Film

The Towering Humanity in Abbas Kiarostami's Films

Buba Bayour and Hocine Rifahi in And Life Goes On (Zendegi va digar hich, 1992) (IMDB)

Director Abbas Kiarostami's Where Is the Friend's House?, And Life Goes On, and Through the Olive Trees, packaged in Criterion's "The Koker Trilogy", offer profound life lessons from a modest Iranian village.

The Koker Trilogy
Abbas Kiarostami

The Criterion Collection

27 Aug 2019

Other

Throughout his life, Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami was a warrior for humanity. No doubt he would prefer the title "filmmaker", "poet", or, simply, "artist", but nothing can erase the fact that, in each of his films, Kiarostami fought with the entirety of his being just to get people to see themselves in each other.

It's that quality in particular that demands to be recognized today, some three years after his death; that is where his story began, and where it ended. It's certainly at the heart of The Koker Trilogy, three films — Where Is the Friend's House? (Khane-ye doust kodjast? 1987), And Life Goes On (Zendegi va digar hich, 1992), and Through the Olive Trees (Zire darakhatan zeyton, 1994) — through which Kiarostami emerged as a forerunning cinematic stylist, a rare alchemist of word and image, and an artist beyond confident in his constructed worlds. These films are thought-provoking in message and devised with a cerebral approach, yet each one is above all else an emotional experience, a pathway into unseen lives braving a very real existence.

It could be argued that The Koker Trilogy is only a trilogy in a superficial sense. The three films don't really share characters, only actors. There are no shared storylines, at least in the traditional way, yet each one bleeds into the next all the same. Thematically, there is shared texture and concepts, but the style of each one is entirely distinct. In fact, the only element truly present in all three films is their setting: the remote, rural Iranian village of Koker and the neighboring towns.

But the relationship isn't as trivial as it first seems. The region surrounding Koker plays a crucial role in each of the films, and not in the way New York or Los Angeles serve a function beyond aesthetics in so many American movies, but in a truly profound sense. In these films, Kiarostami captured a way of life, the networks of a community, and a culture of kinship that even he didn't fully understand. Koker is no booming metropolis, no epicenter of business or cultural significance. In fact, the village's sole claim to fame outside of Iran is this triptych. Aside from its natural beauty — which Kiarostami filmed with great relish in each installment — there is seemingly nothing extraordinary about Koker.

Yet the director landed there by chance to make Where Is the Friend's House? in 1986, the film that would serve as the foundation for the trilogy and, by extension, the launchpad for the rest of his celebrated career. In Koker, he found a small community not unlike those in any forgotten corner of the world. Kiarostami — a filmmaker who welcomed serendipity, acted on intuition, and embraced the unfolding of fate — discovered in Koker a place of organic human character, where he could apply his vision of cinema as an extension of reality and as a space of real human exchange.

Babek Ahmed Poor (R) as Ahmed in Where Is the Friend's House? (Khane-ye doust kodjast? 1987) (IMDB)

In spirit, Where Is the Friend's House?, as a continuation of Kiarostami's early work with Iran's Institute for the Intellectual Development of Youth, concentrates almost purely on social concerns. The film is a heartbreaking neo-realist adventure with faint elements of magical realism that brings Koker to the screen as a model of the small calamities and modesty of country life. It's the story of Ahmed (Babek Ahmedpour), a thoughtful young child who sets out on a journey to return a school notebook he mistakenly took from his classmate, Mohamed (Ahmed Ahmedpour), to prevent the student's unjust expulsion. After travelling all day across villages and between neighborhoods, Ahmed is left desperate by adults who refuse to help and the growing sense of impossibility of being a good person.

To many adults in the modern Western world, the stakes of Where Is the Friend's House? might seem trivial, but Ahmed's trek feels colossal because Kiarostami never lets the viewer forget the moral urgency that Ahmed feels. In the first scene, the boys' school teacher berates Mohamed for always forgetting to use his notebook, making the child bawl in shame. Ahmed, seated right beside him, watches in helpless unease, and Kiarostami captures this in close-up as though it were a supreme revelation about the meaning of responsibility and consequence.

