The Heroism of Disobedience and Deceit: Where Is the Friend’s Home?
Kiarostami’s development has been remarkably swift, each stage marked by radical change. Essentially, he has moved from a traditional ‘realist’ narrative cinema, strongly influenced by Italian neo-realism. through various intermediate stages, to an experimental formalism. The shifts are by no means arbitrary: all his work, of whatever period, exhibits similar basic characteristics of commitment, humanism, integrity, a complex awareness of major issues (social, aesthetic, moral, metaphysical). Understandably, today, it is the recent formalism that is getting most of the attention, and one finds few references to the earlier work. I regard his early films (and especially the ‘Koker’ trilogy) as work of at least equal distinction to anything he has given us since. This essay is an attempt to do justice to one of them, examining it in detail.
One can make a broad distinction between film/novel and film/poem, while remembering that very few films are entirely one or the other. By film/novel I mean a film driven by narrative, the structure of the film being the structure of the story it tells; by film/poem I mean a film in which the image is dominant, a film (one might say) structured upon images, their recurrence, rhythms, their development. Un Chien Andalou, or a film by Brakhage, is a film/poem (though both have affinities with narrative); a film by Howard Hawks is essentially a film/novel, though if one examined it in great detail it might reveal ‘poetic’ elements (repeated motifs, for example, structuring it both narratively or formally). Where Is the Friend’s Home? is essentially a film/novel, but with striking ‘poetic’ motifs adding to its complex structure. Ten, consisting of ten long takes filmed in the interior of an automobile, is with its rigorous structure, a film/poem, though many seem ready to treat it as essentially a formal exercise. Yet it has a clear, and very important, narrative structure: each shot represents the woman driver’s progress towards complete independence. The film is both a formal exercise and a political feminist statement. Perhaps one might claim, in Kiarostami’s work to date, that The Wind Will Carry Us achieves the perfect balance (with no sense of contradiction) between film/novel and film/poem: it is structured both upon a narrative and upon certain recurring motifs and rhythms.
In case there are readers only partly familiar with Kiarostami’s work, let me explain that the three films of the ‘Koker’ trilogy (‘Koker’ being the name of the village in which the films are set), of which Where Is the Friend’s Home? is the first, move progressively from the dominance of narrative fiction, through quasi-documentary (And Life Goes On…) to the intricate self-reflexivity of Through the Olive Trees (a film about the making of a documentary about the making of And Life Goes On…, but also finding space for a love story with a triumphant happy ending). All three films of the trilogy culminate, at the last minute, in a moment of transcendence, a Kiarostamian celebration: in Where Is the Friend’s Home? a pressed flower is found in a notebook; in And Life Goes On…, a car, after several attempts, succeeds in surmounting a steep hill; in Through the Olive Trees, the young woman (in a longshot so extreme we can barely make her out) apparently accepts at last her devoted suitor’s proposal.
An earlier film, The White Balloon, directed by Jafar Panahi (now famous for The Circle and Crimson Gold) but scripted by Kiarostami, has clear links with Where Is the Friend’s Home? Both are constructed on a child’s search (for first a goldfish, then for lost money in Panahi’s film, for, obviously, the friend’s home in Kiarostami’s); in both, the child has to survive within an adult world that is at best indifferent, at worst hostile (though the boy of Where Is the Friend’s Home? is much more appealing than the little girl of The White Balloon, who is something of a spoilt brat); both films cover, basically, one day or a few hours in a child’s life (the action of The White Balloon is continuous, Friend’s Home has a coda taking place the next morning); both are constructed on a series of encounters en route. Finally, the white balloon itself is clearly a Kiarostami fingerprint, paralleling the celebratory endings of the three ‘Koker’ films: as with the flower in Where Is the Friend’s Home?, the children are barely aware of it and it means nothing to them – it is simply one balloon in the wares of an itinerant balloon seller – but it is also the center point of the film’s last image, suggesting the film makers’ benediction.
