The Koker Trilogy: Journeys of the Heart

<em>The Koker Trilogy:</em> 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?
And Life Goes On
Through the Olive Trees

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