The Koker Trilogy: Journeys of the Heart

In 1986, having made a number of child-centered films in his position as the head of the filmmaking division at Iran’s Center for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults (an organization Iranians call Kanoon), Abbas Kiarostami accepted a government official’s urging to direct a script he’d written but intended for another director. Where Is the Friend’s House?, about a boy’s effort to return a schoolmate’s notebook, was shot in and near Koker, a village two hundred miles northwest of Tehran. The film won two prizes on premiering at Iran’s Fajr Film Festival in 1987, and received international acclaim when it played at the Locarno Film Festival in 1989, winning a Bronze Leopard and four other awards. It was the first dramatic feature Kiarostami had made since the Iranian Revolution a decade before.

A year later, on the eve of Kiarostami’s fiftieth birthday in June 1990, an earthquake devastated the area around Koker, killing fifty thousand people, including twenty thousand children. Wanting to find out the fates of the local kids who had appeared in Where Is the Friend’s House?, he made a difficult journey by car through the stricken area with his eleven-year-old son, Bahman. When he later told an audience in Germany about the trip, someone suggested he turn the story into a film. Kiarostami took the advice and in the following months returned to the area to film And Life Goes On (a.k.a. Life, and Nothing More), with two nonactors playing characters modeled on himself and his son.

That film generated yet another. While shooting a four-minute scene in And Life Goes On in which the director observes a young man getting a chilly response from a girl with whom he’s playing a scene, Kiarostami saw that the tension between the two nonactors was real. Their relationship became the dramatic kernel of Through the Olive Trees, a film about the making of And Life Goes On, with the man who played the director of Where Is the Friend’s House? reprising that role and a prominent actor playing the director of And Life Goes On. Both And Life Goes On and Through the Olive Trees made their international debuts at the Cannes Film Festival (in 1992 and 1994, respectively) and elevated Kiarostami to the front ranks of world auteurs, paving the way for his triumphant win of Cannes’s Palme d’Or with his next film, Taste of Cherry (1997).

As that history indicates, the three films were not planned as a trilogy but rather emerged as one organically. While Kiarostami did not readily embrace the term The Koker Trilogy, a designation used by critics, his reluctant acceptance of it was perhaps inevitable. For seen separately, each film is masterful and easily stands on its own. Yet considered together, they possess a unique power and inexhaustible fascination. As such, they exemplify a striking characteristic of Kiarostami’s artistic creations overall: their profound integrality, the sense that one work connects with others in ways that are complex, suggestive, and often more subtle than overt.

Although each of the films possesses distinct aims and qualities that set it apart from the others, they also share a number of attributes that link them to other Kiarostami films: a humanistic outlook and stories that involve some sort of quest; a poetic articulation of visual space; a sense of drama that is carefully structured yet also relaxed and sometimes digressive in its unfolding; a keen appreciation of faces and personal characteristics, which accords with the director’s extraordinary skills directing nonactors, especially young ones; and a feeling that the films’ meanings are multilayered, with the surface significance of the basic narrative overlaying metaphorical associations that can be personal or political, philosophical or mystical.

The distinctive combination of simple means and complex meanings in Kiarostami’s Koker films, as well as his way of conjoining (and sometimes blurring the lines between) documentary and drama, reflects the multiplicity of his artistic interests along with his previous work as a filmmaker. After studying painting at university, he designed credit sequences for films and made TV commercials, including some that gained attention for their use of kids and led to his position at Kanoon. There, he enjoyed a great deal of creative freedom, making films (including a number of shorts and his first feature, 1974’s The Traveler) that he said were “about, but not necessarily for, children.” His interest in children, however, was both genuine and personal. On either side of his first Koker film, he made two feature documentaries, First Graders (1984) and Homework (1989), that stemmed from his concern with the education of his sons, Ahmad and Bahman.

Where Is the Friend’s House?

While a sense of place is important to many of his films, Kiarostami wrote Where Is the Friend’s House? without a firm idea of where it would be shot. Once he agreed to direct the film, he ruled out various rural areas because their residents’ accents were associated with comic stereotypes in Iranian popular culture. When a fellow director introduced him to Koker, a farming village in Gilan Province, he liked both the look of the place and the speech of its inhabitants. He cast the film with people he found there and in the nearby village of Poshteh.