Though it's billed as a children's film, Kiarostami valiantly confronts the adult world in nearly every scene of Where Is the Friend's House?. Most children innately understand how to be considerate toward their neighbors, after all. Such understanding can only be unlearned by the bitterness and egoism of age, which is why the generational divide is such a key device employed throughout the movie. Ahmed is constantly speechless at the callous and self-involved temperaments of adults: his mother tells him that Mohamed "deserves to be expelled" and it "serves him right"; his grandfather sends him on an aimless errand as punishment for not listening so he won't grow up "lazy"; the teacher explains that harsh rules must be followed because children should be "methodical and disciplined". Despite Ahmed's selflessness and sweetness, the film depicts a cold and spiteful world gradually stifling all impulses toward compassion, consideration, and moral leadership.

Ahmed's perspective makes the film a warm portrait of childhood and community, but one that is also fiercely trenchant in how it shows the social and ethical development of children and the systematic dulling of moral conscience over time. Where Is the Friend's House? is timeless in how it strives to get older generations to take seriously the concerns of youth.

And Life Goes On (Zendegi va digar hich, 1992) (IMDB)

Then, soon after international buzz for Where Is the Friend's House? had reached its zenith, Iran was struck by the catastrophic Manjil–Rudbar earthquake of 1990, which left tens-of-thousands dead and all but levelled many small, rural communities like Koker. In the wake of the earthquake, Kiarostami travelled from Tehran with his son to the village in order to discover the fate of the people he came to know during production of the film. The trip resulted in a partially-dramatized version of the events for the next film in the trilogy, And Life Goes On (aka Life, and Nothing More…), in which a film director (Farhad Kheradmand as Kiarostami's persona) and his son Puya (Buba Bayour) drive to Koker in search of the child actors who starred in Where Is the Friend's House?

On their trip, they encounter many strange and familiar faces, all touched by the tragedy of the earthquake, and they witness the spirit of life that pulls the people through in the aftermath. The film combines real footage of destroyed homes, stores, and roads, partially fictionalized stories from local residents, and reenactments of Kiarostami's real-life pilgrimage together in a metanarrative that delves equally into exploratory docufiction and understated human interest.

Despite the deeper layers of reality pulled away later in Kiarostami's career, And Life Goes On is the greatest formal experiment within The Koker Trilogy. It's a transient, fourth-wall breaking inquiry into the connection between the real world and its cinematic representation that leaves deep ruptures on the story, scars which reflect the torn and broken countryside traversed by the director character and his son.

Kiarostami calls direct attention to artificial fragments in the film in order to emphasize that which is authentic about it. For example, when the father and son meet up with an old man who played a prominent role in Where Is the Friend's House?, he takes them back to his home, mumbling under his breath that it's only his "movie house" and that his real house was destroyed in the earthquake. True or not, Kiarostami spends And Life Goes On teasing reality and quantifying the realness of his films beyond their fictionality. His stars are actors only in that they are acting; they are more importantly genuinely human, each of them touched by the tragedies and triumphs surrounding them. For the rest of his life, Kiarostami would continue to facilitate that idea through his cinema.

Like Where Is the Friend's House?, And Life Goes On does well to extract that humanity. It's most evident in the small acts of kindness that take place throughout the movie almost as a matter of instinct. Kheradmand's director character watches over a baby while the mother is gone, hauls a gas tank up a hill for a passerby, and removes an old woman's kettle from the rubble of her house. These displays of generosity culminate in the final shot of the film, when a stranger helps push the director's struggling car down a hill, who then returns and gives him a ride to the top. The film is dominated by images of doom, by frantic and desperate people digging through debris where their homes once stood, fundamentally unprepared for the harsh conditions of existence.

But at the same time, it's a road movie at a standstill, with the characters frequently obstructed by traffic, dangerous roads, and wrong turns. It affords us the time to appreciate the world Kiarostami is pulling the curtain away from — the hardship and the relief, the tenderness and the agony. The film is slow and occasionally silent, wholly devoted to contemplation of the value of life. The sun always seems to break through the darkness. As the director says, "Every road leads somewhere."

