‘Do We Film or Not?’ Abbas Kiarostami’s Through the Olive Trees and Smashing the Fourth Wall

Through the Olive Trees | Miramax

“Where will you show it?…You won’t show it!”

“But is that any reason not to film?”


Throughout his career, decorated Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami imagined individuals with endless hidden identities but unshakably claustrophobic circumstances. The director would identify people from all corners of society and walks of life—children, soldiers, students, workers, teachers, drivers—and examine the variety of factors that drove their decisions, that dictated their choices, that structured their lives.

Kiarostami’s films exist in that space between dramatic cinema and enlightening documentary, and his 1994 film Through the Olive Trees is a portrait of hope in hopeless times. Through the Olive Trees is the final film in the director’s Koker trilogy, released seven years after Where is the Friend’s Home? and two years after Life and Nothing More…, with a plot that overlaps with those two preceding films. All three films are set in Koker, a small village in the Gilan Province of Iran, where a 1990 earthquake destroyed most everything. Faults cover 90 percent of the country, the possibility of a natural disaster is omnipresent, and the 7.4 magnitude quake in Gilan killed up to 50,000 and displaced at least 105,000 more. How to live with any sort of certainty in a place that rejects it, from deep within the earth, from a place you can’t touch?

“It takes time to build a house,” says Hossein (Hossein Rezai) in Through the Olive Trees, which takes a pair of characters from Life and Nothing More… and expands their one scene into an entire film. The focus is on former stonemason Hossein, who struggles with his financial circumstances after the earthquake when he realizes he no longer has the spirit to practice the craft, and Tahereh (Tahereh Ladanian), the young woman who refuses to pay him any attention. And Hossein is speaking not just of a physical structure, but of himself: It takes time to create something new, to start from the beginning, to make a change you didn’t expect.

Which Hossein is the one we meet as a mason in Through the Olive Trees? Which Hossein is the actor in Life and Nothing More…? Which identity does Hossein rebuild after the earthquake and after his stint as an actor? Why do they matter to Kiarostami, and why should they matter to us? “Do we film or not?”

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Where is the Friend's Home? | Janus Films
Where is the Friend’s Home? (1987) | Janus Films

Kiarostami’s Koker trilogy doesn’t begin in a meta way. 1987’s Where is the Friend’s Home? is a straightforward work of humanism: a child attempts to return his friend’s notebook, fails to find where he lives, and finishes the homework himself, earning high marks from the teacher and ensuring that his friend stays in school. A simple act of generosity, a relatable gesture of camaraderie. But Kiarostami complicates that narrative in 1992’s Life and Nothing More…, in which a director and his son travel to Koker, looking for the child actors who were featured in the preceding film and listening to the sobering tales of loss and resilience from the people still living there after the 1990 earthquake. Again, the film ends in a scene of human-to-human connection; the director struggles to keep his car running up a hill. A man stops to help. Once the car gets going again, the director drives off—but then waits for the man, and offers him a ride. Another moment of empathy, another declaration of the strength found in partnership.

In those two films, Kiarostami took everyday interactions between people, the moments most of us would forget, and gave them an epic scope. In 1994’s Through the Olive Trees, the concluding film of the trilogy, he doesn’t settle for only depicting these moments. He doesn’t allow viewers to consider these events at a remove or at a distance. Instead, he smashes the fourth wall from the very beginning and transplants us to Koker, underneath the lush trees, inside the decimated homes, lingering outside of the tent cities sprung up by the highway. He directly inserts us into a crowd of young women auditioning for the film, seats us inside a car as it drives by a class being held in a field because the school no longer stands, and balances us on an olive tree branch as we look down upon Hossein and Tahereh, walking side by side for the first time.

The extremely self-aware approach of Through the Olive Trees intensifies the involvement of the audience, and emboldened Kiarostami’s approach of smashing the barriers between actors and characters, actors and audiences, and audiences and characters. Three years later, when the director released his masterpiece Taste of Cherry, the film would derive its affective power from two elements: First, an emotional conclusion in which a cab driver tries to dissuade his passenger from killing himself by describing the physical pleasures of living (“You want to give it all up? You want to give up the taste of cherries?”), and second, a final reveal of Kiarostami working on the film. The grainy camcorder footage captured the director, crew members, and actors at various locations, smiling and talking, before the credits rolled—making the film was officially a part of the film. Our glimpse behind the scenes makes us complicit in the narrative, positioning us both as the driver listening to the concerns of other people’s lives and the individuals divulging their confessions. Kiarostami broke through the fourth wall to explore the varying facets of everyday humanity, and we welcomed it.

