“Through the Olive Trees” - Abbas Kiarostami (1994)

Abbas Kiarostami’s Through the Olive Trees (Zire Darakhatan Zeyton, 1994) was one of the veteran director’s films that first attracted international attention and elevated him to star status.  It was his third film – coming after Where Is the Friend's Home? (Khane-ye Doust Kodjast, 1987) and Life, and Nothing More... (Zendegi va Digar Hich, 1992) – that was shot in and around a rural village in northwestern Iran, Koker, that was the site of a devastating earthquake in 1990.  It was undoubtedly the earthquake, which killed 35,000-50,000 people and injured more than 100,000, that led Kiarostami to revisit Koker and to fashion films that considered what matters in life. These three films set in Koker are sometimes referred to as the “Koker Trilogy”, although Kiarostami, himself, apparently doesn’t consider them to be a trilogy [1].  In fact, though, the three Koker films are definitely linked, and Through the Olive Trees is a story associated with the making of Life, and Nothing More....

Kiarostami is famous for his distinctive cinematic style, which features static long takes, often lasting several minutes, as well as reflective, semi-documentary styled stories that sometimes explicitly self-reference the making of the film that is shown. This has attracted the fascination of some intellectually-oriented international film critics who see his work as examining or questioning the reality of what can be told [2].  But in my view Through the Olive Trees is not so much about the nature of reality as it is about personal engagement.  And that is where its charm lies.  I will try to elaborate on that below.

The story concerns the making of a film (evidently Life, and Nothing More...) in Koker after the earthquake disaster, and it opens with the actor who plays the director of the film to be shot  speaking directly to the camera about the open-call casting interviews he is conducting. Note that the role of the film director, whose name is never given but who presumably represents Kiarostami, is played by the only professional actor in this film, Mohamad Ali Keshavarz.  All the other roles are performed by nonprofessionals, as is customary in Kiarostami films. This includes not only the locals, who simply play themselves, but also members of Kiarostami’s own film crew, such as cinematographer Hossein Jafarian (Crimson Gold, 2003; Fireworks Wednesday 2006; About Elly, 2009; Gold and Copper, 2011) and assistant director Jafar Panahi

Following this opening statement to the film’s viewers, the film director turns around and begins scanning the faces of the assembled young ladies hoping to be chosen for a small role in the film.  He clearly has a picture in his mind of what he is looking for, as he briefly queries a few girls before ultimately choosing a young woman named  Tahereh Landanian. We soon learn, though, that Tahereh is somewhat stubborn and self-centered and thus not necessarily the kind of cooperative person who will take direction when the camera is running.  But the film director has his own intuition and has made his choice.

So the beginning of the film establishes the primary narrative thread: the director’s task of making a film in the earthquake-ravaged village, where most of survivors are now living in tents because their homes were destroyed.  For example the task of just creating the right setting of a normal home means having to gather potted plants from neighboring areas, and the director’s rigorously and energetic production manager, Mrs. Shiva, takes care of such details by getting some help from two local boys, Babek and Ahmed Ahmed-Poor (who we might recognize as the principal characters of Where Is the Friend's Home?). 

Getting the locals to act naturally is another problem, and the film director patiently persists through numerous retakes of a simple shot because his local actor stammers in front of women and so cannot utter his few simple lines to Tahereh. (The tediousness of watching these many retakes unconsciously highlights in the viewer’s mind the differences between spontaneous reality and  the artificiality of narrative retelling.)  The film director is finally persuaded to replace the actor with a backup local, Hossein, and so Mrs. Shiva drives away to fetch him.  As she drives back to the filming setup with Hossein in tow, she chats with the man, and this is the beginning of a fundamental shift in the story.  From now on the narrative focalization will primarily be on Hossein.

When they go ahead and reshoot the earlier scene now with Hossein, still another problem emerges to block progress.  It seems that Tahereh is familiar with Hossein and refuses to speak to him.  Hossein explains to the director that just before the earthquake he had proposed to Tahereh’s parents for her hand in marriage, but he had been refused because he was illiterate and didn’t own a house. Tahereh’s parents had perished in the earthquake, but Hossein's reissued proposal to the girl’s grandmother after the quake was also rejected.

But Hossein doesn’t give up.  He is patient and courteous but almost maniacally persistent in his attempts to win his beloved.  Hossein fell passionately in love with Tahereh just because he saw her reading a book one day and thereby knew that she was a well-groomed, literate young woman.  With absolutely no encouragement from the girl – she refuses to speak to him or look at him – the young man stubbornly perseveres in what seems like a hopeless quest.