Mohamad Ali Keshavarz (L) as Film Director in Through the Olive Trees (Zire darakhatan zeyton, 1994) (IMDB)

As it happens, And Life Goes On led Kiarostami to Through the Olive Trees, which took his experiences in Koker to an even deeper deconstructive mode and new, self-referential heights. Extending beyond the boundaries of the previous film, Through the Olive Trees is set during the filming of And Life Goes On, in which that film's director (Mohamad Ali Keshavarz, now the second of Kiarostami's on-screen personas) guides the hand-selected actors who appeared in And Life Goes On (themselves locals devastated by the earthquake) through the tribulations of filmmaking. It's not the fully meta dissection of cinema it may seem, however. Its main focus is the story of Hossein (Hossein Rezai), a young man chosen to play a small role in And Life Goes On opposite a young woman named Tahereh (Tahereh Ladanian), with whom he has an obsessive (if perhaps well-intentioned) unrequited romantic interest in off-screen.

Through the Olive Trees takes a step back from the more radical formalism and neo-realism of Kiarostami's previous films, opting instead for a light-hearted, slice-of-life flair — a tone he would return to at certain points during the rest of his life in art. Once again, Kiarostami illustrates that there is real, lived experience behind the eyes of the actors, in the shattered homes, and in the rolling Iranian landscapes that make up these films. It's a deeply sensitive movie, as well, drawing the audience's sympathies toward Hossein even as his persistence to get Tahereh's attention evolves into frustrating obstinacy.

It's also the most picturesque of the trilogy, painted with verdant olive tree fields and textured desert towns. It mirrors the elegant beauty of life stripped down to its barest essentials. As Hossein tells Tahereh, "This is how it'll be. Sometimes I'll serve the tea, and sometimes you will. That's how I see married life. That's what life is about." Like Where Is the Friend's House? and And Life Goes On, Through the Olive Trees is about mutual generosity, charity, and connection above all else.

Indeed, whether they comprise a true trilogy or not, each film in the series is an essential companion to the next. Seen together, they amount to one of the greatest triptychs in cinema. Each film is a vital moral lesson: Where Is the Friend's House? insists patience, understanding, and a little selflessness of the world, And Life Goes On seeks serenity and grace in the face of anguish, and Through the Olive Trees asks for hope. It's easy to be seduced by his interrogations of form, but like all Kiarostami films, the primary purpose of The Koker Trilogy is the escalation of empathy. All three movies deal with characters who must show resilience against forces that threaten their spirit, because, daunting as the world is, humanity is a gift worth preserving.

Kiarostami, who passed away in 2016, spent his final years exploring a global community on film. His 2010 movie, Certified Copy was shot in Tuscany in French, English, and Italian, and his 2012 film, Like Someone In Love filmed in Tokyo and Yokohama entirely in Japanese. Both are among his greatest achievements, and they show the extent to which he was committed to crafting a cinema suitable for a universal audience and snapping away at the barriers of conflict and difference.

Even after all that time, Kiarostami sought to unite us, once and for all, in our commonality. All his films are works of towering humanity, and though he dismissed the notion that Where Is the Friend's House?, And Life Goes On, and Through the Olive Trees were in fact a trilogy, why shouldn't they be considered as such? Fate brought Kiarostami to Koker, and Kiarostami brought Koker to the world. The result of that bond earned him a far-reaching audience that needs to hear his prayers for a better life.

* * *

The Criterion Collection Blu-ray box-set of The Koker Trilogy boasts one of their most thematic packaging designs in recent memory. The slipcase houses each film in its own section, each one enveloped by the next, with cutouts on the front that unify them on the cover. Beyond that, the set is rich with incredible special features. Noteworthy among them is a restored version of Homework (1989), Kiarostami's feature documentary in which he interviews young students about school, a new audio commentary on And Life Goes On featuring Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa and Jonathan Rosenbaum, many in-depth interviews, and the 1994 documentary Abbas Kiarostami: Truths and Dreams. It would have been nice, perhaps, to have commentaries and essays for each one of the films, but it's hard to ask for more from this collection. From aesthetics to the extra content to the films themselves, Criterion's rendering of The Koker Trilogy is an exquisite tribute.

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