“Maybe more than a teller, I am a story listener. I really enjoy listening to stories. I remember them and keep them in my mind. All of my films are a collection of small stories that have been told to me.“
“Good cinema is what we can believe and bad cinema is what we can’t believe. What you see and believe in is very much what I’m interested in.“
Born: 22 June 1940, Tehran, Iran.
Died: 4 July 2016, Paris, France.
Directing career: 1970 – 2016.
Movement: ‘New Iranian Cinema’.
Traits: Known for his films about idealistic characters, often children, striving for something they cannot quite obtain, and especially for his films blurring the line between fiction and non-fiction, realism and artifice, narrative simplicity and self-conscious complexity. He has made pseudo-documentaries in which real people re-enacted real events, as well as films-within-films-within-films, all demonstrating a desire to break with the traditional rules of storytelling. Other recurrent motifs and themes of his films include cars & drivers (many of his films are set in cars or focus on journeys in cars), lonely individuals, the conflict between what people want to achieve and the limitations of their possibilities, the role of cinema in society, and a philosophical, deeply humane, and poetic outlook on the world.
Stylistically, Kiarostami’s films favour long takes, fixed cameras, non-professional actors, rejecting the technical perfection of Hollywood or the trivial glamour of mainstream escapist entertainment, in order to tell deceptively simply and parable-like films with open-ended transcendent endings, which at their best are like classical Persian folk tales or poems reborn through a modern medium.
Collaborators: Jafar Panahi (assistant director/collaborator), Bahman Ghobadi (assistant director/collaborator), Ebrahim Forouzesh (producer/collaborator), Ali Reza Zarrin (producer/collaborator), Ali Reza Zarrindast (cinematographer), Homayun Payvar (cinematographer), Farhad Saba (cinematographer), Mahmoud Kalari (cinematographer), Juliette Binoche (actress), Marin Karmitz (producer).
The Traveller (1974)
(Originally posted in ’10 Must-See Pre-Revolution Iranian Films’.)
It was upon seeing Sohrab Shahid Saless’s debut film A Simple Event that a young Abbas Kiarostami felt an artistic epiphany. Armed with a new sense of possibility, Kiarostami soon after made The Traveller, his own debut feature, about Ghassem, a young schoolboy in a provincial town.
Like Sabzian in Kiarostami’s 1990 boundary-blurring masterpiece Close Up, Ghassem is a desperate dreamer longing to transcend an existence offering little solace. He wants escape from his overworked carpenter father who has no time for him, from his distressed mother who is powerless to do anything but nag at him, and most of all from the tyrannical schoolmasters whose corporal punishment, rote learning, and constant shouting only further alienate him. Within his given circumstances, there is only one escape: football. Ghassem is so obsessed with the game that he dedicates all his time to it, playing it when he should be at school, and trying to raise funds to sneak on the bus to Tehran to watch an important match live at the stadium.
As always, Kiarostami draws exquisitely natural performances from his young actors, casting upon them an empathetic gaze — indeed the way Ghassem ‘directs’ the other children during the photo-shoot sequence suggests there is plenty of Kiarostami himself in the boy. That said, Kiarostami does not simplistically load all the narrative stakes in Ghassem’s favour. This boy is not some unrealistic paragon of innocence and that makes his character all the more affecting. Nor does the failing of the adults around him entirely excuse him. Ghassem clearly has brains, but chooses to use them in the wrong way, preferring to hustle money through scamming other children rather than studying for his upcoming exam. Most of all, by shunning his loyal schoolmate Akbar, Ghassem is neglecting something far more immediate and worthwhile than faraway football fixtures: true friendship.
