on Seeing Through Kiarostami’s Olive Trees

As always with the generous cinema of Kiarostami, what one is seeing comes down to what one has already seen. This premise takes on overwhelming new dimensions when applied to the final entry in his Koker trilogy. Take for instance the sequence wherein we watch Hossein and the Director (now actor) work through several takes of their conversation, which we have already seen play out in full in And Life Goes On… Shortly thereafter, we watch Hossein climb the stairs and make himself a seat next to Tahereh and drink tea with her. What’s so striking about this is that finally, we understand we are truly witnessing something. It is the event that it is in the purest sense of itself, because we have just been instructed that the reality in front of us is mediated, rehearsed. So to then be shown a rehearsed event…the veil is lifted and know exactly what we are seeing.

When watching a film we are always watching a reality that only exists in front of the camera, but how often, even in the most Brechtian of cinema, are we truly able to understand that we are seeing something full of its own complex quality that we can’t know? We can only know that it possesses this quality because we have been shown that it can possess this quality. What is the reality, the history of this image? How was it conceived? How was it choreographed? What is the relationship between these two actors who are playing themselves? How long did it take to realize? The image begs the questions that, to be privileged enough to know the answers to, one might not even be moved to care. Kiarostami’s truest gift lies in his ability to both see something as it is and as it is not, to show it to us as it could be.

The stunning final shot of the film (Kiarostami’s strongest ending by my reckoning, which for him is really saying something) is a another of these purely visual events. We watch Tahereh and Hossein pass by the camera at the crest of a hill, then Hossein watches her walk down the hill, through a grove of trees and out in to a field. He follows, and the camera follows his movements but remains atop the hill. In the middle of the field, Hossein and Tahereh (who by this point have developed a complex relationship built on silence and absence) are gradually reduced to nothing but white dots. We can no longer hear Hossein’s pleading to Tahereh. She stops walking, he catches up, she resumes. The second time she stops, or rather the white dot that she has become stops, the Hossein-dot catches up again. The dots are now as close as they’ve been. We understand that she is finally saying something to him (music comes up that might suggest something, though I think rather it just suggests its own playfulness). The Hossein-dot turns around and runs back in the direction he came and disappears again into the trees and the film ends.

There is no way to know what Tahereh said to him. In the end, their relationship can only be understood in terms of their movements and proximity to one another, nothing more. The pleasure and purpose of Kiarostami lies in seeing two dots in a field expanding and contracting the distance between one another, telling the story of their lives.

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