whom, about the situation of Portugal
and about life in general. This multiplicity of function is also the striking
architectural and spatial feature of the neighbourhood itself, where there
is no clear sense of inside or outside, as every narrow street becomes a
hallway and every enclosed space is simultaneously a house, a business
and a social meeting place; Vanda’s mother’s vegetable and fruit shop
serves also as the family’s living room.33 Costa films this strange architec-
ture of entangled streets while it is undergoing demolition and bulldozers
tear down the houses.
Costa relies on existing local light, often candles, and his camera is
always static and positioned opposite the characters, establishing a
unique sense of both proximity (because the makeshift spaces are
33. Pedro Costa comments on
narrow and low), and distance, as there are no ‘talking-head’ shots and
this specific architecture in the few close-ups are disorientating. Costa’s camera turns the neighbour-
the documentary film by hood into series of still-life tableaux, an arrangement of figures and
Aurélien Gerbault, All
Blossoms Again, 2006. The objects in space. Yet, in a strange way, this formal focus on light,
film is included in the DVD colours, sounds, surfaces and textures results not in abstraction but in a
box set Letters from sensually enriched materiality. On the one hand, the dramatic pictorial
Fontainhas: Three Films by
Pedro Costa, op cit. effects employed in the film, such as chiaroscuro, dissolve or obscure
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Pedro Costa, still from In Vanda’s Room, 2000, colour thirty-five millimetre film, 178 minutes, # Pedro Costa

the specific reality which is depicted, but on the other hand the focus on
autonomous objects and empty or evacuated spaces leads to what
Deleuze calls ‘pure optical and sound situations’ in which it is no
longer possible to separate Costa’s mode of filming from its object of
depiction, the residents and their living environment. That is, the neigh-
bourhood does not function as a setting that presupposes or promotes a
specific action that Costa’s camera then ‘documents’. Instead what is
filmed is the very crisis of action, the inability to act or respond in
situations that overwhelm the characters’ capacities, such as the demoli-
tion of their houses. As Nhurro (also named Yuran), one of the main
characters, states, as he sits in a dark decrepit room that he will be

forced to leave, his body appearing as a dark silhouette against the

dirty wall:
My hair is filthy, I look like a tramp. . . I’ve parked cars, I’ve been a thief. . .
a street paver, I helped in construction, I don’t know what else. . . what else
I can do in this world.

The immobility of Costa’s camera and its pure optics constitute not an
arbitrary stylistic choice on the director’s part, but what Deleuze calls a
break in the link between ‘man and the world’, which ‘makes man a
seer who finds himself struck by something intolerable in the world’.34
In this regard the problem Costa’s films face is not that of giving ‘knowl-
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edge’ about the economic realities of the current moment but, as Deleuze
emphasises with regard to the time-image of modern cinema, of restoring
belief in this world.35
In Vanda’s Room makes an extraordinary use of ‘pure sound’ that
exists independently of the image. Through the room’s thin walls, the
viewer often hears sounds issuing from Vanda’s mother’s shop but does
not see their source: music from the TV and radio, her sister’s baby
crying, people stopping by, the sound of bulldozers, children shouting.
The sound in the film functions as an image in itself that adds a mental
dimension to the visible image by opening it to the outside. This
additional framing constantly splits the film’s visual and acoustic registers
into the actual and the virtual: the still-present of the neighbourhood
coexisting with the already past of its demolition as the film unfolds,
and the future of its residents still to come.
Their future is depicted in the last part of the trilogy, Colossal Youth,
which focuses on the character of Ventura, an immigrant worker from
Cape Verde who fell from scaffolding while working on the construction
of the Gulbenkian museum in Lisbon. The film follows him as he visits the
former residents of Fontainhas, whom he names my ‘sons’ and ‘daugh-
ters’, including Vanda and other characters from the previous film, in
the homes they have been allocated in a newly built neighbourhood of
tall white modernist buildings. Throughout the film Ventura’s gestures
are stiff, his face expressionless, and his manner of speaking impersonal
as if he were reciting lines even when he is telling his own life story of
immigration, hard work and mishap. This mode of speaking about the
past as if one’s words are reported by a third person, or what Deleuze
calls ‘free indirect speech’, also underlines the mode of filming in which
scenes that seem to belong to a different time other than the filmed
present are not marked in any way that suggests a shift in time.36 For
34. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2:
example, after Ventura talks about his accident, he appears wearing a
The Time-Image, op cit, head bandage in scenes with his fellow immigrant worker Lento, and
p 169 they seem to be returning from work to their shack in Fontainhas,
35. On the problem of belief in which the viewer knows no longer exists. In one of the scenes Lento
relation to Costa’s films see talks in the present tense about the military coup in Portugal that took
Jean-Louis Comolli,
‘Frames and Bodies’, op cit.
place in 1974, a long time before the diegetic present of the film. Just
as words cannot be attributed to a specific consciousness, although
36. On Deleuze’s notion of free
indirect speech see my essay spoken by an individual voice, images of the past are not filmed as specific
‘Towards a New Image of individual or collective flashbacks. Like Kiarostami, Costa creates crystal-
Politics: Chris Marker’s line images that oscillate between the past and the present of places and
Staring Back’, Oxford Art
Journal, vol 33, no 1, people (Portugal, Fontainhas, Ventura, Vanda and other characters)
March 2010, p 90. that evade clear attribution or identification.
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Pedro Costa, still from Colossal Youth, 2006, colour thirty-five millimetre film, 155 minutes, # Pedro Costa

