Shots From the Canon #11: The ‘Koker’ Trilogy (Abbas Kiarostami, 1987–1994)


Every week or so, filmmaker and writer Robert Greene will attempt to push for a new canon of cinematic nonfiction.

There was a moment when I first saw the second film in Abbas Kiarostami’s Koker Trilogy, Life and Nothing More, in which I could have sworn the projectionist had misplaced a reel. When it was over, I was so transported by the film and its use of time that I was absolutely sure it had 20 minutes remaining. This kind of thing hardly happens to me. For better or worse, I am very aware of the construction of movies as I watch them, which makes it difficult for me to lose myself. Kiarostami makes me lose myself. His films are not usually documentaries, but as the leading auteur of the hybrid-happy Iranians, his work belongs in any discussion of cinematic nonfiction. Close-Up is a seminal work of reality-bending cinema, and his oeuvre from Homework to Taste of Cherry to Shirin is full of adventures in bringing documentary techniques into fictional frameworks. But I’m choosing the three films that make up The Koker Trilogy to nominate into our new canon.

As Kiarostami has famously said, “We can never get close to the truth except through lying.” There may be no better slogan for the rule-breaking nonfiction that most excites me. The Koker Trilogy begins with the seemingly straightforward fiction of Where is the Friend’s Home? (1987), which is a portrait of a schoolboy trying to return a book to a classmate so the friend can avoid being expelled. The film is sweetly simple and allegorical, but it conjures a sense of reality from an almost folksy Brechtian quality of the performances. Here the nonfiction element is locals playing fictionalized versions of themselves, subtly revealing through “acting” the constructed nature of social norms.

Four years later, Kiarostami made Life and Nothing More (1991), a fictionalized voyage by (an actor playing) the director, as he goes back to the Koker village where the previous film was made after it has devastated by a disastrous earthquake. The journey this time is to find the boy who starred in Where is the Friend’s Home?, but the subject is observation itself. Images, often from inside a car (a fine metaphor for a camera, the window as lens), convey the sense of watching and feeling the real world around you. Documentaries are best when messy with real life, and Kiarostami’s fictional self-portrait becomes hyper-real in its absolute dedication to the rhythms, sounds and sensations of the actual world. Still, there is no way to be sure what is documentary and what is staged, so reality and construction are collapsed into a glistening, evocative experience.

Through the Olive Trees (1994) takes the self-reflexivity to the next level as Kiarostami now fictionalizes the making of Life and Nothing More. Actors address their roles onscreen and slip in and out of performance. At one point the actor playing Kiarostami meets the fictional Kiarostami from Life, thus layering Kiaorstamis. It’s all a tad tricky, but the film pushes past the reality-bending playfulness to reveal a deep faith in the tightly bound relationship between truth and illusion. Why does this matter? Because seeing what is actually there is an essential part of being human. By stacking fiction on top of observation, Kiarostami reveals the fabrications of social realities. He is a mighty poet of cinema in its purest form and should be everyone’s favorite example of documentary unorthodoxy.

Watch any and all of Kiarostami’s films via Amazon.

Past Nominees For the New Canon of Nonfiction Cinema:

#1 News From Home (Chantal Akerman, 1977)

#2 The Store (Frederick Wiseman, 1983)

#3 Below Sea Level (Gianfranco Rosi, 2008)

#4 Tokyo Olympiad (Kon Ichikawa, 1965)

#5 The Century of the Self (Adam Curtis, 2005)

#6 Edvard Munch (Peter Watkins, 1974)

#7 The Battle of Chile (Patricio Guzmán, 1973–1979)

#8 How To Live in the German Federal Republic (Harun Farocki, 1990)

#9 Man of Aran (Robert J. Flaherty, 1934)

#10 The Belovs (Victor Kossakovsky, 1994)