Reviews and notes
1987 Fajr [Iran]
1990 Göteborg, Munich, Giffoni [Italy], Gent [Belgium]
1992 Istanbul, Toronto, Thessaloniki
1993 San Francisco, Vancouver, Fukuoka, Valladolid [Spain]
1994 Vienna, São Paulo, Chicago
1997 Budapest, Moscow
Gorgeous, compassionate and elusive, the three films that made Abbas Kiarostami's international reputation remain a rich pleasure
One of many unforgettable images in Abbas Kiarostami's Koker Trilogy is a zigzag path cut into the side of a steep grassy hill, like a double Zorro signature, or an open question about one's direction of travel. "Did you create that?" a French TV interviewer asked the director. "I did," he admits, and goes on to explain how all films are a series of lies constructed to attain certain truths. The pedagogical ability to persuade through tricks and then reveal them, leading people to draw their own conclusions, is central to Kiarostami's art. If you need a crash course in why he is one of the central filmmakers of recent times, the Koker trilogy is where to start, and I can think of few textually richer, more stimulating or more heartbreaking experiences.
Kiarostami – who had then made only one early feature (The Report
1977) – having written the screenplay of the first film in the trilogy, Where Is the Friend's House?
(1987), did not at first want to direct it. Fortunately, he was persuaded to change his mind. A neorealist tale much in the tradition of Iranian films made before and after the 1979 revolution, though with an innovative meandering structure, it begins in a classroom for eight-year-old boys in the village of Koker. Ahmad (Babek Ahmad Pour) witnesses his friend Mohammad Reza Nematzadeh (Ahmad Ahmad Pour) being chastised for bringing his homework in on loose paper, instead of in his notebook. If he does it again, the teacher threatens, he'll be expelled. Arriving home, the timid, conscientious Ahmad – whose anxious, freckled face rivets the attention throughout – is alarmed to find two notebooks in his bag, his own and Mohammad's. Mohammad lives in Poshteh, a village a short distance away, and Ahmad has to wait until his mother asks him to buy some bread before he can go scurrying there – a journey that takes him up the zigzag path and through a grove of olive trees (places we will see in all three films). As night draws in, he has a series of variously intimidating encounters with people who try, and lamely fail, to help him find his friend's home.
What made Kiarostami the right man to direct Where Is the Friend's House?
was his work in the film department of the Institute for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults, which he had helped to set up in 1969, after an early career designing posters and shooting ads for Iranian TV and title sequences for movies. Festivals treated the film as a typical Iranian production, but what happened next transformed not only Kiarostami's international standing as a director but also, it is said, his whole approach to life. On 21 June 1990, the day before his 50th birthday, an earthquake in the region around Koker killed between 35,000 and 50,000 people. In desperation the director drove there, despite the hazards, to find out what had happened to his young cast members. His experience of the devastation and the attitude of the people he met cured him of a certain bitterness and led to the second Koker film And Life Goes On
, a kind of mystery story that shoulders its gravitas stone by stone.
As this second film begins we meet an anxious looking middle-aged man (Farhad Keradmand) on a road trip with his insatiably inquisitive young son Pouya (Buba Bayour). Only by slow degrees do we discover that the man is a film director trying to find a clear and undamaged road to the village in the earthquake-affected region where he shot the film Where Is the Friend's House?
His route takes him through scenes of absolute devastation, consistently meeting people who take the time to talk to him even though they're in mourning and busy trying to rebuild their shattered lives. A putative house-owner who invites them in admits that it's not really his house but one co-opted for the film they're shooting. What seems at first like a moment of wry post-modem distancing becomes, as we shall see, a portent of the final film.
One of the pleasures of watching the trilogy back-to-back is how much easier it is to spot the actors, or rather non-professional actors, from each film as they appear in the next – especially the Ahmedpour brothers, who played the two friends in the first film. In Through the Olive Trees
, the most playful of the three, they pop up all the time in the background, almost like recording angels. This film's story takes place in and around the shooting of And Life Goes On
. It centres on Hossein, who in And Life Goes On
briefly portrays a young husband who tells the director figure why he and his wife married straight after the quake, even though they were mourning 85 relatives.
In Through the Olive Trees
, Hossein is deeply in love with his co-performer, Tahereh (both use their real names), trying to woo her while they wait for their next take, even though she ignores him and her grandmother has already rejected him as a suitor because he is illiterate and has no house of his own. From a Western viewpoint, Hossein's behaviour looks like harassment, but it's arguable that local mores, which circumscribe the actions of those poorly educated in matters of the heart, leave him little recourse. We see Hossein go through several takes of his scene in And Life Goes On
which Tahereh messes up because she won't refer to him as `Mr. Hossein' as the script demands. Hossein's insistent personality is the magnet that draws us through this, the most difficult yet relaxed film of the trilogy, with its gorgeous, long-shot ending and its 'you decide' interpretation of what happens when Tahereh finally speaks.