Why were so many films about children made by progressive directors at this stage of Iranian history? It seems plausible that, for many filmmakers, the oppression of children stood in for the oppression of women, any protest against which was tabu within the regime of that period. Panahi, with The Circle, became the leader in defiance of that tabu; Kiarostami (whose films are generally male-centred), held back until Ten, some years later.
It has been often noted that Kiarostami’s films almost always take the form of a journey; one might add that the journey also takes the form of a search: in And Life Goes On…, the journey to find the two boys, continuing past the film’s conclusion; in A Taste of Cherry, the journey to find someone who will help the protagonist commit suicide; in Ten, the women’s (perhaps unconscious) search for her social and spiritual freedom. Where Is the Friend’s Home? shares with The Wind Will Carry Us a series of journeys: from Koker to Poshteh on foot (twice there and back, though we are not shown the final journey), the repeated journey by car up and down a hill. The two films also have in common that the journey does not end the search, which is resolved only after the journey has been completed.. Friend’s Home, indeed, appears unique in Kiarostami’s work to date in that the search appears quite fruitless and ends in seemingly hopeless despair. Yet the despair leads to a decision and a culminating miracle (or act of nature), a celebration of moral integrity.
I want to examine the first and third scenes of Where Is the Friend’s Home? in detail, then suggest more succinctly from the rest of the film how the use of recurring imagery and motifs gives it its character of film/poem as well as film/novel. In certain respects the film brings to mind a naturalistic Alice in Wonderland: the celebration of the child’s resilience as he/she wanders from encounter to encounter within a world generally indifferent or overtly hostile.
The credit shot and opening scene
The film’s first shot, over which the credits appear, introduces at once one of the film’s two dominant and pervasive motifs, doors (the other is windows). The film’s poetic structure is built upon the opening and closing of doors and windows, the motifs recurring (separately or in conjunction) in every sequence. Sometimes (as Freud might say) a door is just a door, but in the majority of cases, through the repetition/development of the motif, the doors and windows take on overtones of entrapment/escape, imprisonment/freedom. Perfect, then, that the first thing Kiarostami shows us, in closeup, is a door which is neither open nor quite shut: it is moving slightly on its hinges, its near-closure suggesting imprisonment, its slight movement the possibility of escape. It is the door of the schoolroom, as we gather at once from the noise of children’s voices. Introducing the credits is a statement: ‘The Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children presents…’ The irony of this is not at first obvious but becomes so as the opening scene progresses: the schoolroom in which, for the entire opening sequence, we are claustrophobically imprisoned (along with the children) is clearly dedicated to the repression of the children’s intellectual development. A shadow falls over the door: the teacher has arrived.
The interior. The teacher enters the classroom, leaving the door (for a moment) slightly open as he reprimands the class (‘Why all this noise?’). He’s only ‘a few minutes late’ – a fault for which children, only a minute or so later, get severely criticized. He closes the somewhat recalcitrant door, then slams it when it fails to shut. His voice is tense, at once dominating and anxious, his job may be at stake (‘The Principal’s going to complain again’). He closes the window, completing the sense of imprisonment. When a child reports the absence of a pupil he is told not to speak unless spoken to. We are then introduced to Ahmadpour (Ahmad) and the friend, Nehmatzadeh, whose home he will spend most of the film searching for, and to the crux from which the whole of the narrative will develop: Nehmatzadeh has committed the crime of not using his notebook for his homework. The teacher tears up, unread, the pages on which he has done it: the homework may be perfect but it is in the wrong book. Ahmad, in the film’s first closeup, looks worried and sad, Nematzadeh sobs, wiping then hiding his face; the teacher continues to harangue him, never pausing for an answer. A late child arrives from Poshteh (which we learn later is where Nematzadeh lives) and is promptly ordered to close the door, which immediately swings open again. The teacher slams it shut and tells the assembly ‘Boys who come from Poshteh should remember to get up ten minutes earlier and go to bed thirty minutes earlier so as not to fall asleep in class’. He then returns to the interrogation of Nematzadeh, who says that he left the notebook at his cousin’s house. Another boy says that he has the notebook, and the teacher instantly assumes that Nematzadeh was lying. ‘He is my cousin’ says Nematzadeh, at which point the teacher immediately changes the subject: `First you must learn that there are rules for everything’. Ahmad (to his embarrassment) is held up as a model (his notebook is impeccable), and Nehmatzadeh is told he will be expelled if it ever happens again.