School and home are the two archetypal settings in Kiarostami films dealing with children, and the first few minutes of Where Is the Friend’s House? give us both. As the film opens, we are in the second-grade classroom of Koker’s school, where doe-eyed eight-year-old Ahmad watches as his teacher berates the class for falling into chaos while he was briefly away, then reduces Ahmad’s friend Mohammad Reza to tears by yelling at him for bringing his homework to class on a sheet of paper rather than in a notebook. (The two friends are actually played by brothers, Babak and Ahmad Ahmadpour.) Repetition is a key device in Kiarostami’s cinema, just as it is in rote learning, and here the teacher makes the crying boy repeat over and over how often he has been told to bring a notebook: three times. And as the threat of punishment is a common element in Kiarostami’s films about children, the teacher makes abundantly clear the fate Mohammad Reza will suffer if he fails to bring the notebook again: expulsion.

Back at home, Ahmad is similarly beset with overbearing adult authority. In the spacious outdoor courtyard of his family’s two-story home, his harried mother is too encumbered with laundry chores and caring for his baby brother, as well as keeping an eye on his grandmother and older brother, to focus on his chagrined realization that he has mistakenly taken Mohammad Reza’s notebook along with his own. He tries to explain why he must return the book, but his mother threatens to smack him if his protestations continue. Situations of confinement that become increasingly onerous recur in Kiarostami’s work, and this scene is a particularly potent example. With our attention focused throughout on Ahmad’s dismay and mounting desperation, we share his relief when he’s told to go buy bread, and dashes off with Mohammad Reza’s notebook under his sweater. 

As idle old men at Koker’s edge watch, Ahmad runs up and over a hill with a zigzagging path and a lone tree on top that will appear in all three films (Kiarostami had the landmark built to his specifications), then through an olive grove. In Poshteh, another village of whitewashed plaster walls, he tries to get help from a schoolmate but mostly encounters adults who offer little sympathy or aid, providing a human environment that’s as forbidding as the village’s alleys are disorienting. Told that Mohammad Reza’s cousin has just left for Koker, Ahmad returns over the zigzag hill.

There follows one of the significant pauses or digressions that often appear in Kiarostami films, one that temporarily shifts us away from the child’s point of view. Ahmad’s grandfather, one of the old men at Koker’s edge, tells him to go fetch his cigarettes, then explains to a friend that he doesn’t really need the cigarettes but wants to teach the boy to obey. He avers that children should be beaten regularly, then goes into a disquisition that seems to connect this practice with Iranians accepting less money for work than others do. After other men join them and start talking about manufacturing doors, Ahmad returns and learns that one of them has the same last name as Mohammad Reza. So when that man gets on his donkey and rides toward Poshteh, the boy follows him, again traversing the zigzag hill.

In Poshteh, Ahmad determines that the man is not Mohammad Reza’s father but gets directions from the man’s real son to a blacksmith’s shop, where answers may be found. Instead, standing in an alley as night falls, he is surrounded by strange shadows and noises, until a light from a window above reveals the one sympathetic adult so far encountered, an old man who offers to lead Ahmad to his friend’s house. A craftsman who makes beautiful doors and windows—unearthly colors from the latter illuminate their way as they walk—the old man is lonely; he has no children, and his closest relatives have moved to the city. Kiarostami’s portrayal of the kindly gent is wry and realistic, yet it must be recognized that as soon as darkness begins to fall, the story effectively switches from day-consciousness to night-consciousness, the realm of fables, dreams, and allegories.

Poetry had a special place in Kiarostami’s artistic outlook. While Iran has a long poetic tradition and Iranians of all social backgrounds know many of its products by heart, Kiarostami not only memorized vast quantities of verse and published volumes of his own during his lifetime, he also used poetry, both classical and modern, as a model for his aesthetic decisions in film, and a number of his films incorporate or refer to poems. Sohrab Sepehri, one of his favorite modern poets, wrote a poem titled “Where Is the Friend’s House?” that is plainly mystical. Kiarostami said the poem didn’t inspire his film; he simply borrowed its title. Yet the kind of mysticism that suffuses Sepehri’s poem, like the medieval poetry it descends from, accords with many of the film’s narrative and symbolic motifs. The concept of orientation that animates so many Kiarostami films has an important place in Sufi mysticism, as does the quest theme. Visually, the zigzag hill can be seen as a reflection of the mystical Mount Qaf, the arena of human striving leading up to the divine, itself symbolized by that lone tree. Sufis use “Friend” to denote God, but also apply the term to a pir, a spiritual master or guide—the Arabic terms for which can also be translated as “old man,” a figure that appears in many Kiarostami films.