The whole trilogy is an enriching experience that despite Kiarostami's sleights of hand feels immediate. There's a charm in the way films that at first seem so simple gradually proffer complexity. They're crammed with incidental detail about a rural Muslim culture with which, given the current direction of world politics, the US and UK may soon be in conflict: its people are presented with a severe kind of love by a critical mind that wants the best from them.
- Nick James, Sight & Sound, November 2019.
Where Is the Friends House?
Abbas Kiarostami had been making films, principally about children, since 1970. This sublime 1987 feature brought him to international attention. Inspired by a Sohrab Sepehri poem, and set in the northern village of Koker, the film has an eight-year-old named Ahmad discovering, to his dismay, that he has accidently taken home a school chum’s notebook. The pal faces expulsion for not doing his homework; Ahmad sets off to a nearby village in search of his friend’s house, only to encounter a labyrinthine maze of narrow alleys, winding streets, and identical-looking dwellings – and unhelpful adults who obstruct his progress at every turn. Ahmad’s odyssey, both comic mini-epic and parable of personal responsibility, achieves near-mythic proportions; the lyrical, neorealist style, convincing performances from non-professional actors, and sensitive portrayal of children’s lives showcase Kiarostami’s gifts at their finest.
- The Cinematheque.
Where Is my Friend's House?
is the first in a trilogy of films set around the Northern Iranian villages of Koker and Poshteh. Like its companion films, And Life Goes On
and Through the Olive Trees
, it combines realism with a certain self-reflexivity. Indeed, Film Comment
has suggestively described Kiaroastami's work as "Pirandello twinned with Rossellini". Where Is My Friend's House?
is the most straightforward of the films - a schoolboy realises he's taken his friend's exercise book home by mistake and searches in the neighbouring village to return it. The exercise book is a kind of neo-realist Macguffin, analogous to the bicycle in Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves
, a trigger for a story that focuses insistently on its milieu.
Ahmed, a grave and tenacious friend, is beset by problems at every turn in his quest and Kiarostami introduces a sly, quiet comedy into the child's relationship with the older generation. They are almost all either harshly authoritarian (such as the schoolteacher who reduces his friend to tears), or preoccupied (Ahmed's immediate family). Played out in measures of complication, interruption and delay - the basic units of narration - it's the way that this simple, fable-like story is told that makes the film so remarkable. Ahmed picks up certain clues on his quest: he is told that his friend's house has a blue door; he notices a pair of pants identical to his friend's drying on a clothesline; he listens for the bell of a donkey ridden by a man he thinks is his friend's father. All of these prove to be red herrings in this small-scale picaresque. The manner in which we come to identify with Ahmed has only in part to do with the sentimental reflex of sympathising with a child's travails in a world of hostile adults. Rather, we do the same thing in watching the film that Ahmed does in his search: we look for significant details.
The resonance of details is established at the very beginning of the film. The opening image is a medium close-up of the worn, ugly modern door - which won't shut properly - to a classroom. The following scene takes place in a courtyard, with Ahmed and his friend at a water-pump. In the background is a white horse and beside it a hutch with a door flapping open. Cut to Ahmed's family courtyard where a large white shirt is prominently drying on the line. This graphic match marks the transition from scene to scene, the shirt replacing the horse in the previous shot. The jokey ostentation of that cut momentarily lures our eyes away from the details of doors and windows, of apertures, that will become important motifs in the film, symbols of entrapment and exclusion, family and tradition.
There is a remarkable sequence set at night in Koker, as Ahmed is guided by an elderly windowmaker. He shows Ahmed the windows he has made. The two of them are, literally, guided by the lights that shine out into the streets through these windows. At the same time, the image underscores the fact that these two are in a film as shapes and colours from the windows are cast onto stone walls, while the inhabitants occasionally throw silhouettes within the illuminated frames. This moment of shadowplay is worked up to and delivered with such economy the film's surface realism is never ruptured.
Kiarostami can legitimately be called a present-day neo-realist. On Where Is My Friend's House?
he worked exclusively with non-professional actors living in the villages where the film was shot. He elicits an enthusiastic performance from Babek Ahmed Poor as Ahmed as the single-minded schoolboy. The commitment to location filming and to a long-take, deep focus shooting strategy is also crucial: Kiarostami creates a metaphorical landscape of struggle and obstructions for Ahmed to overcome out of the physical terrain that he covers...
Where Is My Friend's House?
is a jewel of a film, compared to which Jafar Panahi's The White Balloon
, which Kiarostami scripted, might be viewed as 'Kiarostami-Lite'. Kiarostami is the genuine article, a gifted director whose neo-realist style conceals a coded moral humanism.
- Chris Darks, Sight & Sound, October 1996.
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