When people talk about film trilogies, you generally think of a long story stretched out over three films or at least a series of stories set in the same universe with the same characters. However, some directors have explored the concept in more interesting fashions, particularly in the art-house/indie field. A popular alternative is a trilogy of titles connected by a theme. The most famous example of this is probably the Three Colours Trilogy, which explores the three chief political ideals of France; liberty, equality and fraternity, represented by the three colours of the flag. A less well-known and more unique interpretation of the trilogy is Lucas Belvaux’s Trilogy (One, Two and Three). This consists of three films set around the same period of time with some shared characters, scenes and plot points, yet are presented in distinctly different styles – one a comedy, one a thriller and one a melodrama.
The Iranian writer/director Abbas Kiarostami made one of the most original twists on how three films could be connected though with The Koker Trilogy, which consists of the films Where is the Friend’s House? (a.k.a. Khane-ye doust kodjast?), And Life Goes On (a.k.a. Life and Nothing More or Zendegi va digar hich) and Through the Olive Trees (a.k.a. Zire darakhatan zeyton). He’s always been reluctant to consider the films a trilogy but it’s hard to deny their strong and fascinating interconnectivity, which I’ll explore in my write-ups of the individual titles below.
I’ve been keen to see the trilogy ever since I saw it featured in Mark Cousins’ magnificent Story of Film: An Odyssey documentary. Saying that, my expectations were dampened after I watched my first Abbas Kiarostami film, Certified Copy. I found that interesting but too intellectual to warm to, so wasn’t rushing to see any more of his work. I thought I’d give him another chance though, so requested a copy of Criterion’s handsome new Blu-ray box set of The Koker Trilogy to review.
Where is the Friend’s House?
Director: Abbas Kiarostami
Screenplay: Abbas Kiarostami
Starring: Babek Ahmed Poor, Ahmed Ahmed Poor, Khodabakhsh Defaei
Running Time: 83min
Where is the Friend’s House? is a simple tale of a young boy, Ahmed (Babek Ahmed Poor), who accidentally takes his friend Mohamed’s (Ahmed Ahmed Poor, the other’s brother in real life) copybook home with him from school. Mohamed was scolded by his teacher earlier that day and threatened with expulsion if he didn’t do his homework in his copybook again, so Ahmed is desperate to get the book back to him. However, Ahmed’s mum doesn’t want him to go wandering off and the boy doesn’t know where Mohamed lives anyway. Nevertheless, the determined Ahmed rushes off on his ‘mission’ when his mum asks him to get some bread from the bakery. He runs around Koker (the trilogy title comes from this location where all three films are set) and the neighbouring villages, asking if anyone knows where Mohamed lives, allowing the viewers to explore the area and find out more about the characters living there.
This is far from the dialogue-heavy intellectualism of Certified Copy, so I was surprised and delighted by Where is the Friend’s House? I’m a huge fan of stripped back, economic storytelling like this that keeps the narrative simple so you have time to mull over and appreciate the film and its themes. The key theme being explored here, for me, was how little adults truly listen to and respect the feelings of children. From the strict school teacher, to the mother refusing to let Ahmed steer away from his usual routines, to the grandfather who laments the ‘good old days’ when children were beaten into doing as they’re told, the film is filled with unknowingly cruel adults who aren’t taking the time to listen to Ahmed’s predicament and realise his returning the book is actually quite important. At first I thought this might be an allegorical criticism of strict Iranian law, but none of the many special features included back this up, so perhaps the surface criticism of adults and rules in general are the point entirely.
Away from its thematic elements, the film is beautifully made. It has a naturalistic, no-frills style, yet shots are carefully composed and subtly attractive. The story is often told visually with a great use of visual cues. A prime example of this is the repeated use of brown corduroys. Our attention is drawn to these trousers worn by Mohamed after he falls over and Ahmed helps him, then later they reappear as clues for Ahmed whilst he tries to track down his friend. We see them hanging on a washing line, so he goes to investigate and later they’re used in an amusing visual gag where tension is drawn out when we see a child wearing brown corduroys but his face keeps getting obscured by things, such as a door he’s carrying to begin with.
The performances are excellent too. Kiarostami uses ‘non-actors’ in all the roles here and he doesn’t hide slight moments where they look a little uncomfortable in front of the camera (I think I spotted someone glancing at it once or twice too), but there’s a wonderful naturalism to their actions and reactions. Kiarostami reportedly used tricks to elicit some of these, such as tearing up a picture Ahmed Ahmed Poor liked to make him cry during the first school scene. It may seem a little cruel but, seeing and hearing from the director in the features, you get the sense he cares for the local people he uses in his films and wouldn’t do anything to seriously harm them like some directors might (Kubrick springs to mind).