This is not to suggest that Kiarostami set out to write a mystical allegory. His usual method was to start with an issue like friendship between schoolboys. Yet when he was elaborating the idea into a story, it was natural that the Persian literary and philosophic traditions he knew so well would inform his work. Here, the old man—the real friend—effects a crucial transmutation: rather than simply delivering Ahmad to his pal (Kiarostami wondered how many viewers would realize that the final house the boy visits is one he tried unsuccessfully before), he sends him home with a new orientation toward many things. In the film’s final scenes, the adults—first Ahmad’s mother, then the teacher—are seen as more complex and sympathetic than before. And in giving Mohammad Reza his notebook with the homework done, Ahmad demonstrates a more refined and generous idea of friendship than he imagined the day before. A classic of childhood to place alongside The 400 Blows and Pather Panchali, the film ends with one of the most famous images in Iranian cinema: an old man’s flower resting inside a schoolboy’s notebook.

Where Is the Friend’s House? was one of three acclaimed masterpieces of its era—along with Amir Naderi’s The Runner (1984) and Bahram Beyzai’s Bashu, the Little Stranger (1986)—that first drew the world’s attention to the New Iranian Cinema (the term for the postrevolutionary cinema that followed the Iranian New Wave of the seventies) and established child-centered art films as an Iranian specialty.

And Life Goes On

Between Where Is the Friend’s House? and And Life Goes On, Kiarostami made Close-up (1990), the film that many critics consider his greatest. A quasi- or pseudodocumentary about the trial of a poor man arrested for impersonating the director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the film was noted for its complex blurring of the boundaries between fact and fiction, documentary and drama. It also introduced elements that would appear in the remainder of The Koker Trilogy: the showing of film directors on-screen (both Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf appear), a device with both dramatic and philosophical implications; a story that can be read as a commentary on the state of Iran a decade after its revolution; long dialogue scenes set inside cars; and a somewhat disjunctive method of narrative that Kiarostami saw as closer to poetry than to the prose of standard cinematic storytelling.

That last method is boldly announced at the outset of And Life Goes On. A conventional film on its subject might begin with the director character learning of the earthquake, then making the decision to undertake his journey, or with titles or news footage detailing the disaster’s devastation. A prime example of Kiarostami’s way of decentering narrative (beginning a story in medias res, ending it before its natural conclusion), And Life Goes On opens, instead, with cars going through a highway tollbooth and their drivers exchanging comments with the attendant. One car contains a bespectacled, white-haired, never-named film director (Farhad Kheradmand) and his young son, Pouya (Pouya Payvar, son of the film’s cinematographer, Homayoun Payvar). These two are setting off into the earthquake area on a mission, but we are told nothing of this to begin with. Kiarostami simply launches into their journey, allowing us to piece together the facts surrounding it as we go along.

Of the three Koker films, And Life Goes On is the one closest to documentary and autobiography, the furthest from standard drama and overt literary or mystical references. Unlike Where Is the Friend’s House?, which began with a finished script (one reason Kiarostami said he’d originally preferred for someone else to direct it), the film started with an eight-page outline; Kiarostami wrote the dialogue as scenes were filmed.

Early on, the story is focused on the droll banter between father and son (Kiarostami took much of the dialogue from conversations with his son Bahman), exchanges alternately playful and informative. From the first, the film’s tone is wry and observant, and the angle of view shifts from standard third-person to the subjective gazes of the director and Pouya. As always in Kiarostami, questions abound. Pouya wants to know about the strength of cement and the movements of grasshoppers. And this time, questions of place and the issue of orientation are founded in memories of real-life challenges and dilemmas. With many roads out or blocked, the director is constantly asking for information on a way forward.

