We lost a lot of people last year. One of them particularly close to my heart was the Iranian writer/director Abbas Kiarostami, who died in July of 2016 at the age of 76. I’ve reviewed several of his movies on this show over the years, with my favorite being The Wind Will Carry Us from 1999. His films often dealt with people who are in the midst of moral quandaries of one sort or another. In Close-Up, for example, the main character impersonates a famous director in order to feel important and wanted, and when he is caught, society has a hard time knowing how to judge him. In Taste of Cherry a man drives around trying to find someone who will agree to bury him after he commits suicide. And in the aforementioned The Wind Will Carry Us a journalist goes to a Kurdish village to do a story on the funeral rituals that will take place for a very old woman who is about to die, but then she keeps not dying, and he has to examine his motives and settle into the village’s unique rhythm.
Until he moved to Paris late in life, Kiarostami tended to cast nonprofessional actors in his films. He was a minimalist, using long takes and focusing on ordinary people having conversations rather than big dramatic events. After the 1979 revolution, the ayatollahs didn’t allow the depiction of men and women interacting, for the most part, so a lot of Iranian directors focused on children, which actually played to Kiarostami’s strengths, since he had a special regard for children and was able to elicit moving performances from them. In fact, the first film that got him international attention was the story of a child. Released in 1987, it’s called Where is My Friend’s House? In this one modest film, you can see the foundation, or the building blocks, as it were, of all his later films.
A young boy, Ahmed, lives in a rural village. One afternoon when he sits down to do his homework, he realizes that along with his own notebook he accidentally picked up the notebook of a classmate. This is a very strict school, and the teacher just that day had warned the class that if anyone lost his notebook, he would be expelled. Ahmed wants to return the notebook, but his parents won’t let him go out. He then sneaks out, but all he knows is that his friend is in the neighboring village. He has no address, and only a first name. For the rest of the afternoon, and well into the night, he wanders through his classmate’s village, asking people if they know where his friend lives. His encounters take him into several false leads and dead ends in which he meets various kinds of villagers with different responses to him ranging from gruff dismissal to earnest desire to help.
This simple tale, with its focus on the wandering quest of a boy, slowly builds a feeling of tenderness and compassion in us. His parents and most other adults have an essentially self-centered approach to life. Ahmed should just focus on his own studies and not waste time trying to help his friend. But the truth is that, without being able to put his feelings into words, Ahmed is distressed at the thought of being the cause, even unintentionally, of another person’s misfortune. He must find the friend and return the notebook, if only to feel right with himself. And we, the audience, are made to understand as well, and root for him to succeed.
Thus, in Where Is My Friend’s House? we are gently but firmly drawn into a moral and emotional experience that recalls the purity and integrity of childhood before it was sidetracked into the more questionable ethics of adult society. In Kiarostami’s later works, the protagonists and their dilemmas would be different, but his deceptively simple technique, his direct, heartfelt style, would remain constant, and continue to inspire warmth, humor and wisdom in audiences for the rest of his life.