With its final denouement, Kiarostami’s neo-neorealist film shows itself to be a moral fable, and we can only hope his young traveller who has captured our imaginations has learnt something from the journey. (May 2020)
Available to watch on Youtube w/ English subs: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1XeM2wKkz1w
Where is the Friend’s Home? (1987)
The great André Bazin once described cinema as “the most skilful tool in revealing the enigmatic character, and almost inaccessible universe, of childhood”. If the ultimate aim of art is to make us see things from a new perspective, then what better way than allowing the viewer to re-capture the sense of a child’s awe? Forty years after Bazin’s words, one of the finest films of the ‘New Iranian Cinema‘ was teaching us how to recapture this. Abbas Kiarostami’s Where is the Friend’s Home? (1987) is a deceptively simple fable centred on 10-year-old Ahmad, a conscientious schoolboy in rural Northern Iran. One day after school, he accidentally takes home his classmate’s notebook. Knowing that his friend risks expulsion if the notebook is not presented to the inflexible schoolmaster the next morning, Ahmad’s innate moral compass leaves him determined to return it at any cost. Allowing us to share in his child’s gaze, the film takes him and us on the most improbable yet rewarding of cinematic quests, because finding the exact address of the friend amid the many dispersed settlements sprawled along this hilly Iranian countryside, where every village is both identical and unfamiliar, where multiple families share the friend’s surname, proves no easy feat. Nor does dodging the scrutiny of the unhelpful adults who, lacking all sympathy for Ahmad’s seemingly pointless pursuit, believe he should instead be running household errands, doing his homework, playing with siblings, anything but zigzagging through the neighbouring villages just for the sake of a notebook.
Abbas Kiarostami’s international breakthrough film came at a transitional moment in world cinema. By the 1980s film culture had stopped believing in the possibility of cinematic movements, after the global explosion of the ’60s new waves had reached its ebb. And yet this would be proved wrong, by nations entering new socio-political chapters in their history, like China or Taiwan or the new Islamic Republic of Iran. Iranian cinema would become a constant presence at film festivals for a good decade and a half after Where is the Friend’s Home ushered in global interest. Kiarostami himself was voted filmmaker of the 1990s by Film Comment magazine, was on the front page of Cahiers du cinéma with the headline ‘Kiarostami le magnifique’, and suddenly Iranian cinema had rekindled the sense of possibility and discovery in film lovers everywhere. Anything was possible, if such cinematic gems could unexpectedly emerge from a country so maligned by the west. How did Iranian cinema do this? The universal appeal of their child protagonists naturally had much to do with it1. Some of the most memorable films about children were gifted to us by this cycle of Iranian films, films as different as Amir Naderi’s The Runner (1985), Bashu the Little Stranger (Bahram Bayzai, 1988), The Boot (Mohammad Ali-Talebi, 1993), The Mirror (Jafar Panahi, 1997), or Samira Makhmalbaf’s The Apple (1998). Looking at this treasure trove of films, it becomes apparent how many of them are, like Ahmad’s story, the quest narrative of a child zigzagging around adult obstacles.
What Ahmad runs up…
Evading his parents’ scrutiny to sneak off on a search for the elusive friend’s home, zigzagging is precisely what Ahmad ends up doing, hiking to the village of Poshteh first, later to that of Khanevar, running up the iconic slaloming path Kiarostami had carved on a hill specially for the film, then back down it again, along the way encountering allies, obstacles, clues, and red herrings. Through this young boy’s trek into territory as new to him as it is alien to the average western viewer, we come to vicariously share his wide-eyed perspective. For Ahmad does not only run on his quest; he pauses, constantly taking in the world around him in a state of mind perfectly rendered by the ever-pensive expression of Babak Ahmadpour, the local boy coaxed into the role by Kiarostami. Throughout, we see shots of him looking, of what he is looking at, of potential avenues of visual entry: doors, windows, alleyways all invitingly offering something to peek into. To listen to too: the first moment of unexpected eeriness enters half an hour into the film, when offscreen noises including a cat meowing draw a nervous Ahmad to notice hanging on a clothes-line a pair of orange trousers thinks he recognises as his friend’s. Cue a simple yet beguiling sequence entering the empty courtyard of this home, somewhere hardly any different to the one his mother was washing clothes in earlier, and yet the structure of the editing, the offscreen sounds, and the absence of other humans makes it feel unfamiliar, peculiar, even slightly scary for Ahmad. On the face of it, Where is the Friend’s Home is a film about encountering a different experience of the world around us, fresh both to Ahmad and, by proxy, the viewer. No wonder one of my very favourite critics, Robin Wood, described it in universalist terms as a “naturalistic Alice in Wonderland”.
