Director: Abbas Kiarostami
Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists
Koker, Northern Iran, the present day. A classroom in a rural school. Mohammed has not done his homework in his notebook, which incurs the wrath of his teacher, leaving the boy in tears. He thinks he has left it at his cousins and is threatened with expulsion if he does not have the notebook the next day. Upon doing his homework, Ahmed, his classmate discovers that he picked up Mohammed’s notebook as well as his own. Ahmed tells his mother he needs to return the notebook but his mother thinks it is just a trick to avoid doing homework but she has no sympathy for Mohammed anyway and tells Ahmed to return the book the next day.
Ahmed travels to Poshteh to find Mohammed. A classmate only knows the approximate area Mohammed lives in. He finds Mohammed’s cousin, who provides only basic details. Arriving in the Khanevar district, no-one knows where Mohammed’s house is. Learning that Mohammed and his father have traveled to Koker, he follows but discovers it’s a different Mohammed altogether. Aided by a slow, old man, Ahmed finally returns home after dark, upset. At school the next day, Mohammed expects to be expelled but as the teacher begins to mark his pupils’ work, Ahmed arrives in time with Mohammed’s notebook, in which Ahmed has done his homework for him. Mohammed finally wins the teacher’s approval.
‘Where is the Friend’s Home’ was the first Kiarostami film to attract the attention of Western critics and was the first of several masterpieces he directed over the next two decades. Unlike most directors of his generation, Kiarostami’s career began during the reign of the Shah. His early films were produced by the Institute of the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults, a body that he helped established, which were responsible for education films for children. Shortly after, Kiarostami moved onto directing films about more serious issues within Iranian society, but ‘Where is the Friend’s House’ remains not only one of this director’s most affecting films but one of the most sympathetic films I’ve ever seen about childhood.
Kiarostami uses this template to make numerous observations about contemporary Iran, a country that underwent regime change just years before and was still in the middle of a bloody conflict with its neighbour Iraq. Purely on an educational level, we see the purposes of the teaching of young children – to create discipline, achieved through repetitive tasks (discipline is a recurring theme – a discussion between Ahmed’s grandfather and a fellow elderly gentleman recalls their own childhood, where discipline was imposed by a regular beating). Just notice how Mohammed’s teacher reinforces the point several times asking why he hadn’t brought his notebook and what the potential consequences would be. When Ahmed returns home from school and decides to seek Mohammed, Kiarostami shows us the family unit in full; a busy mother whom Ahmed helps with chores, but curiously, no father. There are also a set of grandparents who are increasingly less reliable (the grandmother shows signs of senility). Kiarostami has always showed the pressures upon Iranian women in his films with great subtlety, and here he demonstrates the domestic burden in full. Kiarostami uses his camera imaginatively in the detail of depicting Ahmed’s family life in full. First he starts with a series of close up shots of the lower floor of the house. The camera roams, following Ahmed or his mother going about their business. Then Kiarostami begins to pull his camera back to reveal both floors of the house to show the entire workings of this family unit. This is a snapshot of rural life, steeped in tradition.
Most viewers will note the friendship between Ahmed and Mohammed, and the sacrifices and effort made by Ahmed to protect his friend. It’s an incredibly natural and remarkable relationship the two boys show, first seen to devastating effect when Mohammed weeps when the potential consequences of losing his notebook are made apparent. Kiarostami constantly cuts between Mohammed and Ahmed, looking on with great empathy. Babek Ahmed Poor (who only seemed to appear again in film as himself in ‘Through the Olive Trees’), a non-professional, conjures up a stunning performance, but this is the boy at his most affecting. Even before he discovers the notebook, Ahmed is shown tending to his friend when he injures himself in the playground, cleaning his bleeding knee. At the moment when Ahmed discovers the notebook, the look on his face reveals the entire story. There’s no need for words. It’s a scene set solely in silence.
Ahmed defies a series of adults who wittingly and unwittingly attempt to prevent his journey; first his mother who suggests he forgets the entire plan and those who accidentally misdirect or misinform him. Ahmed’s mind is purely logical. He has to return the notebook. A boy this young doesn’t comprehend the potential issues; of not knowing where Mohammed lives or how long it will take. His stubbornness is his virtue. Of sole importance is the debt he owes his friend for getting him into trouble. The long shots of Ahmed making his journey between villages, scaling a zig-zag path represent its nature – difficult to navigate, not straight-forward, but ultimately a journey that must be made.
‘Where is the Friend’s House’ is an early indication of Kiarostami’s talents, which would be confirmed by the likes of ‘Close Up’ (1990) and the Palme D’Or winning ‘A Taste of Cherry’ (1997). A deceptively simple tale of friendship, the film functions on many more levels than this, demonstrating the everyday life of rural Iran, a world that certainly not many in the West will have seen. Showing the influence of the Italian neo-realists, it would go on an influence numerous Iranian film makers, many of whom would be under the patronage of Kiarostami himself.