Criterion Review: Abbas Kiarostami’s THE KOKER TRILOGY

Abbas Kiarostami’s moving meander through the people and places of Iran

Abbas Kiarostami first came to international attention for this wondrous, slyly self-referential series of films set in the rural northern-Iranian town of Koker. Poised delicately between fiction and documentary, comedy and tragedy, the lyrical fables in The Koker Trilogy exemplify both the gentle humanism and the playful sleight of hand that define the director’s sensibility. With each successive film, Kiarostami takes us deeper into the behind-the-scenes “reality” of the film that preceded it, heightening our understanding of the complex network of human relationships that sustain both a movie set and a village. The result is a gradual outward zoom that reveals the cosmic majesty and mystery of ordinary life.

Where Is the Friend’s House?

The first film in Abbas Kiarostami’s sublime, interlacing Koker Trilogy takes a simple premise — a boy searches for the home of his classmate, whose school notebook he has accidentally taken — and transforms it into a miraculous child’s-eye adventure of the everyday. As our young hero zigzags determinedly across two towns, aided (and sometimes misdirected) by those he encounters, his quest becomes both a revealing portrait of rural Iranian society in all its richness and complexity and a touching parable about the meaning of personal responsibility. Sensitive and profound, Where Is the Friend’s House? is shot through with all the beauty, tension, and wonder a single day can contain.

As the synopsis describes, Where is the Friend’s House? kicks things off in a simple way, following the efforts of a young boy named Ahmad (Babak Ahmadpour) who is just trying to return a school notebook to a friend. The good-natured, morally guided boy takes us on a journey through his village of Koker, introducing us to the people and customs around him, but via the perspective of a child, as adults (including his own mother) fail to assist or appreciate his task. It’s a frustratingly adorable venture for the lad; obstacles such as chores and homework are stacked in his path, and his quieter nature also counts against his ability to be taken seriously.

While at the start we are immersed in the boy’s familiar (if unhelpful) surroundings, he eventually finds himself in the neighboring village of Poshteh, a culture shock for the kid, one further opening us up to the hustle and bustle of this region. Ahmad digs deep to find some reserves and solutions, a credit to his nature and determination. In all it’s an embodiment of morality and simple goodness, as well as a look at the innocence of children and the culpability of adults in not taking them seriously. Where is the Friend’s House? is brimming with authenticity and soul.

The Package

The release comes in a handsome presentation set (see banner image), a slipcover housing three card booklets, each nestled within one another housing the three films. There is a elegant cutout design that works through the packaging, overlaying imagery from and connecting each of the films. The liner booklet includes a in depth essay on the trilogy by Godfrey Cheshire, as well as info on the new transfers.

Each of the films result from new 2K scans and digital restorations. Detail, and contrast look good, with colors being naturally muted. Some artifacts of damage are evident (likely from the source), most noticeable for And Life Goes On, grain is a little heavy at times, but nothing too distracting.

Extra Features — Where is the Friend’s House

  • Homework (1989), a feature-length documentary by director Abbas Kiarostami, newly restored: A delightful work, interviewing a series of kids about their thoughts on homework. Insights into what makes these kids tick, as well as offering a surprisingly effective look at the Iranian education system.
  • Conversation from 2015 between Kiarostami and programmer Peter Scarlet: Runs just over an hour and shows the director at ease, reflecting on his career and works. Some of the Q&A portions bring some entertaining responses.
  • New English subtitle translation

And Life Goes On

In the aftermath of the 1990 earthquake in Iran that left fifty thousand dead, Abbas Kiarostami returned to Koker, where his camera surveys not only devastation but also the teeming life in its wake. Blending fiction and reality into a playful, poignant road movie, And Life Goes On follows a film director who, along with his son, makes the trek to the region in hopes of finding out if the young boys who acted in Where Is the Friend’s House? are among the survivors, and discovers a resilient community pressing on in the face of tragedy. Finding beauty in the bleakest of circumstances, Kiarostami crafts a quietly majestic ode to the best of the human spirit.