I have described this opening scene in what may seem unnecessary detail because it establishes so thoroughly the entire basis of the film: its narrative, its atmosphere, its imagery, but also its continuing relevance, which seems to extend beyond Iran. Does it exaggerate the oppressiveness of what we call education? I would like to think that our educational system today is somewhat more humane and intelligent. On the other hand, I can parallel everything in this scene, and worse, from my own school days, admittedly sixty years ago, and another, more recent, film set in an Arab country (the magnificent Moroccan Mille Mois) also offers close parallels. One wonders how these children learn anything at all beyond How to get the hell out. Our schools today seem reluctant to teach essential values (tolerance and understanding, for example). Just a few years ago, here in Toronto where I live, a schoolboy in a class with an enterprising teacher in which every pupil had been asked to give a presentation on a topical subject invited me to visit the class and talk about gay liberation. I wore a Gay Rights T-shirt for the great occasion, and found I had to be led through the dining area at lunch hour, where I was subjected to everything but a custard pie (perhaps none was available). I don’t think we oh-so-progressive people in the supposedly enlightened West should be too complacent. In an ideal civilization (remote from our own) children would learn at their own speed what they want to learn. This would necessitate a cultured and humane home/family environment (as well as non-oppressive schools and teachers) that is currently unthinkable in a world where everything (including education) hinges on the making of money.
The brief second sequence requires brief comment. We see the boys dash riotously out of school as classes end, their violence and unruliness the product of the constant tension and constraint to which they have been subjected. The moment from which all the remainder of the film develops is given us, characteristically, in long-shot, with no explanatory ‘Look-at-this-it’s-important’ cut-ins: in the rush, Nemadzadeh falls, drops his schoolbag, his books and papers fall out, Ahmad helps pick them up, stuffs them in his own bag, preoccupied with his friend’s injured and bleeding knee. The scene also develops our awareness of the two boys’ sensitivity, setting them somewhat apart from their fellows: they stroke the stabled donkey, another boy teases it. Again, the moment is not underlined, we are left to notice it or not. It helps explain why these two boys are special friends, what attracts them to each other. At the end of the scene the white horse provides a neat visual link to the next sequence: its size and position in the frame closely anticipate the white shirt on the clothesline central to the first shot in Ahmad’s yard. Which leads me to a brief consideration of Kiarostami’s aesthetic sensibility…
The visual pleasure offered by the lengthy sequence in the family yard counterpoints, but by no means softens, the painfulness and tension of the action. If anything it intensifies it through the contrast. The spacious yard, the pots of flowering plants that line the balcony of the age- and weather-softened house, the perfect whiteness of the sheets hanging on the line to which Kiarostami repeatedly returns, are juxtaposed with the emphasis on constant work, continuous pressure, the impossibility of relaxation.
Throughout the sequence of approximately sixty shots, during which Ahmad (who has discovered that he has brought his friend’s notebook home in his satchel) attempts to explain what has happened and what the issues are to his mother and to persuade her to let him take the notebook to Poshteh, the mother is associated with blue and white, Ahmad with a rusty red (his pullover) and the brown of the house’s architecture, its doors and supports. The mother wears a white apron over a light blue dress; there is a bright blue tub in the background behind the pump where she washes and wrings out clothes (especially the baby’s white diapers). When she moves to the washing line it is covered with blue clothing and white sheets and shirt, and she hangs on it a dark blue sheet; the wet garment she throws at Ahmad at the height of their quarrel is dark blue; when she finally picks up the baby it is dressed in blue, and there is another blue tub in the area behind the baby’s hammock. With the cross-cutting, and the characters crossing each other as they argue, there is a continuous play of blue and the rust red of Ahmad’s pullover, but in general the colors are kept separate, the woman’s space, the boy’s space. The effect is not just aesthetically pleasing, it also underlines their separateness: Ahmad’s mother never really listens to what he is saying, his increasingly desperate efforts to make her understand are wasted.