The sights the director and his son first encounter are of pandemic ruin and destruction. Houses are flattened, roads and bridges are sundered, traffic jams abound, and huge buildings have been wrenched apart like so many flimsy toys. (Filmed months after the earthquake, these scenes obviously required considerable effort to reconstitute the catastrophe’s immediate aftermath.) As the protagonists talk with people they meet, the tragedy’s human toll becomes evident; most locals have lost friends, neighbors, or relatives, and some agonize over the event’s meaning. Yet, the dead having already been buried, what we see all around is exactly the opposite of morbid: signs of survival, growth, new life. And this realization seems to entail certain artistic reorientations, for if And Life Goes On is the film where Kiarostami introduces the continuing theme of life versus death, it’s also the one where his appreciation of nature’s beauties becomes an important visual motif, one that sometimes attains an almost pantheistic intensity. 

Of the numerous scenes that touch on life’s resilience in the face of death, two stand out. In one, the director encounters a young couple who, instead of postponing their wedding after the deaths of a number of their kinfolk, moved it up, marrying the day after the quake. Whether or not this is religiously proper, it suggests how the urge to unite and procreate is a potent reaction to loss and tragedy. (This couple will become the center of Through the Olive Trees.) Elsewhere, people are eager to see the World Cup. While Kiarostami noted that references to football appear in many of his films, its appearance here records something that he said actually struck him during his time in the earthquake area. After he leaves Pouya, an avid football fan, in an encampment that contains the survivors of Koker and a TV for viewing the Brazil-Argentina match, the director encounters a technician setting up the TV relay, who says, “I’ve lost my sister and three nephews, but what can I do? The World Cup comes around only every four years . . . Life goes on.”

Kiarostami related that he had asked Kheradmand, an economist, to play the director months earlier, but only on the verge of shooting learned that he didn’t know how to drive. While some hasty lessons provided a bit of a remedy, Kiarostami decided that Kheradmand’s nervously intent look while driving read as concern over the kids he was seeking. Yet it’s also important that Kiarostami elected not to play the role himself. While driving through the ruined countryside, the fictional director shows people the French poster for Where Is the Friend’s House? and encounters folks from the film, so the character is clearly a stand-in for Kiarostami. While the difficulties of playing a lead role while also directing may have kept him from the challenge, it’s also likely that he wanted (non)actors to play the two main parts in order to position the film midway between the poles of fiction and documentary, rather than too close to the latter. Having introduced cinema as a subject in Close-up, Kiarostami obviously intended And Life Goes On as a reality-based fiction that asks us to ponder cinema’s complex way of using invented stories to mediate challenging realities.

Even the most reality-based stories, though, lend themselves to symbolic interpretations, and Kiarostami candidly admitted that the natural disaster recorded here could be seen as a metaphor for the Iranian Revolution: both were sudden and traumatic, leaving people jolted and disoriented. In the celebrated final scene of And Life Goes On, a single four-minute extreme long shot, Kiarostami pointedly refuses to meet conventional expectations; we never learn the fates of the boys from the previous film. Instead, just as Where Is the Friend’s House? avoided reaching its ostensible goal and thereby redefined friendship, he reframes the question. “And life goes on” applies to those individuals who happen to survive. But how does society survive? In the concluding shot, we see the director’s car drive down one hill and start up another (a big brother of the zigzag hill). As the car climbs, it passes a man carrying a large gas canister without stopping to offer a ride. It stalls out a bit farther on, then rolls backward. When the man with the canister reaches it, he gives it a push, then climbs aboard, and the car continues upward. So: we survive by helping each other. After earthquakes as after revolutions. What in the earlier film was expressed as friendship here appears as solidarity.

Through the Olive Trees

With Close-up and the first two Koker films, Kiarostami made a steady ascent in international regard, and the acclaim for And Life Goes On at Cannes suggested that the world’s most important film festival had embraced his career as one to boost. Yet his situation in Iran grew more difficult, despite, and in some cases because of, his foreign success. When conservatives shook up the culture ministry, Kiarostami was forced out of his position at Kanoon; And Life Goes On was his last film produced by the organization. The film was unpopular in Iran and savaged by some critics, who attacked Kiarostami for everything from glorifying himself to using Western classical music (Vivaldi) on the soundtrack to catering to Western preconceptions with an “exoticized” vision of rural Iran.

