Abbas Kiarostami's "Through the Olive Trees" -- An Analysis

                              Iranian film-maker Abbas Kiarostami's movies are self-reflexive. His movies blend in documentary and fiction and are extremely complex. He often deploys himself as a stand-in, representing a character, whose motives we question and mostly films a movie with-in a movie. His brand of self-reflexivity is largely inflected by the conditions of Third World film-making: it raises questions about the ethics of middle-class urban outsiders (like Kiarostami himself), who go to remote rural locations in order to film villagers and tribal folk. They highlight the potential for exploiting and exoticising their rural subjects. The trend began in his Rostamabad trilogy ("Where is the Friend's Home?", "And Life Goes On", "Through the Olive Trees").

                               The trilogy is set in Rostamabad, a region in northern Iran devastated by an earthquake which killed almost 50,000 in 1990. "Through the Olive Trees" ("Zire darakhatan zeyton", 1994) is the last film in this trilogy. In it, a film director (Kiarostami stand-in) casts non-professional actors to play a couple who marry after the earthquake. The first actor to play the husband stammers whenever he speaks to the female lead, Tahereh, so a runner at the film unit, Hossein replaces him in the role. Hossein is in love with Tahereh in real life and wishes to marry her, although her family has rejected him because he is illiterate and has no house. The film director, acting like a matchmaker, gives Hossein a second chance, potentially enabling life to imitate art.

                              The film begins with the actor playing the director, Mohammad Ali Keshavaz, directly addressing the camera in front of a crowd of young village women auditioning for the film. One woman asks if the film will be shown in her village and whether there is any point in making the film if it is not shown. At the outset, the film activates self-reflexive anxiety. It also asks who its main audiences are -- rural inhabitants whose earthquake tragedy the crew has come to film or cultural consumers back in Tehran and in cities around the world.

                             The tension between the film and the film-within-the-film creates a subtly non-linear narrative, with events being referred to before they happen. This begins in the prologue, where the fictional director, talking direct to camera, relates that actors were hired on location. Past shifts into present tense as we see the actors being hired before our eyes. In another instance, Hossein reports his visit to the cemetery where he sees Tahareh at her parents' grave (they perished in the earthquake), then the scene is dramatized.

                              For Hossein, Tahareh's losses are heaven sent opportunity, leveling their class differences. Neither of them now has a house. Hossein identifies with the newly-wed in the film-within-the-film, whose motto is to seize the day before another earthquake comes. Tahareh, however, remains caught in her society's conventions, which prescribe how a married woman should behave or how an unmarried girl must conduct herself. Within these limitations, she cannot convey her true feelings to Hossein nor to the viewer, whose access to Tahareh's subjectivity is further restricted by censorship regulations; Kiarostami rarely gives us Tahareh's reaction shots.

                               "Through the Olive Trees" is totally shaped by these regulations and is aware of the problems they impose. The first actor's stammering whenever he speaks to girls can be seen as symptomatic of taboos relating to cross-gender contact. Given censorship restrictions on private spaces, Kiarostami uses sets which are simultaneously private and public. Here, a balcony and porch serves as the main set. Most of the film-within-the-film is shot at ground-floor level, the conversation between the newly-weds taking place off-camera, with Tahareh on the upstairs balcony. The camera is positioned perpendicular to the house, creating a deliberately flat image.

                                 Tahareh and the other young women in the film avoid he camera's gaze and gaze of male admirers. A peasant girl turns her face away from the director, who expresses an interest in her; on set, Tahareh resolutely looks away from Hossein. Point-of-view shots are rare in New Iranian cinema; but there is a startling instance of one here in the cemetery, where the camera takes Tahareh's position and shows Hossein as the point of her glance.

                                  Towards the end of the film, Hossein follows Tahareh, with the director's encouragement. In a four to five minute take, we see the two figures in wide long shot walking up zigzag path, through an olive grove and into a valley. Like the director, watching from the hill, we want to know whether Tahareh will turn around and give Hossein the sign of acceptance; but the exchange takes place outside our earshot and almost outside our vision. All we see is one distant white speck catching up with the other and then returning (whether in joy or in despair) before the credits start to roll. This ending exemplifies the notion of half-finished film which gives viewers creative space for interpretation. As Kiarostami, himself states: "The film-maker has carried the film up to here, and now it is given up to the audience to think about it and watch these characters from very far away."

Abbas Kiarostami Interview:


Through the Olive Trees -- IMDb

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