The zigzagging quest of Ahmad is embedded in the film’s very structure, punctuated by repetition and visual rhymes, such as the triple appearance of that zigzag hill, directly connecting Where is the Friend’s Home to rich roots in Persian poetry and storytelling. You will miss what Kiarostami is actually up to if you think this is ‘merely’ a universal children’s fable. Note the transition into something decidedly anti-naturalistic, eerie and metaphysical which Ahmad’s quest undergoes in the third act. By this point, daylight flees, crepuscular gusts of wind take over the soundtrack, and a note of trepidation spreads to Ahmad’s expression when jagged tree branches cast unsettling, expressionistic shadows. It is now, in this darkest moment of the film, that Ahmad at last finds a guide worthy of his quest, a mysteriously benevolent old carpenter willing to direct Ahmad to his epiphany, where he will realise the lesson learnt along the way was always more important than the destination. And it is when faced with the final door he must go through that he has second thoughts about completing his quest, setting up a typically note-perfect Kiarostami ending. Yes, it could be Alice in Wonderland or even The Wizard of Oz, since quest narratives exist universally across cultures, but Kiarostami is drawing on a specific heritage of Persian culture rich in attempts to make us see the world anew. Just like The Traveller, and so many of those Iranian films about childhood, Ahmad’s adventure is in the Persian tradition of quest narratives2, where the journey does not culminate in a goal-oriented finale but in a typically metaphysical lesson the learning of which irrevocably changes the protagonist’s (and our) perceptions.
Throughout the film, shots of Ahmad looking, making use of every possible avenue of visual entry, doors, windows, openings in walls, to exercise his gaze into this territory which should be so familiar to him and yet turns out to be so alien…
So, ‘naturalistic’ doesn’t tell the full story of this film’s mysterious balance, and while ‘Alice in Wonderland’ comparisons do at least hint at its subtle strangeness, something more is afoot in Kiarostami’s quest narrative. Kiarostami was a filmmaker of questions, always asking and searching, his films and their process seemingly a quest for the director himself. To look at things through a new lens inevitably means raising questions about the old way of looking, in this case about the way we think of childhood, of education, of rites of passage, of the transmission that happens from generation to generation. In another of the film’s internal rhymes, only twice is Ahmad’s perspective ditched, both times lasting a few minutes after he runs off, when instead of following him the camera stays on two (very different) old men. Late in the film, that elderly carpenter trudging back slowly to his modest home, so slowly that Ahmad rushes off into the evening darkness back to his own house, where his parents will surely require a hefty explanation as to his lengthy absence, takes centre stage. But much earlier on, we remain temporarily with Ahmad’s own grandfather, intercepting him and sending him on what (unlike Ahmad’s moral decision to return the friend’s notebook) is genuinely a needless quest: to buy the old man cigarettes, even though he already has some, just to teach Ahmad to obey his elder’s orders. In Ahmad’s absence, the old grandpa expounds his utilitarian philosophy: children need to be seen not heard, need to be disciplined into becoming unthinking, uncritical, but useful to society.
This also finds its own rhyme with the disciplinarian school-teacher, more interested in rigidly enforcing rules for their own sake rather than understanding why his rural pupils, burdened as they are with domestic chores and manual work, struggle not to break them. Children should comply meekly and dutifully to the demands of the adults who always know better; they should disengage from what their inner wisdom might tell them is also duty (such as rectifying an error caused to a classmate) in favour of compliant conformity. This, most of the adults in the film imply, is the accepted wisdom children must be taught. It is what they themselves were taught as children, the rites of passage, the doors they had to step through, and the next generation should pass through the very same checkpoints on their way to adulthood. But Ahmad has not learnt this yet, as he is still living in what Bazin called that enigmatic, inaccessible universe of childhood, his perspective still untainted by adult preconceptions. Ahmad thus allows us to gaze into childhood as a state of perception anterior to the socially constructed precepts, that weight of traditions, that we later all absorb and ends up absorbing us. The film’s recurring motif of doors, artisanal wooden doors versus the iron doors replacing them, which crops up in discussion as well as visually, enrichens the themes of rites of passage (doors as checkpoints) and of tradition versus modernity. The old needs to be revitalised, not just for the sake of novelty (such as the inferior iron doors replacing the craft of the old carpenter’s handiwork), but to buttress the best of what has come before with new ideas, new ways of thinking and looking, all of which can only give deeper life to traditions rather than let them fall into stale dogma.
