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Abbas Kiarostami had been making films for almost ten years when he wrote and directed Where is the Friend's Home? in 1987. The film, considered the first in the Koker Trilogy (the other two being Life and Nothing More (1992) and Through the Olive Trees, 1994), so-called because of the interconnecting Koker region of rural Iran central to all three films, was the first to bring Kiarostami to international attention and its theme of personal responsibility as well as an ethos of helping those weaker in society was one that Kiarostami would return to many times again. Starring eight year old Babek Ahmed Poor as Ahmed, the film follows the journey of Ahmed as he struggles with the simple task of returning his friend's notebook before the night is out. It sounds simple and, as plots go, it is, but it is also an emotionally and spiritually fulfilling film from start to finish.
As the film opens, the audience sees rowdy boys in a classroom, yelling, playing and making a mess. When the teacher shows up they are chastised and told to take their seats. As they present their homework, one boy, Mohamed Reda Nematzadeh (Ahmed Ahmed Poor), has not done his homework because he forgot to take his notebook home the night before. It's happened more than once and after the teacher lectures him and the other boys on the importance of doing their work, he informs Mohamed that he will be expelled if he forgets one more time.
Once they are dismissed from class, Ahmed and Mohamed play briefly and Ahmed goes home to his village only to realize he has accidentally taken home Mohamed's notebook with his own. He tells his mother that he has to go find the boy in the neighboring village. His mother says no but, eventually, after Ahmed has done his chores, he heads out in the hopes of finding Mohamed before it's too late for him to get his work done.
Once Ahmed's journey begins, the audience is taken outside his school and home and into the rural areas of Iran where traditions and cultural identity are strong. He finds help along the way but not enough to solve his problem. Kiarostami uses these many meetings to illuminate the world of these rural communities. In one scene, Ahmed's grandfather speaks with a friend about Ahmed's need for discipline. He elaborates on how he himself was raised. He explains that his father beat him once every fortnight whether he had done something wrong or not. His friend questions the effectiveness of this and why it should be done if he'd done nothing wrong. The grandfather claims it taught him discipline and obedience and, in turn, makes demands of Ahmed to teach him discipline and obedience as well (he has Ahmed go get his cigarettes for him knowing Ahmed will never find them since he actually has them on him).
What is extraordinary about this exchange is that it is happening while everyone is ignoring Ahmed's pleas for help in finding Mohamed to give him back his notebook. Happening right in front of the grandfather's face is an act of discipline and personal responsibility by Ahmed that far outweighs the actions of all the adults around him. Ahmed takes responsibility for taking the notebook by accident and endeavors to correct the situation no matter what the cost and trouble. If the grandfather and other adults took notice of this, they'd realize Ahmed was already learning, through his own intellect and self-awareness, the very values that the others believe can only come through punishment. Although Ahmed may not find Mohamed, he feels no less responsible and will not stop trying until every possibility has been pursued. In the end, his solution is as selfless as it is truly adult; responsible, humane, and practical.
The title of the film has been translated four different ways on different prints and DVDs and the translations make a difference. Its most common translation is Where is the Friend's Home?, however, other translations use Where is My Friend's Home? (The other two variations substitute the word "house" for "home" in the two translations above). It's an important distinction. "The Friend" implies more of a journey of responsibility while "My Friend" implies something more personal. Using "My" implies a real friendship and one that would obviously necessitate Ahmed finding Mohamed to return his notebook. Still a moral and ethical act but one more expected of a true friend. "The Friend" implies more of the actual situation in the film, a school friend that sits behind Ahmed and has inter-school interaction but little else. Risking all to help out a school acquaintance means more in this case, as it's a risk for someone not as close to Ahmed.
Abbas Kiarostami has continued to make films that challenge established ideas and deal with difficult moral and ethical issues. His films have been accused of being anti-cinematic, in that he doesn't prefer a lot of camera histrionics when setting up a shoot but rather a steady camera that records the action. That may be the case but this not only works in favor of the stories Kiarostami chooses to tell, it makes telling the story any other way feel intrusive on the action. Kiarostami's films are not about wowing us with special effects or stunning camera angles. They're about humanity and peace and the beauty of life.
Besides, Where is the Friend's Home? is filled with cinematic beauty proper as well. The journey back and forth between the villages is taken several times and the audience gets to know the path well. A sharply zig-zagged path, resembling a huge "Z", takes Ahmed through a grove of olive trees and finally up (or down depending on direction) a small hill with several small gated pens lining its side. Ahmed goes through rigidly defined structure (the zig-zag path) to natural freedom (the tree grove) to a combination of the two (the final hill) with each trip. He navigates the world and its disciplines, rules and structures, guided by a moral compass that will not allow him to give up. In both the film and the fascinating world of Abbas Kiarostami's ideas and ethos, it's a journey worth taking.
Directed by: Abbas Kiarostami Written by: Abbas Kiarostami Produced by: Ali Reza ZarrinOriginal Music: Amine Allah Hessine Cinematography: Farhad Saba Film Editing: Abbas Kiarostami Costume Design: Hassan Zahidi Set Designer: Reza NamiCast: Babek Ahmed Poor (Ahmed), Ahmed Ahmed Poor (Mohamed Reda Nematzadeh), Kheda Barech Defai (Teacher), Iran Outari (Mother), Ait Ansari (Father), Biman Mouafi (Ali, a neighbor), Rafia Difai (Grandfather), Ali Djamali (Grandfather's Friend), Nader Ghoulami (Property Owner), Akbar Mouradi (Old Man from Azerbaidjan), Hamdallah Askar Poor (Old Man), Kadiret Kaoiyen Poor (Religious Old Man), Hager Faraz Poor (Apple Seller), Mohamed Hocine Rouhi (Carpenter)
By Greg Ferrara