Salam Cinema

***

Reviewed by: Rebecca Naughten

Salam Cinema
"You can't help but feel that Simon Cowell may have seen this film - it's the audition stages of The X Factor, avant la lettre."

Director Mohsen Makhmalbaf placed an ad in a newspaper calling for actors to audition for his latest film (intended as an homage to the centenary of cinema) - Salam Cinema opens with the resulting near-stampede when almost 5,000 hopefuls turn up but are told that only a fraction of them will make it through the gates to meet the filmmaker. The viewer knows from the outset that the film Makhmalbaf (a spry presence who switches between dictatorial and amenable) is intending to make is a documentary about people who want to be actors - but the actors do not.

What follows is a series of individual and group auditions interspersed with the director's instructions ("Cry!....now laugh!") and manipulations (sending people away and then calling them back or playing them off against each other), each with the final 'reveal' that the successful applicants are already in the film and may now leave (to their general befuddlement). There is a deliberate blurring of the real and the staged, to the extent that at times it becomes impossible to tell where a performance begins and where it ends.

Copy picture

The small auditorium where the auditions take place is designedly theatrical, but it is obviously significant that the director and his desk sit facing the stairs that double as seating - he is therefore also on 'stage' and we should be aware that he is also performing. Two large mirrors mean that performers and camera crew are often both in shot and there are frequent cutaways to crew members adjusting lighting, operating the camera, or chuckling as they listen to the audio through headphones. The 'work' of filmmaking being put on display and emphasised - there is also a fairly elaborate, curved dolly track in operation - highlights the staged nature of the situation and brings 'reality' in to question (it is also unusual for a 'documentary' to so overtly draw attention to the mechanics of cinematic style).

While larger (mixed ability) groups gamely throw themselves into the audition process - pretending to be shot down or blown up on the battlefield, breaking into song, and trying to cry on cue - the veracity of smaller moments and personal stories (full marks to the woman who isn't an actress but who thinks that getting a part in a Makhmalbaf or Kiarostami film will solve her visa problem - and take her to Cannes) begin to have the whiff of possible set-ups. You can't help but feel that Simon Cowell may have seen this film - it's the audition stages of The X Factor, avant la lettre.

As Salam Cinema progresses it becomes uncomfortable viewing because some of the manipulations seem unnecessarily mean - especially in a protracted sequence where two teenage girls are asked to choose between being humane and being artists - and despite Makhmalbaf's protestation that "It's the cinema that is cruel" (when one of the girls asks why he is so strict) the film takes on shades of psychological experimentation. But that again raises the question of where the performances begin and end - is it the audience that is being manipulated rather than those onscreen? - also of what Makhmalbaf's real objective was with the project.

Although obfuscating the line between fantasy/illusion and reality was evidently part of the exercise, the lack of clarity as to the point being made (beyond highlighting the performative nature of reality) makes for an unsatisfactory experience for the viewer. The film is screening at Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival 2015 as part of its 'Fact or Fiction' strand (read more about that here), but is also available to rent on Vimeo.

Reviewed on: 14 Sep 2015
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Salam Cinema packshot
Five thousand hopeful actors turn out for an audition unaware that the film is about hopeful actors auditioning.

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