Thursday, August 29, 2019

The Koker Trilogy

Through The Olive Trees
THE KOKER TRILOGY (Kiarostami, 1987-1994)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Aug 27, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

Nobody does reflexivity quite like the late, great Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami.

A good chunk of “Through The Olive Trees” (1994), the third film in the Koker Trilogy (which isn't exactly a trilogy, but let's worry about that later) depicts the efforts of a director to shoot a single scene from his film-within-a-film. Plenty of directors have made movies about the film-making process before, but these particular sequences are a tad more complicated than most. You see, these scenes feature an actor playing a director who is a stand-in (of sorts) for Kiarostami pretending to direct an actor who is also playing a director who is a stand-in (of sorts) for Kiarostami. In fact, the scene being shot is actually from the second film in the (sort of) trilogy, “And Life Goes On” (1992), except not really, because it's actually a recreation of said scene two years later with some, but not all, of the same actors and...

Maybe this will make more sense if we start again, from the beginning this time.

Where Is The Friend's House?

“Where Is The Friend's House?” (1987) is definitely the beginning. Sort of. Kiarostami had actually been directing both shorts and features for well over a decade by then, but this movie provided the director with the breakout festival hit that began his meteoric rise to becoming one of the world's most celebrated filmmakers in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. At any rate, the movie was definitely the beginning of what would emerge as the so-called Koker Trilogy, even if Kiarostami had no plans for a grander project at the time.

The movie centers on the efforts of second-grader Ahmad (Babak Ahmadpour) to return a notebook to his friend and classmate. Wide-eyed, semi-articulate little Ahmad struggles to get any adult to take him seriously. Not understanding the moral imperative of Ahmad's vital mission, his mother orders him to do his homework, then immediately orders him to feed the baby, then to finish his homework, then to fetch bread. How exhausting! Most adults barely hear him at all though, to be fair, he struggles to raise his voice above a thin whisper – he's been taught not to speak unless spoken to, after all.

Like a Joseph Campbell hero finally crossing the threshold, Ahmad escapes his domestic duties and surges up the zigzag path over the mostly barren hill that separates his town of Koker from the neighboring town of Poshteh, only to get completely disoriented and overwhelmed. He's a whole village over – an entirely new world – and nobody seems to know where his friend lives. His adventures take him back home and back over the hill again, from the relative safety of the warm sun to shadowy night-time alleys guarded by scary barking dogs. Our intrepid hero never gives up, however, and ultimately devises an ingenious and empathetic solution to his quandary.

“Where Is The Friend's House?” was a hit both on the festival circuit and in Iran, but Kiarostami moved on to other projects, including the film many consider his greatest achievement, “Close-Up” (1990). His plans changed on the day of his 50th birthday when a devastating earthquake struck in the region around Koker, killing nearly 50,000 people. With his young son in tow, the director drove into the ruined area to see if he could find out what happened to his young actors.

And Life Goes On

A few years later, this trip turned into “And Life Goes On,” though viewers shouldn't take it too literally as autobiography, no matter how much the film might encourage such a reading. A film director (played by Farhad Kheradmand, an economist Kiarostami recruited for the role) and his son Pouya (Pouya Payvar) drive along badly congested highways into the earthquake area. The director goes unnamed, but he's seeking the star of a film he made called “Where Is The Friend's House?” He even holds up a poster card from the movie featuring the boy when he asks passersby if they've seen him. At one point, he even sees a boy racing up the same zigzag path on the hill as in the first film.

As with many later Kiarostami films, much of the action takes place in the car as father and son talk and also survey both the rubble and the frantic reconstruction as they drive through demolished communities. The director remains determined to complete his straightforward quest, much like Ahmad returning the notebook, but as this film's title indicates, life turns out to be more complicated and far more interesting. Everyone the director encounters has lost friends and family, but they're also still interested in getting a TV antenna installed so they can watch the World Cup (c'mon, it's Brazil vs. Argentina!). Young Pouya quickly makes new friends and would rather hang out with them than tag along with dad. The landscape, now pockmarked by fissures, remains as beautiful as ever, and art and music as essential as always.

The unnamed director even encounters a newlywed couple who actually got married the day after the earthquake. Their homes were destroyed and most of their families were killed, but that only motivated them to move up the wedding. Now they argue over where the husband's socks are. And life goes on.

Right on to “Through The Olive Trees” which begins with well-known Iranian actor Mohammad Ali Keshavarz directly announcing to the camera that he is, you guessed it, playing an unnamed film director in the movie you're about to watch. The narrative revolves around various film set dynamics, from the no-nonsense professionalism of trusted assistant Mrs. Shiva (Zarifeh Shiva) to the challenges of working with non-professional actors.

The director repeatedly tries to shoot a seemingly simple scene in which Farhad Kheradmand plays an unnamed director who has encountered a couple who got married the day after the big earthquake, which ought to sound familiar. But only sort of. Because this scene isn't quite the same as the one we just watched in “And Life Goes On,” and the drama now centers on the real-life clash between the two actors playing the couple, which itself is based on a real incident from the previous film. But only sort of...

You get at least some flavor of the complexity involved, the multiple levels of narrative being peeled back. You might also suspect that this could easily devolve into something tedious and precious, an insider's take of interest more to filmmakers than to most viewers. But Kiarostami's intensely engaged humanism prevents any aspect of this project from spiraling into an exercise in tedious naval-gazing. Instead, his ever-closer examinations and his subtle shifting of perspectives produce a series of revelations not just about the creative process, but about human nature.