Where is the Friend’s House? is the most straight forward film in the trilogy (which you’ll learn as you read on) but it’s the easiest to fall in love with. Beautifully simple but highly effective, it’s an enjoyable, occasionally touching little tale with a good point to make about our treatment of children.
And Life Goes On
Director: Abbas Kiarostami
Screenplay: Abbas Kiarostami
Starring: Farhad Kheradmand, Buba Bayour, Hocine Rifahi
Running Time: 95min
The second part of the trilogy was inspired by an actual event in Iran. In 1990, there was a devastating earthquake in the north of the country which killed somewhere between 35,000–50,000 people, with a further 60,000–105,000 injured. It caused an estimated $8 billion in damage, destroying the homes of hundreds of thousands of people in the country. This event, which happened around the time of Kiarostami’s 50th birthday, supposedly shocked and changed the previously bitter and cynical director (according to the features here). Koker was one of the areas hit by the quake, so he was desperate to find out what happened to the actors in Where is the Friend’s House? and headed out to drive there the next day. He was very moved by what he found, seeing people forced out of their homes with many family members and loved ones dead, yet they were getting on with life, attempting to rebuild already and carry on as best they could. A year or so later, Kiarostami was describing this experience to a friend who suggested he make a film about it.
So Kiarostami headed back to Koker with his camera, filming the semi-staged reactions of the villagers whilst they rebuilt their homes and lives. He used a sociologist friend of his to play himself (though Kiarostami’s name is never mentioned in the film, it’s only implied that it’s supposed to be him) as a character doggedly trying to find the lead actor from Where is the Friend’s House? The fictional Kiarostami brings along his son (Buba Bayour) to provide a child’s eye view of the devastation and, as the pair look for Babek, they meet various local people getting on with life after the earthquake.
And Life Goes On sees Kiarostami playing with the idea of using cinematic ‘lies’ to tell truths, an idea which dominated his career after Where is the Friend’s House? He mixes fictional constructs and reconstructions with performers that actually lived through the experience and relate their memories through their characters. It makes for a thoroughly believable account of the incident as well as a wonderfully human one.
There also seem to be some statements being made about class, with the middle-class director and his son trundling into the devastation in their car, lounging around asking questions whilst everyone else seems to be perpetually working to survive. Reportedly class was the topic of a number of films in the second Iranian New Wave (of which Kiarostami was a key player) as, after the Iranian Revolution, people hoped and expected the class system in the country would be dissolved, but it came back, albeit in a slightly different form.
Kiarostami was also beginning to disassociate himself from narrative cinema at this point, so And Life Goes On isn’t quite as accessible as Where is the Friend’s House? With such fascinating life-like characters though and the powerful shadow of the earthquake focussing proceedings, it’s never dull. The end might frustrate some as it doesn’t offer the closure you’d expect from a standard film, but it closes things with a wonderful visual metaphor for the film’s theme, featuring Kiarostami’s favoured zig-zagging road image which appears in all three films (and was always constructed for each film).
Overall then, And Life Goes On is another seemingly simple tale that thrives on its small scale humanist approach to a huge national disaster. The self-reflexive nature adds another level, as well as the nods to the class divide, but it still works beautifully as a touching but never sentimental or heavy-handed look at how life goes on after tragedy.
Through the Olive Trees
Director: Abbas Kiarostami
Screenplay: Abbas Kiarostami
Starring: Mohamad Ali Keshavarz, Farhad Kheradmand, Zarifeh Shiva
Running Time: 103min
Right. Here’s where things get interesting and more than a little complicated to explain on paper. And Life Goes On might have been an interesting spin on how one might follow up a film but Through the Olive Trees takes it to another level.
The film is a completely fictional story that sees Mohamad Ali Keshavarz (a professional actor playing alongside largely non-actors) play a once again unnamed version of Kiarostami as he shoots And Life Goes On. After demonstrating some of the trials and tribulations of working with non-actors and real locations in making a film, we gradually shift focus to the troubles of one of the actors. Hossein Rezai (playing a fictional version of himself who did indeed feature in And Life Goes On) is utterly besotted by a young woman, Tahereh (again a local playing a fictional version of herself), with which he shares a scene where they play husband and wife. He wants to marry her in ‘reality’ but her grandmother won’t allow it as he doesn’t have a house and is illiterate. Like most of the lead characters in this trilogy though, Hossein is determined and desperate for Tahereh’s approval, even if her family won’t let them be together. Unfortunately, she doesn’t seem so keen either, despite supposedly giving him the eye a few days prior to when the film is set. Undeterred, Hossein continues to try to prove his worth whilst they shoot their scene together and spend time between takes and scenes.