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“I’m Mohamad Ali Keshavarz, the actor who plays the director. The other actors were hired on location. We’re in Koker,” says Keshavarz in the very first scene of Through the Olive Trees. Through one of the film’s only professional actors, Kiarostami makes his meta experiment very clear. But what goes unsaid is that most all the actors, professional or not, are pulling double duty: essentially playing characters within the domestic drama that is occurring within the film and within the film within the film. Add in the fact that most of the nonprofessional actors used their real first names as their names in Kiarostami’s work, and Through the Olive Trees becomes even more complicated to sort through.

Some of this must be by design, or at least with Kiarostami’s permission. The film’s title in Persian, Zīr-e Derakhtān-e Zeytūn, actually means “under” the olive trees, not “through,” but the film’s subtitles include both title translations, and it was officially released as the latter. The actor who played the teacher from Where is the Friend’s Home? shows up in the beginning of Through the Olive Trees to say that the day is Sunday, but it could be a day in the lunar calendar 1372, or another day in the lunar calendar 1413, or May 30, 1993. All options are possible, and all are right. When Keshavarz and his right-hand woman, the no-nonsense Mrs. Shiva (Zarifeh Shiva), meet the group of female students who aspire to be in the film, they get lost among the young women, all in dark hijabs and chadors, some with the same name: Sima, Leyla, one Tahereh, Faribah, Nazila, Zinat, another Tahereh. Some live in the same place, in clusters of homes rebuilt near a bazaar; some have no “real address.” All of this doubling to underline that the truth can be various things at once, and that duplicates don’t necessarily lack distinctiveness.

There is a repetition throughout the film of people not knowing what to say, not sure how to explain what has happened to their village, not willing to take other people’s advice. Koker has its own set of customs, some of which overlap with greater Persian culture, and some of which Keshavarz—and by extension, Kiarostami—use to make greater points about the purpose and preciousness of life. And as the film’s facts become murkier for us to distinguish, the emotional truths that compel us as viewers become starker, easier to grasp.

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Through the Olive Trees | Miramax

“You can’t just do as you please,” Mrs. Shiva scolds Tahereh when she’s late for a meeting and wants to wear an out-of-character embroidered dress for her role as a peasant woman in Life and Nothing More…. The young woman’s explanation, though—“It’s the only one I’ve got”—cuts off Mrs. Shiva’s complaints. A lack of choice, the forced acceptance of situations outside of one’s control, and the attempt to better one’s circumstances regardless come up often in Through the Olive Trees, and are often witnessed by the no-nonsense Mrs. Shiva. Tasked with securing various props and shepherding actors from the set to their homes, she interacts regularly with Koker’s citizens. And she provides us with what is presented as the most authentic understanding of the village.

She argues with bricklayers who block a road while working on a job, but she can drive away from the chaotic scene—they’re stuck there, working for extremely low wages while doing back-breaking work. She tries to engage in small talk with Tahereh’s grandmother, but makes a horrendous misstep when she criticizes who raised the young woman, not knowing that her parents died in the earthquake. And when the shoot wraps and she reminds Tahereh to take her flower pot back home, her “Do you know which it is?” is unnecessary. So much of Koker is destroyed that what remains is held onto with a vengeance.

Perhaps that fear of losing something that managed to survive the earthquake at all is why Hossein can’t shake his affection for—and obsession with—Tahereh. Friction derails their first scene together in Life and Nothing More…, leading Keshavarz to take Hossein under his wing. During the remainder of Through the Olive Trees, the two discuss in long conversations (serving as precursors to what Kiarostami would later do in Taste of Cherry) what happened between the two young people. What Hossein explains is a classically familiar story: a young man asks a family for permission to marry their daughter, the family believes he is unworthy for financial or social reasons and rejects him, and resentment blooms, ensnaring everyone in a spiteful web.  

Through the Olive Trees primarily shares Hossein’s perspective. We see him speak with Keshavarz about how offended he was by the family’s rejection and about his lingering guilt regarding their deaths (“I thought that the sighing in my heart had destroyed all these houses”). We see the director, through his elder wisdom, nudge Hossein toward a greater understanding of romantic relationships, of class inequality, of the partnership that can be built between a husband and a wife. And while offering all these emotional insights—the kind of lessons that made the young boy do his friend’s homework in Where is the Friend’s Home? and the director stop to give a fellow man a ride in Life and Nothing More…—Keshavarz is also mining Hossein’s life for his own film, plucking elements of his seemingly unrequited feelings for Tahereh to build his own narrative. A story for a story.