The past in Colossal Youth is also that of the very idea of collectivity
and freedom. In another scene with Lento in their shack Ventura plays a
record of a popular song from the Cape Verde war of independence led by
Amı́lcar Cabral against Portugal in 1975: ‘Raise your arms and shout
freedom/shout oh independent people/shout oh liberated people/July
5th means freedom/July 5th the road to happiness/shout, long live
Cabral/freedom fighter of our nation.’ This song, played on a now obso-
lete turntable, sounds like a relic from a different long-ago time. The song
draws power from its clear sense of political agency and the national
coherence of the people as a unified ‘We’ combating a colonialist oppres-
sor, but the film marks the disappearance of this collective consciousness.
In a historical condition in which, as Deleuze famously stated, ‘the people
are missing’, the only possibility is to make a ‘minor’ cinema, following
the model of Kafka’s minor literature, in which ‘the message does not
refer back to an enunciating subject who would be its cause, no more
than to a subject of the statement who would be its effect’.37 This explains
37. Gilles Deleuze and Félix
Guattari, Kafka: Towards
the film’s interest in ‘collective assemblages of enunciation’, such as
a Minor Literature, Dana stories, legends and songs that are singular but not individual, collective
Polan, trans, University of in a performative sense but not in a symbolic or representational one.
Minnesota Press,
Minneapolis and London, Throughout the film Ventura often recites from a love letter that at first
1986, p 18 seems to be written by himself on behalf of an illiterate Lento. Yet

viewers of Costa’s films immediately recognise this letter from his earlier
film, Casa de Lava (1994), in which the identity of the writer and the
addressee could not be established. And as Ventura goes on reciting
this letter about immigrating to a foreign place and missing his loved
ones, wishing he could buy her dresses and cigarettes, and the challenges
he faces of hard work and learning a new language, the feelings of fear
and hope and the unbearable waiting for a return letter, it becomes
clear that the letter’s power lies in its potential inter-exchangeability
and lack of exclusivity. Costa created the letter by combining lines
from a letter by an actual immigrant worker and a poem by the French
poet Robert Desnos, written from a Second World War concentration
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camp. The letter is not meant to create emotional identification but to

trigger, as Rancière points out, an open system of ‘exchanges, correspon-
dences and displacements’ in which ‘the art of the poor, of the public
scribe, and of great poets are captured together in the same fabric: an
art of life and of sharing, an art of travel and of communication’.38
Critics often argue that Costa’s films aestheticise poverty and are
therefore inherently apolitical because they do not provide any analysis
of the landscape of capitalism under globalisation.39 Responding to
these charges, Rancière states that:
Pedro Costa does not film the ‘misery of the world’. He films its wealth, the
wealth that anyone at all can become master of: that of catching the splen-
dour of a reflection of light, but also of being able to speak in a way that is
commensurate with one’s fate.40
It is clear that Costa’s films are not ‘about’ the poor, nor do they ‘rep-
resent’ the poor, rather they confirm Negri’s observation in Time for
Revolution that ‘poverty is the opposite of wealth because it is the singu-
lar possibility of all wealth’.41 His films insist on shared common
capacities to tell stories that are as rich as countless life experiences. In
this regard they offer an adequate response to Badiou’s call to start imple-
menting the communist hypothesis from an affirmation of a single perfor-
mative principle: ‘there is only one world’. The first consequence that
follows is:
. . . the recognition that all belong to the same world as myself: the African
38. Jacques Rancière, ‘The worker I see in the restaurant kitchen, the Moroccan I see digging a hole in
Politics of Pedro Costa’,
op cit
the road, the veiled woman looking after children in the park.42

39. See for example Thom The idea is not that all these subjects are the same but that they all have a
Andersen, ‘Paintings in the right to belong regardless of their different religions, cultures, languages
Shadows’, Film Comment,
March/April, 2007, p 59. and so on. The right to belong should not be conditioned by conformity
to a hegemonic model, yet it also should not involve a fixation on identities
40. Jacques Rancière, ‘The
Politics of Pedro Costa’, but a fascination with becoming in which one constantly invents new modes
op cit of subjectivity. Costa’s films allow one to imagine what it would be like to
41. Antonio Negri, Time for live in a world where ‘other’ people ‘exist exactly as I do myself’.43 What
Revolution, Matteo would it feel like? What would it be like to inhabit a world where the
Mandarini, trans,
Continuum, London and
universalism that underlines the communist hypothesis becomes not a mar-
New York, p 190 keting slogan (‘we are all friends’), but a political proposition?
42. Alain Badiou, ‘The
By asking real marginalised individuals to play themselves rather than
Communist Hypothesis’, be themselves, Kiarostami and Costa make films that echo the mode of
op cit, p 39 being specific to the concept of the ‘people’: real and imaginary, actual
43. Ibid, p 39 and virtual, past and present. Their cinema is one that insists on ‘the

power of the false’, where the false ceases to be an appearance or lie, but
what allows a character, as Deleuze argues, to cross a limit, to become
another ‘in an act of story-telling which connects him to a people past
or to come’.44 In this regard their films are inherently political not
because they are about marginalised groups or because they challenge
conventional documentary or fictional forms of representation, but
because they move away from representation by opposing any notion
of identity thinking that presumes the ‘common’ or the consensual
rather than contesting its inequalities and violence. Contemporary
cinema cannot create a people, but it does share with those who suffer
44. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: a common resistance ‘to death, to servitude, to the intolerable. . . and to
The Time-Image, op cit,
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p 275 the present’.45 In the current political context, where resistance to vio-
lence and racism often hinge on the unimaginable, these films allow
45. Gilles Deleuze and Félix
Guattari, What is one to imagine new forms of political subjectivity and to restore belief
Philosophy?, op cit, p 110 in the possibility of a common world.