Abbas Kiarostami (1940-2016) is unarguably the most known face of Iran on the map of World cinema. After seeing not just a couple of his films, but also reading some poems from his poetry collection – he comes right up there in my list of favorite poets too – along with other favorites like T.S. Eliot, Mahmoud Darwish, John Donne and Arseny Tarkovsky.
From his poetic œuvre, my heart lingered a little bit longer on ‘Where Is the Friend’s Home?’ (1987). This film shot in the region of Koker, Iran, was not just a recipient of the Bronze Prize at the 1989 Locarno Film Festival – but a film that made the World officially declare Kiarostami’s presence. The title of the film ‘Khaneh Ye Dost Kojast?’ is derived from Sohrab Sepeheri’s (a prominent modern poet of the country) poem. The title could well be a literal one-line summary of the film’s story – the search for the friend’s home.
It is one of the simplest human ideas to be thought of as a story and then made into a feature film. It’s about life through the eyes of 8-year-old Ahmed (Babek Ahmed Poor) who must return friend Mohamed Reda Nematzadeh’s (Ahmed Ahmed Poor) notebook that he has mistakenly taken. A conscientious lad, his only concern for the next 16-18 hours on his return from school is to have the notebook handed over to his friend. The 8-year-old sees grave danger in not returning it. The schoolteacher had emphasized the importance of carrying all their notebooks with their respective homework done. The dire consequence of not doing so was only one – being expelled from school.
The hardships of the Iranian life make this about their discipline in the daily affairs. The school master had not minced words. Students not doing their homework or worse – ‘not carrying it’ is just not acceptable. We understand how few schools there are. Children come from not just the neighborhood but a few far off villages to this school. The students are friends in school but have never had the luxury of mingling with each other after school hours. Apart from the ones from their own locality, they have faint idea of their friends’ homes and just about know that they come from a particular region there. This becomes significant when young Ahmed embarks upon a journey to return the notebook of his friend’s. He is clueless about his friend’s home. Daily life has no scope for diversions like meeting friends outside their locality. The beauty of the film is that while highlighting the discipline in the quotidian, it brings out the loyalty of the friend Ahmed and his compassion – to what extent he can go so that his friend does not get into trouble with the school master.
The old and the young both are important in this journey to the glaring exclusion of the middle aged. Ahmed’s parents or the middle-aged people, barring the teacher obviously, have little to impart in terms of wisdom or advice. It is the children who weigh responsibilities in all earnest on their shoulders. It is the elders who are observing and emphasizing their role in society. The film is about the old men who sit under trees, at the corner of the village, where they daily gather, and it is about their life observations. It is equally about life as young children see it. There is the poetry of both the young and the old. Of birth, awe and wonder and the experience and wisdom that age brings with it. All this is played out in the harsh terrains of their homes and the neighboring villages.
From the precise moment of Ahmed’s discovery – that he has by mistake carried the friend’s notebook, he is obsessed with a one-point agenda of returning it. Ahmed in the sincerity with which he has taken the teacher’s word, is ready to defy. It starts at home with the mother. The woman of the house is timetable born. Ahmed must lend her a hand in a bit of the household work. It’s a harsh life for her with no scope for varying routine. She is closed to the idea of listening to Ahmed as she goes about instructing him mechanically to eat, help out with the newborn, settle down to homework and then play later. His multiple attempts at telling her he needs to go to the neighboring village to Posteh (Nematzadeh’s village) fall on deaf years. This finally leads to a moment when he just leaves the home, sans permission. Probably a first for him to do so, given how much he tried to explain to his mother. The fear of the repercussion that not doing homework would have for his school friend is given priority. All dilemma and conflict get resolved as he knows precisely what journey has to be embarked.
The geography of the journey is what constitutes a large part of the poetry. The camera misses nothing as it lingers on everything it possibly could – from the hillocks to the zigzag paths. It is a quest and an important solo journey in Ahmed’s life. One that will be a learning experience whether he processes it this early in life and consciously or not. As far as the literal journey too is concerned, he seems to be going up and down this path with a single tree atop (apparently created especially for the film) and not getting any closer to the home yet getting enriched by the journey alone. Every house seems identical. It’s a sort of maze from which there seems no return.
Afternoon soon turns to dusk, and the hero’s journey continues. There are people giving directions, but nothing is clear. They seem as zigzag as the route. Nobody has the time to help. Ahmed very early in the journey meets a familiar face from school – Morteza. The classmate guides him but is unable to accompany him even for a few moments. He is retrieving milk from heavy containers and that is his immediate homework. It is no wonder that children doing such daily chores find it impossible to finish assignments but the disciplinarian schoolteacher won’t obviously understand. Morteza’s directions are vague – “In Khanevar, up the hill, there’s a staircase in front and a blue door right by a bridge.” It’s a world seen through a child’s eyes who will not process left and right or kilometers but things that leave an impression – the staircase, the door, and the bridge. We later discover that the directions weren’t particularly helpful, what with many similar looking structures around. I still remember giving similar directions as a child “Turn left you will find a cow sitting and go further to find a letter box”. The scene definitely put a smile on my face.