Rather nervily, Kiarostami begins Through the Olive Trees, which dramatizes the making of And Life Goes On, in ways that seem to mock some of these charges. In fact, in choosing a well-known, imposing actor, Mohammad Ali Keshavarz, to play the director of And Life Goes On, he arguably mocks both himself and the idea that he was becoming a foreign-proclaimed grand auteur. In the original version of the film, the first music heard may have been even more objectionable to Iranian purists than Vivaldi: a sample from the Pink Floyd song “Time,” playing on a popular morning-radio show (this was later removed due to rights issues). As for exoticizing Iran, the film’s first scene, of the director auditioning a bevy of black-chador-clad schoolgirls in a field, almost seems designed to startle the Western gaze and annoy Iranians suspicious of it.

Through the Olive Trees differs from its two predecessors in showing the filmmaking process itself. Rather than considering cinema as a mirror held up to life, it contemplates both life and the mirror, as well as the relationship between them. Its self-consciousness begins in the first shot, in which Keshavarz, speaking directly to the camera (a device not previously seen in a Kiarostami feature), introduces himself by name and says he “plays the director in this film.” Trailed by his trusty chador-clad assistant, Mrs. Shiva (Zarifeh Shiva), he then begins interviewing the schoolgirls. The third and prettiest they come upon says her name is Tahereh Ladanian.

The next scene begins with a long, unbroken shot from Mrs. Shiva’s point of view as her pickup truck speeds along a rural road, where she picks up a man who says he played the teacher in Where Is the Friend’s House? and, though he “doesn’t like film or art,” would appreciate a part in the current film. Later, she will pass and briefly speak with the now-teenage Babak and Ahmad Ahmadpour, a moment that reiterates this film’s connection to the first Koker film while offhandedly answering the crucial question left unanswered by the second.

At Tahereh’s home, Mrs. Shiva finds that the girl is not there and ready to leave for the filming. When Tahereh shows up, she’s carrying a modern, stylish dress she has borrowed from a friend and wants to wear in the movie. Mrs. Shiva explains several times that this won’t do; she’s supposed to wear a peasant dress. When Tahereh persists, it’s clear that she thinks she’s representing herself on-screen, not the girl from And Life Goes On. The scene also makes the wry point that some rural Iranians resist being “exoticized.”

On the movie set, difficulties begin immediately, but the stubborn, recalcitrant Tahereh isn’t the initial cause. In a composition that will be seen repeatedly, the girl sits on the upper balcony of a two-story Koker home; Kheradmand stands below. They are shooting a scene from And Life Goes On, and frequent reverse shots show the main crew, including the director (Keshavarz) and Through the Olive Trees actual cinematographer, Hossein Jafarian (later scenes also show the actual assistant director, Jafar Panahi, whose debut feature, The White Balloon, scripted by Kiarostami, would win the Caméra d’Or at Cannes in 1995). When the director calls action, a young man carrying a bag of plaster comes in, speaks to Kheradmand, and climbs to the second story, but fails to deliver his line to Tahereh. After the third botched take, he tells the director why: a girl’s presence makes him stammer.

The exasperated director tells Mrs. Shiva to go fetch Hossein from the crew’s camp and rehearse the boy’s lines on the way back. (Hossein Rezai was a tea boy on And Life Goes On who acted in the film after an actor flubbed his lines.) She does as she’s told, but when they get onto the set and try to do the scene, Hossein doesn’t say his line to Tahereh. He complains that she won’t speak to him. (Tahereh Ladanian did not appear in the previous film; the girl who played the part actually did dislike Hossein, and refused to act in Through the Olive Trees.)

Sensing something amiss between the two actors, the director takes Hossein on a drive in the pickup and asks about it. Hossein replies at length about how he first saw Tahereh shortly before the earthquake and instantly fell in love, seeing her as the girl he’d like to marry. But she was unresponsive, and her family opposed his interest. Then came the earthquake, like a “sigh from my heart,” which killed members of both of their families. He saw the girl in the cemetery on the second day of mourning, and again on the seventieth. In the latter encounter (visualized in flashback, an unusual device for Kiarostami), she gives him a fleeting look that he interprets as meaning his attentions are not unwanted.

