Two guys sitting on a boat. No elaborate lighting or striking production design or body language or composition. Yet, I think this is the most complex film image of the last 30 years, and it tells us something about one of the great artistic movements of our times, Iranian cinema.
The men are in an Iranian film, Through the Olive Trees (1994), the third in the ‘Koker’ trilogy of movies directed by the late Abbas Kiarostami. The first film was Where Is the Friend’s House? (1987), about a boy in Koker, in northern Iran, who is searching for his mate’s home because he’s mistakenly taken his school book. Three years later, an earthquake in the region killed 50,000 people, including 10,000 kids. Kiarostami went back, in tears, with his crew to look for the boys, and shot And Life Goes On (1992), in which a film director looks for boy actors after an earthquake. In Koker, Kiarostami met a guy called Hossein Rezai, who told him that he was married just a few days after the earthquake. Kiarostami loved this and put Rezai’s story in a small scene in the second film.
So, the second film was about finding rapture and the life force when you expect to find tragedy and despair – a lovely reversal. But the story doesn’t stop there. Whilst filming that small scene in And Life Goes On, Rezai became infatuated with the woman playing his fiancée. She – the actress – however, did not return his feelings: she was of a higher class. He tried to woo her, but with no success. Kiarostami was touched by this and his response to it is unique in movie history. Through the Olive Trees is about Hossein’s small scene. In this image, he is on the left playing himself playing himself in Through the Olive Trees. On the right, the older actor is playing the actor who played Kiarostami in And Life Goes On. The older actor looks paternalistically at the younger man, who is dejected – acting dejected – by his unreciprocated infatuation. The first film’s world begat a moment, which was opened up into the second film’s world, which was opened up into a moment that begat the third film’s world, which begat this quiet moment on a boat. Boxes within boxes, wheels within wheels. It’s as if Kiarostami was filming with an electron microscope and this boat scene is a sub-atomic particle, a micro-fragment of emotion, of life.
No other type of cinema in recent decades has worshipped reality in this intense manner. Iranian films – such as those directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Samira Makhmalbaf and Jafar Panahi – discovered a new way of being sacred. Why is it so distinctive? For a number of reasons. Where most film cultures grew out of theatre and novels, Iran has no great tradition of the novel – poetry is more central to life there, and so cinema grew directly from the poems of Forough Farrokhzad, Hafiz and Saadi. Also, the Islamic revolution banned two of the things that are most depicted in Western cinema – sex and violence – so filmmakers focused on other parts of the human spectrum.
Iran had no role in the invention of cinema: it wasn’t rich enough to have a major film industry and its religion is in some way suspicious of imagery, in that Islamic aesthetics tend to be geometric rather than mimetic. Yet, since the early 1990s, its movies have dug deeper than any others. One critic said: ‘We are living in the era of Kiarostami.’ Iranian cinema has been the cinema of our age.
Rezai died aged 59 from lung problems after being unable to pay a hotel bill worth the equivalent of just US$180.
Mark Cousins is a filmmaker and writer who lives in Edinburgh, Scotland. His latest book, The Story of Looking (2017), is published by Canongate. His films include: The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011), I Am Belfast (2015) and Stockholm, My Love (2016).
First published in Issue 200