After many an effort at finding his friend, Ahmed discovers that Mohammad Reza and his father have just traveled to Koker (Ahmed’s village). The boy runs back with spirited enthusiasm to Koker only to discover that it is a different Mohammad Reza. One of the most unforgettable scenes is around at this point. His encounter with his grandfather highlights a lack of connect between the two generations. Ahmed is commanded to run an errand (to buy cigarettes) and the grandfather at this point has an animated conversation with a neighbor who offers him a cigarette. He feels that the grandson is preoccupied and undermining his instructions. It is a must for him to run the errand so that he knows orders must be obeyed. It’s a world order that must be swallowed as a bitter pill by Young Ahmed.
Ahmed’s journey is far from over and he is unfatigued. He resumes his search by heading back to Posteh. It is here that he encounters an old man with rheumatic knees. So far, the most kind and helpful man in Ahmed’s journey. The dialogue between the two gives us so many insights about changing times and generational attitudes. Unlike the disciplinarian grandfather, this man is kind and nostalgic about earlier times. He is the only one with time and compassion to accompany him although he starts to pant, and his knees play up. He tells Ahmed he can’t keep pace. We learn that he makes doors. He says that no one demands ornate doors anymore as they use iron doors. Traditional crafts are being replaced and employment prospects closing down on those stepped in certain traditional skills.
Night falls and our young Ahmed hasn’t found his friend and so makes the journey back home. The journey back is a lonely one where he failed to meet his objective – and yet a wiser more mature Ahmed returns home. And finally, it is from none of the people he asked directions from (although they had their purpose in his journey and some did guide him) but he himself finds the solution to the problem. When the family retires for the night, he does Mohammad Reza’s homework for him in his notebook. In doing so he saves his friend from disciplinary action.
Many could say it wasn’t a particularly ethical thing, but it is about priorities. The actual journey shows us he would risk a bit indiscipline to follow the school discipline. So that’s the contradiction and one that shows how high he places his loyalty to a school mate.
In Sepehri’s poem too, it is the child “high up in a pine tree” who has the answer:
“High up in a pine tree,
You will see a child
Who will lift a chick out of a nest of light.
‘Where is the friend’s house?”
The film ‘Where is the friend’s home?’ has been considered the first part of Abbas Kiarostami’s ‘Kosher Trilogy’ along with ‘Life goes on’ (1992) and ‘Through the olive trees’ (1994) by critics as they felt that the three were connected by the place – the Northern Iranian village. It is a clubbing that Kiarostami himself debunked saying that thematically the three were not connected and clubbing based on a place made little sense.
The first film that I saw of Kiarostami was ‘The Wind Will Carry Us’ (1999) and personally I found more similarities in these two films. Both films for one, derive their titles from poems. Forugh Farrokhzâd is the modern Persian poet in the case of ‘The Wind Will Carry Us’ and both films have a search that gets established right in the beginning. In the case of ‘The Wind Will Carry Us’ there is a land rover carrying a film crew looking for some vague address. Both films are a poetic quest as they pass through either winding roads or through zigzag terrain between two villages. Both the films have simple plots with focus on imagery. Both films are journeys with seekers. Along the way in both films, there are people aiding and guiding. Just by their philosophical answers they take these films forward.
Those who accuse him of not being overtly political enough to continue working under the Islamic regime perhaps don’t realize not every resistance is overt. Sometimes the subtle messages against authoritarian rule are far more impactful and to the discerning observer he will find resistance in simple everyday acts of disobedience, as is the case with ‘Where Is the Friend’s Home?’
From sounds of life all around the harsh village terrains to the wise old men sitting and observing life, the director shows us through the camera movement that it’s a land oozing with poetry –effortless and natural. I don’t know if it was a conscious rejection of the western world, but it certainly was a cinema rooted in Persian traditions – of life as they know it and of oral traditions of storytelling.
A few lines that I wrote to conclude because only poetry should round up an article on a film like this:
The zigzag terrain (Inspired by the film ‘Where is the friend’s home?’)
This land has a solitary tree of sagacity
The octogenarians sit under it
It is sunset
By now the tree’s wisdom
Has rubbed on to them
The middle aged
Dead, in-between things
Have lost the twinkle of wonder
Their eyes are dulled
By pails of water
They daily fill
Home is near enough
The journey long
Only from the very young
Or the very old”
Abbas was so rooted in poetry that he even read a lot of it in preparation for his films. The result was magical – wafer thin stories and the ‘poetic minimalism’ of his cinema. I leave you with the words of Abbas Kiarostami himself:
“Poetry in Iran pours down on us, like falling rain,
And everyone takes part in it.”
Vandana Kumar is a Delhi based teacher of French language and literature, a celebrated poet with several internationally published poems and a film enthusiast.