The soundtrack is brilliantly conceived to intensify the discord. Kiarostami resorts to non-diegetic sound only at the end of the sequence, underlining the moment when Ahmad makes up his mind to defy his mother and escape with the notebook: a drumbeat. Otherwise there are two offscreen sounds, the cries of the baby, the crowing of a cock, creating a continuous and increasing unease and irritation.
The father is only referred to once in the film, and we see him only very briefly at the end; he never speaks. Presumably in the opening sequences he is still at work. Similarly, the aged grandfather, introduced in an early scene in the village, near the beginning of Ahmad’s first journey, is seen again only in the penultimate sequence, sitting propped against a wall, silent. The mother, constantly harassed by the baby’s cries, struggles throughout to get the work done, the diapers washed, the clothes and sheets hung on the line. The aged grandmother offers no assistance and is never asked for it. The family hierarchy is clearly and swiftly established: Ali, the elder son, is privileged, left to do his homework in peace in a quiet upstairs room then sent out to play. Ahmad, as mere second son, is accorded no such respect. Repeatedly told to get on with his homework, he is just as repeatedly interrupted before he can even begin by other orders, chiefly the reiterated order to feed or rock the baby, fetch clean diapers, his homework regarded as of no importance. His heroic status is firmly established in this sequence, the rock on which it is founded his friendship with Nematzadeh, the positive center of his life. His attempts to stand up to his mother and make her listen are already heroic and result only in her telling him to go and buy bread and throwing a wet diaper at him. It is surely refreshing, in our generally (and I’m afraid understandably) cynical and desperate age, to find a filmmaker reaffirming a belief in fundamental human goodness and the power of commitment.
Door and window images, two of each, punctuate this sequence symmetrically. It opens with Ahmad arriving home through the courtyard door, and ends with him rushing out, leaving the door, in his haste, slightly ajar. The two window shots occur roughly equidistantly from the beginning and end of the sequence and are connected both stylistically and thematically: both are static shots (within a sequence containing a considerable amount of camera movement); in both, the window is in the background of the image but central; in both it is shut. In the first (downstairs, when Ahmad is sent indoors for a clean diaper), children outside call to him to come out and play; the second is in his brother’s room, the older boy is finishing his homework, and asks Ahmad to come out and play with him. In both cases Ahmad of course has to refuse.
From closed doors to open windows
I shall not attempt the laborious (and surely tedious) feat of detailing every door and window image in the entire film (sometimes a door really is just a door!), but single out some of those that carry thematic resonance. I’ll take the film’s (and Ahmad’s) four journeys (two from Koker to Poshteh, two back) in order. In general, my argument is that a door ajar suggests the possibility (that may be deceitful) of success, an open door a stronger possibility, a closed door failure or blockage.
Journey 1: Koker to Poshteh. In Poshteh Ahmad encounters Morteza, a boy from the same class, helping his father carry milk containers in through an open door. No, he doesn’t know where Nematzadeh lives, but he knows his cousin Ali Hemmati’s house: ‘There’s a staircase in front and a blue door’. En route, Ahmad finds an old man clearing out broken masonry through his open door, who points him the way to Khanevar (the neighborhood where Nematzadeh lives). There, he finds a door ajar, goes in, leaving the door open behind him (it is visible in the background throughout the ensuing shot), and finds a pair of trousers identical to his friend’s hanging on a washing line. (The abrasive noise of a cat mewing recalls the use of cockcrows in the earlier scene at Ahmad’s home, the discord here perhaps anticipating failure). No one seems to be at home. He knocks repeatedly on a neighboring closed door, opened finally by a sick old woman with her mouth covered. Despite her protests he makes her come with him to help him. A woman has returned, is taking the trousers into the house: she doesn’t know Nematzadeh. She goes in, closing the door behind her.