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There are no distinctions between art and life in Through the Olive Trees; each informs the other, and the film tricks us into realizing this scene by scene. When Hossein argues with Tahereh’s grandmother for her hand in marriage while following the older woman through a grove, we think it’s a genuine altercation. But then it turns out to be a scene in Life and Nothing More…, one that rattles Hossein so much that he collapses against a tree trunk afterward. When Mrs. Shiva complains that Hossein didn’t complete a task, it’s revealed that she asked someone else to do it; she can’t tell the actors apart. Keshavarz overhears Hossein looking for his white socks at the camp where he sleeps; he writes that domestic moment into his Life and Nothing More… scene with Tahereh. Hossein needs three takes for a scene where he has to say how many members of his family died in the earthquake; he keeps saying 25, the real number, when the script specifies 65. And when Tahereh keeps missing her line, referring to Hossein without a formal “Mr.” before his name and angering Keshavarz, it’s Hossein who later approaches the director to modify the script, noting that the women of Koker no longer call their husbands by that honorific. It’s the villagers teaching the filmmaker their rituals, replacing his manufactured idea of them with an authenticity that he first failed to acknowledge.

In blurring these lines between the film and the film within the film, Kiarostami examines the dualities we all contain, the identities we try on and shrug off every day. Persian viewers will relate to the characters’ navigation between brusque practicality and excessive formality—such as in the custom of taarof, in which someone repetitively offers something to someone else, with a ratcheting degree of insistence, in an expression of aggressive politeness. And regardless of cultural background, viewers of Through the Olive Trees can recognize individuals searching for something deeper, for someone with whom to build a life, to share their hopes and dreams and fears.

Koker is a place of rebuilding, but Through the Olive Trees demonstrates the individual effort exerted in personal transformation, too, in opening yourself up to pain or joy, love or despair. You can build on a fault line, but you can’t fix the fault.

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Through the Olive Trees | Miramax

“The roads were blocked, and many of them died. The survivors left. Besides, you can’t live on nothing but fresh air. You need other things, too,” Keshavarz says to Farhad (Farhad Kheradmand), a fellow actor and filmmaker who is also on set for Life and Nothing More. Keshavarz is telling his colleague about the beauty of Koker and the barrenness of it, about how the “souls of the inhabitants of this place…answer you” when you say “hello and goodbye,” that the village is a place disinterested in the middle of things. But the rest of Through the Olive Trees demonstrates that the director can’t necessarily be trusted, and that his understandings of this place and its people are colored by his own perceptions and biases. He never speaks to Tahereh about her feelings for Hossein. He walks behind Hossein and Tahereh, seemingly spying on them, when the young man begs her a final time for her hand in marriage. Yet the ending is Hossein’s and Tahereh’s alone, and in contrast to the rest of the film—in which we see take after take of scenes of Life and Nothing More…, and various conversations between Mrs. Shiva or Keshavarz with villagers—we don’t hear a word of it.

The two walk together under the olive trees. They leave the protection of the grove, venturing out next to each other, as opposed to Tahereh in front and Hossein behind, as they had been for so many preceding minutes. And as Western classical music plays (“Concerto for Oboe and Strings” by Domenico Cimarosa, performed by the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra), the swelling, dueling melodies dance around each other, not so very different from how Hossein chased Tahereh, figuratively and literally, throughout Through the Olive Trees.

Did she accept his marriage proposal? Did she once again turn him down? We see Hossein sprinting back alone, toward the refuge of the olive trees, one small white speck against a verdant field of green. We don’t know what happens between them, but what lingers is that image—one figure, racing toward a definitive future, one way or another—and what Hossein himself wondered in a scene from Life and Nothing More…: “The people who died…Did they know?”

This is Keshavarz’s question in that film within a film, and Kiarostami’s question to us as viewers of both: Before we face our end, do we know what we want from life, from ourselves, from each other? Are we Hossein, or are we Tahereh? Thousands of Iranians died in the 1990 earthquake. A sequence of three earthquakes shook Iran in February 1994, mere months before Through the Olive Trees premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May. Two earthquakes hit in 1997, when Taste of Cherry was released. Thousands more would die over the years from 17 additional earthquakes, through when Kiarostami died in 2016, and beyond. So many lives lost, so much potential cut short. “They only answer to hello and goodbye,” Keshavarz says of the souls inhabiting Koker and places like it. But for Kiarostami, Through the Olive Trees was about the middle of those two statements, about the melding of two guiding principles: the aching yearning we all have for human companionship, and the knowledge gained by peeking behind the cinematic curtain and seeing ourselves.

“Aren’t you going to show it to us?” the young women demand of Keshavarz when he comes to speak about Life and Nothing More... . They want to see their representations, to share their wishes with others, to create connections even though so much has been denied them. Kiarostami situates us alongside them, expressing the same desires. In Through the Olive Trees, Kiarostami shows us every element of who he was: a man who smashed the fourth wall, who believed deeply in camaraderie and goodness, and who was convinced that people’s varying identities held insights into the human condition. Twenty-five years later, those cinematic principles still resonate. There is only our one reality, but an array of ways to live within it, to form relationships and bonds and sympathies, to choose love and companionship over melancholy and despair. We just need to be willing to try.