This is where it all gets a bit meta. A film director (Farhad Kheradmand) and his son Pouya (Pouya Payvar) head to a region of Iran after an earthquake has devastated the area in search of a local boy who stared in a film of his…Where Is The Friend’s House?

Similar to the lead in, it’s another search, one that takes on added complexity and depth, a shift into more mature themes heralded by the child lead now being accompanied by an adult. The exchanges between this father and son form the core of the film as they tour the damage, reflecting on the impact upon fractured buildings, communities, and families. The film still shows off the beauty of the region, even in such a state. Amidst all the fallout, the pair encounter people trying to come together, to rebuild, and most importantly trying to find a way to watch a World Cup soccer match. With this and other instances, Kiarostami sums up his message that whatever we suffer, whatever we lose, we pick ourselves up and life goes on.

Extra Features — And Life Goes On

  • New audio commentary featuring Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa and Jonathan Rosenbaum, coauthors of Abbas Kiarostami: Sadly the only commentary track included on the release, but one that is thoroughly researched and illuminating.
  • Abbas Kiarostami — Truths and Dreams, a 1994 documentary: Running just short of an hour, the doc serves as a platform for Kiarostami to discuss his filmmaking philosophy, notably his straddling of the documentary and fictional features.
  • New interview with scholar Hamid Naficy: A nice crash course in the filmography of Kiarostami.
  • New English subtitle translation

Through the Olive Trees

Abbas Kiarostami takes meta­narrative gamesmanship to masterful new heights in the final installment of The Koker Trilogy. Unfolding “behind the scenes” of And Life Goes On, this film traces the complications that arise when the romantic misfortune of one of the actors — a young man who pines for the woman cast as his wife, even though, in real life, she will have nothing to do with him — creates turmoil on set and leaves the hapless director caught in the middle. An ineffably lovely, gentle human comedy steeped in the folkways of Iranian village life, Through the Olive Trees peels away layer after layer of artifice as it investigates the elusive, alchemical relationship between cinema and reality.

The meta descent continues in Through The Olive Trees, with a man (played by Mohammad Ali Keshavarz) breaking the fourth wall and introducing himself and the role he will play as the director of the film that is about to unfold. Essentially we get a film within a film with scenes and moments that seem to be lifted from the first two films in the trilogy but play out differently. While it sounds complex, it’s deftly layered, and doesn’t get overly technical or try to be too clever, with Kiarostami remaining intent on showing the humanity at play in this place.

There are elements of romance as well as comedy that verges on the farcical at times, much of it stemming from the problems of members of the public as actors, a nod to a tactic often deployed by the filmmaker. Through The Olive Trees is an assured work, as beautiful in its composition as it is in construction. We again garner more insights into customs and tradition in the region, often with villagers breaking down preconceptions the filmmaker has with truths. It’s a facet that weaves into the exploration of fiction vs. reality and art vs. life, smartly flipping again our perspectives on storytelling, on filmmaking, and showcasing the authenticity of these characters and the actors portraying them.

Extra Features —Through the Olive Trees

  • New interview with director Abbas Kiarostami’s son Ahmad Kiarostami: Short, but interesting personal insights from Ahmad on his father’s work, and events that affected his output.
  • New conversation between scholar Jamsheed Akrami and critic Godfrey Cheshire: While the themes that connect these three films are obvious, the throughline and framing of them as a trilogy came after the fact. The pair discuss how they became tied together as well as how Kiarostami’s other features relate to them.
  • New English subtitle translation

The Bottom Line

For both those familiar with and unfamiliar with the work of Kiarostami, this set offers a delightful immersion in his work. Three layered films that connect beautifully, supported by fine restorations and a host of extra features to deepen insight and appreciation. A worthy addition to the Criterion collection.

The Koker Trilogy is available via Criterion from August 27th, 2019.

Previous post Watch Out, Austin! Super September
Next post The Archivist #109 Hollywood and the Cold War [THE PRIZE and THE GLASS BOTTOM BOAT]