A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Friday, March 31, 2017

Where Is My Friend's House? (Abbas Kiarostami, 1987)

Babek Ahmed Poor in Where Is My Friend's House?
I think Dickens would have liked Abbas Kiarostami's Where Is My Friend's House?* It deals with one of Dickens's great subjects: the anomalous place of children in an adult world that often doesn't even hear or see them or recognize them as human beings with their own problems and concerns. It's the story of 8-year-old Ahmed (Babek Ahmed Poor), who goes to school in the village of Koker. One day the teacher berates the boy who sits next to Ahmed, Mohamed Reda (Ahmed Ahmed Poor), because he has done his homework on a piece of paper and not in the prescribed notebook. It's the third time Mohamed Reda has done this, the teacher scolds, and the next time he'll be expelled. We can see Ahmed wincing at the treatment of Mohamed Reda, and after school he helps the boy when he stumbles and drops his schoolbooks. When he gets home, Ahmed discovers that he has accidentally picked up Mohamed Reda's notebook and is horrified that this means the boy will be expelled. He tells his mother that he needs to take the notebook to his friend, but she's preoccupied with doing the wash and tending to the baby, so she tells him to do his homework first and then to pick up the bread for dinner. Perplexed, Ahmed tries to do his homework but his mother keeps interrupting him to help with the baby or to carry the washbasin, constantly dismissing his insistence that it's important that he deliver the notebook. Finally, he seizes the opportunity to leave, but he knows only that Mohamed Reda lives in the neighboring village of Poshteh, which is over the hill from Koker. So he races up the zigzag trail that takes him over the steep hill and down through the olive grove that lies outside the village. He knows Mohamed Reda's family name is Nematzadeh, but there are lots of Nematzadehs in Poshteh, and he doesn't know which branch of the family is his friend's. Finally, he gets a lead and is told that Mr. Nematzadeh and his son have just set off for Koker. So he races back over the hill, only to be delayed in his search by his own grandfather (Rafia Difai), who sends Ahmed off to fetch his cigarettes. While Ahmed is running this errand, the grandfather expounds his theories of child-rearing to a friend: His own father, the grandfather says, would give him some money and a beating every other week, whether he deserved it or not. Sometimes, he admits, his father would forget the money, but he always remembered the beating. This, the grandfather proclaims, taught him the discipline and obedience that children today like Ahmed don't learn. Meanwhile, Ahmed, who is struggling to fulfill what he sees as his duty to his friend and his family, has learned that the boy who accompanied Mr. Nematzadeh was not Mohamed Reda, and that the man has just started back for Poshteh, riding on a donkey. So Ahmed makes another trip over the hill, keeping Nematzadeh in sight and following him into the labyrinthine streets and alleys of Poshteh, only to discover that he has the wrong branch of the family after all. Eventually, after another misadventure, a despondent Ahmed returns home, finishes his own homework, and copies it into Mohamed Reda's notebook, which results in a well-earned happy ending. It's an excellent movie for children, but beside that, Kiarostami's screenplay, direction, and editing, and his empathy with the people and landscape of Northern Iran bring everything together into a fable about miscommunication and the difficulties of growing up. It's not as ambitious or complex as some of Kiarostami's later films, but it has their depth of feeling and brilliance of execution.

*The Persian title has been translated several different ways: IMDb, for example, calls it Where Is the Friend's Home? I prefer "my friend's house" as more colloquial, and because it avoids the real-estate-agent coziness that tries to pretend that every house is a home.