Kiarostami often spoke about the many “lies” involved in his deceptively naturalistic filmmaking. The earthquake zones seen in both films are primarily constructed sets (he was filming there a few years after the tragedy), and even that famous zigzag path seen in all three films was sculpted to the director's specifications. And everything, of course, is scripted.

Whatever the lies, Kiarostami always seems to care sincerely and passionately about his characters. The compelling charm of “Where Is The Friend's House?” lies in the sense that we are truly listening to little Ahmad, sharing his neglected point of view and understanding his motivations and frustrations. And it always feels like we stop to listen to everyone we encounter in all three films, to appreciate even their momentary concerns as important, far more important than some silly old plotline.

That may all be an illusion – all of these unique voices are inflections of Kiarostami's voice – but, if so, it's an effective and genuinely moving illusion. One that makes the films of the trilogy so powerful and one that makes our repeated cinematic visits to Koker so unforgettable. After watching these movies, you'll be able to close your eyes and see that zigzag path anytime you want. You might not even be able to help it.

All three films are presented in their original 1.66:1 aspect ratios. These 1080p transfers were all sourced from recent digital restorations. “And Life Goes On” shows minor damage in a few spots, but nothing significant. “Through The Olive Trees” probably looks the strongest of the bunch. Overall, the image quality is fairly sharp throughout this set with a soft, naturalistic color palette in all movies. I remember seeing “Friend's House” on a pretty miserable transfer quite a while ago, and still loved it despite the poor video quality. Now it looks pretty darn great with little Ahmad's bright eyes doing so much of the heavy lifting.

The films are presented with PCM mono audio tracks. The sound design overall is pretty straightforward. These audio tracks are clean and efficient which is all that's needed. Optional English subtitles support the Persian dialogue.

First, a note on the unusual design of this boxed set which is a tribute to the unique nature of the Koker Trilogy itself. Each disc is stored in a separate keepcase, and the keepcases all nest inside each other. “Where Is The Friend's House” is actually stored inside the other two, but it's the first disc the set opens to. So the other two films (or their cases) are actually “built” around it. The keepcase for “Through The Olive Trees” encloses the other two discs, and all three tuck into an outer slipcase. I may not have done a great job of describing this unique design, but it's very cool.

“Where Is The Friend's House” has two extras. The first is a lengthy interview of Kiarostami conducted by programmer Peter Scarlet on stage in Toronto during a 2015 retrospective of Kiarostami's work. It runs 67 minutes and covers a wide range of topics, all featuring Kiarostami's low-key sense of humor as conveyed wonderfully by the translator.

This first disc also offers us a whole extra Kiarostami film. “Homework” (1989, 77 min.) is a documentary, though Kiarostami describes it in the film as “a piece of research.” I guess he knows what he's talking about, because the idea of the movie is to speak to several young boys (and one adult) about what they think of their schoolwork. Made just after “Friend's House”, this film continues the director's interest in giving young boys a chance to express the world from their perspective. Most of the film consists of three simple setups: each boy talking, the cameraman as seen from the kids' POV, and Kiarostami occasionally seen asking questions though usually heard off-screen. The director is particularly interested in how the boys are motivated to do well, and discovers (or confirms) that the Iranian system is built almost entirely around punishment with little positive reinforcement. It's repetitive and you might space out a few times, but darned if Kiarostami doesn't find a way to wrap up this dry “report” with a sublime final shot.

“And Life Goes On” is accompanied by a Commentary track (the only one in the set) by critics Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa and Jonathan Rosenbaum, co-authors of the book “Abbas Kiarostami” (orig. published in 2003, updated in 2018). I've only had a chance to sample the first fifteen minutes of this commentary, but it's great as you would expect from these two insightful and informed writers.

The second disc also gives us a new interview with scholar Hamid Naficy (15 min.) in which he provides a brief history of Kiarostami's earlier films and traces some of the themes and techniques prevalent in his work. In just 15 mintues, Naficy can only touch on so much, but there's enough here that you wish Criterion had given him more time.

“Abbas Kiarostami: Truths and Dream” (1994, 52 min.) is a documentary by Jean-Pierre Limosin which gives Kiarostami the chance to expand on some of his film philosophy, especially the notion that both documentary and feature filmmaking consist of big (or little) lies designed to tell truths. Like Werner Herzog, Kiarostami sees no clear dividing line between fiction and non-fiction cinema.

“Through The Olive Trees” is a bit slimmer on extras, including just two fairly short interviews, but both are strong. First is an interview with Ahmad Kiarostami (2018, 14 min.), son of the late, great director. He provides personal insight into how the 1990 earthquake changed his father's worldview and his approach to cinema. Second is a conversation between scholar Jamsheed Akrami and critic Godfrey Cheshire (19 min.) in which they provide more context for how this trilogy that wasn't meant to be a trilogy took shape as well as a few other important concepts such as Kiarostami's notion of the “half-made film.” Both are great and, once again, I wish this feature could have been significantly expanded.

The fold-out booklet features an excellent, comprehensive essay by Godfrey Cheshire, covering the trilogy as a whole as well as providing a more detailed examination of each film.

Final Thoughts:
I like every Kiarostami film I've ever seen. I can only say the same thing about a few other prolific directors: Ozu, Bresson. Hmm, maybe a few others, but no names spring to mind right now. The films of the Koker Trilogy are among his very best, and the solid transfers and extras accompanying these films make this a strong candidate for this year's best Criterion release, and one of the best Criterion releases ever.

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