The girl’s grandmother, her guardian following her parents’ deaths, makes plain her objections to Hossein as a suitor, however: he doesn’t have a house and is illiterate, which virtually dooms him to a life of low-paying manual labor. This is the crux of the film’s drama, and it occasions a remarkable scene in which the director listens as Hossein pours out his heart, arguing for a kind of cosmic justice that would heal the world and his own life: the rich should marry the poor, the educated should marry the illiterate, landowners should marry the homeless. Much as the poor cinephile’s courtroom testimony does in Close-up, this monologue resonates with the disappointment of many Iranians that the Revolution didn’t deliver a more egalitarian society but continued the divisions between rich and poor.

When filming resumes, we’re in the scene in which Tahereh and Hossein discuss his lost socks on the second floor, then he descends the stairs, finds the socks, and talks to Kheradmand about the earthquake’s aftermath. Hossein flubs his lines and, between the four takes, goes upstairs to speak with Tahereh, saying how good a husband he would be, pleading with her to give him a sign such as turning the page in the book she’s reading. She ignores him and doesn’t turn the page. After the scene is completed and Hossein resumes his former role as tea boy, bringing cups to everyone in the company, filming resumes, and this time it’s Tahereh who botches her lines, though in a way that seems deliberate: she refuses to address Hossein as “Mr. Hossein.”

Compared with the documentary-like style of And Life Goes On, Through the Olive Trees is stately and elegantly composed, with muted naturalistic views of landscapes and the repeated use of symmetrical compositions in the filmmaking scenes. The lyrically understated style helps set up the power of its final scene, which begins after the day’s shooting has finished and Tahereh, rather than waiting for a ride, sets off to walk home, wearing her peasant costume and carrying a flowerpot. Hossein runs after her.

She climbs the zigzag hill, and he follows. When both enter the olive grove on the other side, he begins again to tell her how good their marriage could be, urging her to forget the prejudiced advice of elders. He’s sure her look in the cemetery meant something, and he wants only for her to turn and acknowledge him. She keeps walking. But something else happens here, something that brings the trilogy’s literary/mystical elements back into play: the director emerges on the top of the zigzag hill, gazing down on his two rapidly departing actors with a look that seems less one of personal concern than one of a Prospero-like magus surveying the unfolding of his creation.

Like And Life Goes On, Through the Olive Trees ends with an extreme long shot that runs for several minutes. But this time it’s not an anonymous third-person view looking up at a hill. It’s the gaze of the director looking downward from the position of the zigzag hill’s lone tree. What he sees: the ever-smaller figures of Hossein and Tahereh continuing to move through the olive grove, then emerging from it and continuing along a path on its far side. The path veers right and is almost out of sight when Tahereh apparently stops suddenly and turns to Hossein. After a few moments, he turns and begins to run in the direction whence he came, and his movement seems jubilant.

So her heart turned and she gave him the answer he sought? Or is this his fantasy? Or a wishful reading that most viewers will supply based on their sympathy for him and the image’s ambiguity? Or is it an assertion of the artist’s power to shape the reality he or she creates—in this case: benevolently, generously, humanely—in ways that may influence the reality to which the artwork refers? If Kiarostami’s cinema is one of questions, such are the ones that Through the Olive Trees and The Koker Trilogy leave us with.

With its intricately interlocked narratives, its multiplicity of director figures (including Kiarostami himself, who appears briefly in Through the Olive Trees) and host of engaging performances by nonactors (plus one professional actor), its range of expressive stylistic strategies and evocations of Iran’s natural beauty and traditional village culture, its spirit of generosity and inquisitive intelligence, The Koker Trilogy stands as a masterpiece of both Iranian and world cinema. From an aesthetic perspective, it can be seen as marking a journey from the influence of neorealism (Where Is the Friend’s House?) through nouvelle-vague-style self-reflexive modernism (And Life Goes On) to playfully deconstructive postmodernism (Through the Olive Trees). In thus connecting West and East, and the major eras of modern filmmaking, it asserts both Kiarostami’s essential orientations and the global significance of the New Iranian Cinema. And it does all this not as a schematic or essentially cerebral work but as a deeply personal testament; for each of the three films, and The Koker Trilogy overall, are ones from the heart.