Ahmad at last finds Hemmati’s house. The door is closed. A neighbor tells Ahmad he’s gone to Koker – left five minutes ago. Abandoning the search for Nematzadeh, Ahmad dashes back the way he came. The journeys and the way they are shot play an important role in the film’s rhythms: for each Kiarostami uses the same stretches of ground, shot from the same angle and camera distance; in each, Ahmad remains in longshot, a tiny figure struggling up a hill or dashing through a small wood.
Journey 2: Poshteh to Koker. Back in Koker Ahmad has the great misfortune to find his grandfather, the film’s most actively unpleasant character (the schoolmaster at least has his anxiety about his position to explain, if not justify, his meanmindedness). The sequence as a whole introduces a whole new thematic dimension, the question of whether or not things were better in the past, and Kiarostami’s treatment of this is remarkably complex. On the one hand the old man represents a grotesquely cruel and immoral past (all in the interests of morality!): he boasts to his pal that he used to beat his son regularly each fortnight whether he’d done anything wrong or not, and he now exploits Ahmad cruelly and irrationally, ordering him to go and buy cigarettes he doesn’t need (he already has plenty), just to make him obey (‘I want the kid to be brought up properly’). However, this is followed by his argument with a clearly exploitive door salesman, who is cajoling people (including the grandfather) to invest in his iron doors (far superior to the old wooden ones). Kiarostami presents him as a modern capitalist entrepreneur, anxious to make a quick buck with inferior (if more permanent) goods.
Just as he is leaving (on horseback), it is revealed that his name is Nematzadeh. Ahmad (understandably) assumes he is his friend’s father, and pursues him (on foot) back to Poshteh, where, when he discovers the rashness of the assumption, a boy tells him ‘There are lots of Nematzadehs around here’).
Journey 3: Koker to Poshteh. By the time Ahmad gets back to Poshteh night has fallen. In the street a window opens – the window of an aged window-maker who knows everyone in the area, including Nematzadeh’s father who ‘…just left, with his son.’ But they will have reached their home now, and he can take Ahmad there. He also knows Ahmad’s father: he made the door for his house… But today, he tells Ahmad, the doors he used to make are being replaced with iron ones. Here Kiarostami develops the past/present theme, with the sense that though something has been gained (Ahmad’s parents don’t beat him, just have no interest in listening to him!), much has been lost in the rush into capitalist exploitation. The old man shows Ahmad the beautiful stained glass windows of his home (‘I built them with my brother’). The next sequence, as they slowly walk the streets (the old window maker cannot walk fast) to Nematzadeh’s home, is punctuated by the beautiful windows of the houses they pass, further instances of the old man’s artistry and craftsmanship. They are (the old man tells Ahmad) rapidly disappearing, replaced by plain modern ones. Old and discouraged, he no longer makes them.
Rising wind, increasing darkness. The old man suddenly finds a flower growing in the gutter, picks it, puts it between the pages of the notebook Ahmad is carrying, though Ahmad, intent on finding the house, seems barely to notice. Rising storm, deep darkness. The old man points out the closed door of Nematzadeh’s home, low down below street level. A horse is pawing violently at the ground. At the last moment Ahmad, really frightened for the first time in the film, draws back, returns to the old man, remembering that he has to buy bread. But of course it is too late. Ahmad goes home.