The motif of doors, symbolic of rites of passage children like Ahmad must pass through, but also traditional objects which manifest Kiarostami’s theme of the transmission from the old to the new
Kiarostami himself is taking nourishment from the fecund fount of Persian culture, in this film about finding your own way even as the weight of tradition presses down on you. Even more than the quest narratives of the century-old heritage of Sufism, Kiarostami here drinks from the well of modern Iranian poetry, specifically paying tribute to the 20th century mystic Sohrab Sepehri. Kiarostami took the title from one of Sepehri’s poems and dedicated the film to him.
Sepehri, painter, philosopher and poet, was a direct precursor to Kiarostami’s project of making us look anew at the world. Born and raised in Isfahan province, Sepehri remained a permanent outsider to the intellectual scene of Tehran. He travelled extensively to Asia, Africa, the United States, and Europe, and for extended periods lived in Japan, the US, and France. He worked odd jobs in various governmental bureaucracies, but always continued to paint his canvases and write his poetry with a gentle perseverance that is the hallmark of his creative legacy. Despite being in many ways a modernist, his art was deeply informed by the mystical traditions of the Sufi heritage of Persian culture. In other words, like Kiarostami he too found a fruitful continuity between old and new.
Of more immediate relevance is Sepehri’s desire to create a new mode of looking in his poetry, succinctly encapsulated for example in his poem ‘I Don’t Know’, which begins thus:
I don’t know
Why a horse is a noble animal, and a dove is lovely
And why no one keeps a vulture.
I don’t know why a clover should be inferior to a red tulip.
We need to rinse our eyes, and view things differently.
(Translated by Ali Salami, from: https://alisalami.com/2020/01/15/sohrab-sepehri-selected-poems-translated-by-ali-salami/)
If we realise the way we happen to perceive the world is based on socially constructed preconceptions, then we have taken the first step towards changing our perception, towards realising that the world can just as well be perceived and constructed a whole other, and perhaps better, way. Now we may discern the profundity of Kiarostami’s deceptively simple children’s tale. In a decade of tumultuous violence for Iran, of political oppression under the new Islamic government, and a bloody war of attrition with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in which millions died, Kiarostami like Sepehri chooses to focus his gaze on more simple (but no less profound) issues. The way we view childhood, or birds, or education, or flowers, or everything around us, is the seed from which everything else grows. In true Sufi style, Sepehri’s words and Kiarostami’s images almost seem to suggest to us an idealistic but beautiful axiom: if we were all meditating on how to change our perception, would humanity waste its time and potential on such nonsensical territorial wars? What good is the supposed experience, wisdom and authority of the adults if all they are preoccupied with are banal matters of power, territory, or posterity? If we all could rinse our eyes and return to seeing the world like Ahmad does, maybe there’d be no oppression in the first place. An almost inaccessible universe indeed. (September 2021)
…he must also run down
1. Of course, it is not the only factor. I have also written before about the appeal and significance of the New Iranian Cinema’s self-reflexive storytelling as well: https://cine-scope.com/2013/09/14/an-overview-of-the-new-iranian-cinema-part-5/ (something that would of course be increasingly evident in Kiarostami’s films immediately after this one).
2. One of many possible examples would the 12th century Sufi poem, ‘The Conference of the Birds’ written by Attar, which relates the daring quest of a band of birds seeking their mythical leader. It takes them across seven valleys, only for their final destination to reveal their own reflections: what they were searching for was in themselves all along. This form of quest narrative, shifting from a search for something real into something less tangible, is seen again and again in the childhood-centric films of the New Iranian Cinema: just think of Jafar Panahi’s The White Balloon (1995) or The Mirror (1997), or many of Majid Majidi’s films. But where Kiarostami and Where is the Friend’s Home go beyond these other films and connects more closely to the Persian poetry traditions is in reaching for the metaphysical.