Where is the Friend’s Home?

There are films, and there are films. There are film-makers and there is Abbas Kiarostami.

Iran, one of the more repressive societies of the world, has come up with the some of the most impressive cinema in the world, consistently for more than two decades. This cinema comes from a country where you cannot see a man and woman hold hands on screen, where a woman’s head must be covered in public and on film, where any references considered anti-Islamic will land you in jail. Jafar Panahi, who has made films on the difficulties women face in the repressive legal system, is now imprisoned for six years, and banned for twenty against making films. Yet, Iranians continue to make some of the most heart-warming films of our times.

How do they do it? People have their theories. But for now, I am going skip the theories and talk about a little gem from Iran I saw two days ago.

Abbas Kiarostami

The gem is called Where is the Friend’s Home? and its writer-director is Abbas Kiarostami, perhaps the most acclaimed Iranian film-maker of all time. The film begins and ends in a noisy classroom full of 8-year old boys. The teacher enters and there is silence. He is well-meaning, but seems to have little real contact with the hopes, fears, and joys of the little boys. He scolds a boy called Nematzadeh for doing his homework on a piece of paper, rather than in a notebook, once again. Nematzadeh says he forgot his notebook at his cousin’s house. The teacher will have none of it. This is the fourth time this has happened. The teacher holds up the piece of paper, tears it into four pieces, and threatens to expel Nematzadeh from school if this happens again. Little Nematzadeh breaks into tears, helpless and alone. All this while, Ahmad, sitting next to Nematzadeh, watches. When Ahmad reaches home after school, he realizes he has brought Nematzadeh’s notebook in his bag, by mistake. Hence, tomorrow Nematzadeh will again do his homework on a sheet of paper, and will again be tortured by the teacher, or expelled from school. Nematzadeh lives in Poshteh, a village a few miles away from Ahmad’s village. What to do?

Apparently, adults and children think differently. Ahmad tells the situation to his mother, who is busy washing clothes, taking care of the baby, making food, and doing other household chores. She is too burdened with her practical responsibilities to see the concern in her son’s eyes. “You want to go to Poshteh all the way, alone, to return this notebook? Just give it back tomorrow.” She tells Ahmad he has help her in the chores and buy bread for dinner, or father will scold him, and then gets busy with her burden again. The cranky grandmother is no help either. She cannot get beyond her mutterings and empathize with her 8-year old grandson.

Ahmad, wide-eyed and deeply moved by his friend’s humiliation and suffering in class today, finds returning the notebook much more important than the everyday chores of his family members, and the fact that Nematzadeh’s village is some miles away and he has no idea where in the village Nematzadeh lives is not going to deter him. When mother is not looking, off sets little Ahmed, running across the zigzag route up the hill to his friend’s village. In the background, a traditional string instrument plays with joy and enthusiasm, heralding a little boy’s choice of friendship and compassion over conformity and indifference to other human beings.

Most of the film is about Ahmad’s search for Nematzadeh’s house, in which he asks several people, receives directions far too complicated for an 8-year old, gets lost, knocks on several doors asking for his friend but with no success, only meeting adults indifferent to and uncomprehending of his efforts, and is led to much disappointment, but that does not keep him from trying more. Finally, Ahmad makes friends with an elderly carpenter who laments the loss of traditional manners and sensibilities, plucks a flower for Ahmad, and takes him to Nematzadeh’s house, only to find that nobody is inside. Ahmad returns home at night, drenched in the rain, his mission unsuccessful.

Yet, the film ends with a scene deeply moving, and full of charm. We see the next day in school. The same class, the same teacher. The dreaded teacher is going to everyone’s desk, checking their homework. Nematzadeh sits, scared, with a piece of paper in front of him. Ahmad is missing. As the teacher is about to reach Nematzadeh, Ahmad enters the class, sits next to Nematzadeh, and quietly gives Nematzadeh his notebook. “I did your homework for you,” he adds. The teacher comes, opens Nematzadeh’s notebook, checks it and signs on the last page, and on the page we see, along with a child’s Persian handwriting, the little flower from the old carpenter. Thus the film ends, the joyous string instrument playing in the background again. Total simplicity, pure joy.

I once saw a poster made of two pictures juxtaposed with each other. The first was of small children happily playing on the grass. The second was of a crowded underground train, where adults stare into nothingness, or into their newspapers, with a gloomy, tired look on their faces, and totally indifferent to each other’s presence, even while being packed together like sardines. Below the two pictures was a caption – “What Happened?”

Kiarostami’s film asks much the same question. What happened? There was a time when we valued human relationships more than anything else. There was a time when we longed for our grandmother’s embrace. A time when we ran out into the playground, taking in the brightness of the sun and the gentleness of the breeze. Mother was someone to curl up with, or around, who told us funny stories and treated us like her little toy. We grew up and something happened. Life isn’t the same anymore.

Ahmad’s character in the film – with his big eyes, his immensely sincere demeanour, his burning wish to save his friend from a scolding, or expulsion, the next day – bespeak his humanity. All the adults in the film, except the elderly carpenter, are indifferent to Ahmad’s concerns. They are too busy cleaning their house, making money, worrying their worries, and repetitively mouthing what tradition has told them. Nobody allows Ahmad to go to Nematzadeh, and when he runs out secretly, nobody tries to show him the way. Business, jobs, chores have become more important than real human beings.

Kiarostami’s film is a blend of a deep humanism and a contemplative spirit. The contemplative nature of his film – like his other films – is evinced in the slow, relaxed pace of the film, which feels more like daily life passing by rather than a film of twists and turns in the plot. We see life in an Iranian village closely. The old structures of togetherness, the defined roles, they are all there, but there is little joy, little aliveness. People function like automatons. One can predict what they shall say. The troubled teacher, aloof mother, the cranky grandmother, the father more concerned with the radio set than with his son, the domineering grandfather, the greedy businessman, the self-occupied old lady – these are the adults that populate little Ahmad’s life, and by the end of the film, you are wishing that Ahmad doesn’t grow up to become like them, that he retains his innocence, his sincerity, and his spirit that will do anything for a friend.

You also wonder if you have shrunk into a pale shadow of the bundle of immense possibilities that you were, as a child. Have you? Are you really alive, or just breathing? Kiarostami is asking you this question.

Where is the Friend’s Home? is the best children’s film I have seen, and one of the most deeply touching films of any genre. Thank you Abbas Kiarostami, for this precious little gem.

~ by tdcatss on July 28, 2012.

6 Responses to “Where is the Friend’s Home?”

  1. Thank you for sharing about this film with us! :) I love the way it gently shows compassion and caring.

  2. Kaif, I love the films you watch. I love the way you write about those films.

    I shall add this to my watchlist! :-) Thanks.

  3. thank you abhilash! let me know how you find the film, if you watch it.

  4. jus a’some kaif :) i came to this blog thru abhilash :) thx abhi :)

  5. thanks a lot gopakumar! thanks also for sharing it on your profile, the traffic on my blog has suddenly gone up :)

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