There are moments when you realise you’re watching a fictional Kiarostami pretending to direct another fictional Kiarostami, all of which is directed by the actual Kiarostami, that mess with your head and allow for a fascinating dissection of the process of filmmaking and how it plays with reality. However, the film never feels like a cold, intellectual exercise. It’s the funniest entry to the trilogy in fact, with a lot of humour coming from the frustrations of filmmaking as well as the dogged determination of Hossein.
The film reminded me a little of Day For Night with its lightly comic focus on the lives of those behind the scenes of a film as well as its sequences featuring disastrous multiple takes, though Through the Olive Trees takes a more small-scale, naturalistic approach on top of the inherent extra layers in its conception. There’s a brazenly post-modern sequence at the start too when Mohamad Ali Keshavarz addresses the camera to explain he’s an actor playing the director and everyone else portrayed on screen are locals. This is a nice demonstration of how Kiarostami is a playful director as much as he is an intellectual one.
Once again, but more openly here, social class is an issue that’s explored, with Hossein’s struggles to be recognised as a viable partner for the educated Tahereh. Being cast in a part in the film gives him confidence too, causing him to feel like he’s rising up in the social strata by becoming an actor. This argument about whether or not ‘non-actors’ like this can be classed as true performers seems to fascinate Kiarostami as he probes his cast about this when revisiting them in a documentary included in this package, as well as through the examination of the question within Through the Olive Trees.
The film feels more clearly scripted and performed than the rest of the trilogy, with a slightly slicker look too, but it retains a naturalism and warmth. It’s beautifully shot, making great use of the surroundings, particularly the titular olive trees which feature in the motion-heavy finale. The closing moments, like in
Speaking of satisfying conclusions, Through the Olive Trees is a wonderful end to the trilogy. The post-modern layers are fun to wrap your head around but never overwhelming or distracting. Instead focus shifts onto a bittersweet, lightly comic romance. So, ultimately, it’s another beautifully human yet intellectually stimulating film from Kiarostami, rounding off a fantastic trilogy.
The Koker Trilogy is out on 23rd September on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. There’s some damage evident on Where is the Friend’s House? but the other two films look great, particularly Through the Olive Trees which has an incredibly clear and crisp picture. Sound is solid on all titles too.
There are plenty of special features included too:
– New 2K digital restorations of all three films, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks on the Blu-ray
– New audio commentary on And Life Goes On featuring Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa and Jonathan Rosenbaum, coauthors of Abbas Kiarostami
– Homework (1989), a feature-length documentary by Abbas Kiarostami, newly restored
– Abbas Kiarostami: Truths and Dreams, a 1994 documentary
– New interview with Kiarostami’s son Ahmad Kiarostami
– New conversation between scholar Jamsheed Akrami and critic Godfrey Cheshire
– Conversation from 2015 between Abbas Kiarostami and programmer Peter Scarlet
– New interview with scholar Hamid Naficy
– New English subtitle translations
– PLUS: An essay by Cheshire
The star of the package here is Kiarostami’s Homework, which is an excellent documentary in its own right and deserves more than a simple ‘extra feature’ status. Fitting perfectly alongside Where is the Friend’s House?, it criticises the education system in Iran, interviewing largely children about their homework. We learn how much time they are expected to spend on homework each night and how rote and repetitive it is. As one adult interviewee puts it, they’re not taught to think, there’s no creativity. They’re also regularly beaten as punishment for not doing homework or doing it poorly. What’s disturbing is the kids see this as normal and aren’t openly phased by it. A couple of them even say they’ll beat their own kids when they have them as “that’s the way it is” (paraphrasing). It’s a powerful indictment of a dated system but retains the director’s humanism and a touch of humour so is never a chore to watch.
Abbas Kiarostami: Truths and Dreams is also a fine addition to the set. It follows the director as he revisits some of his old locations and local cast members, offering a wonderful catch-up with a number of characters from the trilogy. He gets them to open up on some interesting issues with some fairly probing and direct questions.
The commentary on And Life Goes On is excellent too, providing an illuminating discussion of Kiarostami’s work in general. It’s only a shame there aren’t commentaries on all three films. The other interviews and conversations included are all very interesting too, adding to a fabulous package from Criterion which comes highly recommended.