We now start to get a feeling of what this film is ultimately about and how the two narrative threads, that of the director and that of Hossein, are linked.  The director, who is an observant and reflective sort of person, came to Koker to see how the earthquake had affected the people who lived there.  What he sees and encounters in his various conversations with the locals is that the people remain composed, kindly, and civilized, but the horrors of what has happened seem to have left them withdrawn and resigned to their fate.  They seem almost shell-shocked when they matter-of-factly mention to the director that their spouses and parents perished in the event. 

For example when the director talks to an elderly man named Bagheri who almost offhandedly remarks that his wife was killed in the event, he asks him if he intends to find another companion. No, that wouldn’t be right, Bagheri passively tells the director.  But the director urges him to embrace the life-world in front of him and to reconsider his position.
The film director sees that the bulk of the people he meets have stoically survived the quake, but they have become so withdrawn that they will likely miss out on what life further has to offer.  And this is where Hossein offers a contrast to this withdrawn passivity.  The young man is passionately committed to his romantic quest, almost irrationally so. But his passion for engagement is what seems to be lacking among the people around him.  It is this passion for life that the director sees in him and wants somehow to encourage.

Mrs. Shiva’s coercive persuasion manages to get Tahereh to recite her few lines to Hossein, and the filming of their scene is resumed. During the setup when Hossein and Tahereh are momentarily out of sight from the crew, Hossein continues to beseech the young woman to consider his proposal.  But she still refuses to speak to him or even look at him when she is not required to do so by the film script.  Hossein tells her that even though the grandmother has rejected him, he wants to know what she, herself, thinks.  Is it ‘yes’ or ‘no’?  But the girl doesn’t respond.

In some sense we might compare Tahereh’s non-responsiveness to Hossein’s entreaties to the perceived non-responsiveness of God to our prayers.  Just like Hossein, many of us have fashioned a love for God based on very little evidence.  We beg Him (or Her) to love us, or even to give us a sign, any sign, that He hears our pleas.  And when we don’t get any response, we still go on believing and loving Him.  We know He must be the perfect loving Being that we feel within our hearts has to be out there somewhere.  So, like Hossein, we don’t give up.
After the first shot of the scene, Hossein, who also works for the film crew as a servant serves tea to everyone on the film set.  This is presented in a long and memorable 60-second moving-camera shot, with the tea tray always in closeup as Hossein moves about the set.  This was my favorite of the many well-executed long-take shots in this film.

Finally they get setup for the second shot of this sequence [3].  In the take Tahereh refuses to address Hossein as “Hossein Agha” (“Mr. Hossein") as the script required.  But Hossein, ever the gallant gentleman despite his lower-class status, sticks up for her reading, and the film director accepts the shots as a successful “wrap”. 

Now with their parts of the film finished, Hossein and Tahereh get ready with others to be driven back to their homes in a pickup truck.  There is some delay, though, and the impatient Tahereh sets off on foot, using a shortcut she knows about through the olive groves, to catch a minibus.  The film director, noticing her departure and the opportunity to encourage the one passionate local he has seen, suggests to Hossein that he also take that path home.

Hossein sets out in hot pursuit.  This is his last chance to be around the girl.  After he almost catches up with here, there is a four-minute sequence of alternating medium shots of the two of them – Tahereh silently walking ahead and Hossein respectfully following – showing him making his last desperate pleas. Also interested to see if she will ever respond, the film director watches them from a safe distance.  Finally Hossein despondently gives up and appears headed back to the pickup truck. But then he has a last-second, impulsive change of heart and again runs after her.

The final shot, which is the signal moment of the film and lingers in one’s memory long afterwards, lasts four minutes and shows Tahereh walking far away in the distance with Hossein in pursuit.  We finally only see the two of them as little more than little dots in the distance that have almost merged with the arboreal countryside landscape. It is difficult for the viewer to make it out because the principals are such tiny images, but it appears that Hossein catches up with her and perhaps there is some kind of engagement.  Hossein comes rushing back through the meadow toward the camera as the film ends.

There has been considerable commentary about that last shot and what it means.  Did Hossein finally make contact with his god(dess)?  Can we?  All we can be sure about is that the full, soulful engagement between two people is what the film director, Hossein, and we, are always looking for. 

  1. Godfrey Cheshire, “Taste of Cherry”, The Criterion Collection, (31 May 1999).
  2. Acquarello, “Through the Olive Trees: Life as Art…as Life”, Senses of Cinema,   (September 2000).
  3. Interestingly, if, as indicated by the film clapperboard that is shown, this second shot is to come directly after the previous shot, then it suggests a jump cut will be needed.

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