But, for the only brief scene in the film from which Ahmad is absent, Kiarostami remains behind (so to speak) with the old man. We see him go back into his house, up the stairs, among piles of clothes, building materials. Cut to exterior. The old man comes to the window, closes it, shuts himself in… We are left here with a sense of irremediable loss. The past (as embodied in the film by the grandfather) was even more oppressive and Kiarostami does not sentimentalize it, yet it had room and time for a sense of beauty, craftsmanship, grace: the qualities that the relentless advance, now world-wide, of corporate capitalism is annihilating.
The last two scenes
Ahmad is back at home, a failure. His father, tired and preoccupied after a day’s labor, is fiddling with a transistor radio, paying no attention to whatever else is going on. His grandfather is on a chair propped up against the wall, staring ahead at nothing. Ahmad’s mother tries to get him to eat (her first act of concern for him in the film), but he can’t. He goes to his bedroom, squats on the floor with his schoolbooks open before him. He seems to be copying from one to the other. Suddenly the wooden shutters over the window burst open in the storm, the sheets are blowing wildly on the clothes line, his mother is out struggling to gather them in: the culmination of the film’s door/window imagery. To me, this is among cinema’s great moments. Ahmad is committing a revolutionary act (though this is not entirely clear until the final scene), and nature erupts against corrupted human meanmindedness, celebrating friendship, fidelity, commitment, independence, generosity.
Hence the final scene, where the film comes full circle. We are back in the classroom. The teacher enters, and opens the window. Ahmad is reported absent, Nematzadeh is in despair, head on desk. A boy gets into trouble for helping his father on his farm (should have been doing his homework!). Enter Ahmad. Just in time, he sits down by Nematzadeh, hands over a homework book. It’s the wrong one, but the exchange is swift. The teacher looks at his book (‘Good’), then at Nematzadeh’s (also ‘Good’). And in Nematzadeh’s book is the flower the old window maker put there…
What exactly do we make of this ending? Nothing essential has changed. Ahmad has committed a revolutionary act, but it may not even have been necessary (it seems very unlikely that a mere class teacher would have the power to expel a boy for writing his homework in the wrong book!). The last shot, the flower (clearly a Kiarostami ‘epiphany’) can easily be misconstrued. Kiarostami makes it clear that Ahmad did not put the flower there and, though he may have noticed it, there is no reason to suppose he attached meaning to it or was more than vaguely conscious of it. Nor are we shown Nematzadeh reacting to it: it appears to mean nothing to either boy. I read the flower as a gift from Kiarostami: his blessing on the two boys and on their friendship in a hostile or indifferent world, his celebration of an act which, by conventional moral standards, is ‘cheating’ and dishonesty. It is a moment (not the only one in the film) where I burst into tears whenever I see it. Once, indeed, more embarrassingly, this happened when I lectured on it, after a screening. But I think my students understood…
Robin Wood was a groundbreaking critic and historian of cinema.
Robin Wood’s essays in Film International 2003-07:
1. ‘Irreversible: Against and For’, 2003:5 (vol. 1, no. 5)
2. ‘Revenge is Sweet: The Bitterness of Audition‘, 2004:1 (vol. 2, no. 7)
3. ‘Claire Denis: Cinema of Transgression, Part 1′, 2004:3 (vol. 2, no. 9)
4. ‘Only (Dis)Connect and Never Relaxez-Vouz, Or I Can’t Sleep. Claire Denis: Cinema of Transgression, Part 2′, 2004:5 (vol. 2, no. 11)
5.‘The Heroism of Disobediance and Deceit: Where is the Friend’s Home?‘, 2005:2 (vol. 3, no. 14)
6. ‘Exodus Collides with the Kedma‘, 2005:6 (vol. 3, no. 18)
7. ‘The Skull Beneath the Skin: Patrice Chéreau and Son Frère‘, 2006:3 (vol. 4, no. 21)
8. ‘Wild Reeds: A Film of the Past for Our Future’, 2006:5 (vol. 4, no. 23)
9. ‘From Ruggles to Rally; or, America! America! The Strange Career of Leo McCarey’, 2007.3 (vol. 5, no. 27)