(Dir. Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 1987)
Right and Wrong
There’s this great little film from Abbas Kiarostami’s short film period entitled Two Solutions for One Problem in which two young schoolboys are faced with the titular issue. One boy Dara borrows his friend Nader’s book, but accidentally tears it before giving it back. In the film’s first half, Nader quickly retaliates by tearing the cover of one of Dara’s notebooks to get him back. The two boys then take turns destroying each other’s belongings until they’re on the floor at each other’s throats. At the halfway point, the film’s beginning repeats itself. The narrator reintroduces the boys, establishing them as friends, and then Dara gives Nader back his torn book. This time, however, Nader shows Dara what he’s so carelessly done, and Dara proceeds to glue the cover back on the book. The boys remain friends, and they rush out to the playground to still roughhouse, but this time in good fun.
Kiarostami takes this idea of a child facing a question of morality and turns it into his first major feature film to receive international attention Where Is the Friend’s Home? in 1987. Without the bounds of short film form, Kiarostami doesn’t offer two alternate takes like in Two Solutions, but instead opts for allowing one boy’s quest for doing what’s right to develop over its near hour and a half runtime. Ahmad faces a different dilemma than Nader and Dara, one that will not likely affect his friendship with another boy, Mohammad Reza, no matter the outcome. But, it’s implications for the eight-year-old are paramount in his largely innocent world nonetheless. After enduring their schoolteacher’s diatribe directed at Mohammad for forgetting once again to turn in his homework in a notebook rather than on loose leaf, Ahmad is inclined to take this strict educator’s threats seriously. If his friend fails to complete his homework properly one more time, the schoolteacher promises his expulsion.
When Ahmad gets home and dutifully begins his own homework, he quickly realizes he’s accidentally taken Mohammad’s notebook as well. The reality of his friend’s imminent fate hits him immediately, and he hesitantly, but firmly pleads with his mother to allow him to return the book to his friend in a neighboring village. His protests fall on deaf ears, and his mother repeatedly calls for his obedience in doing his homework, caring for his baby brother, and finally retrieving bread from the local bakery. Returning his friend’s notebook is not on the list of his evening chores, according to his mother. Thus, Kiarostami poses this youngster with a moral dilemma: should he obey his mother as the culturally and religiously deemed authority in his life, or should he risk disobedience and likely his own punishment by helping a peer in need? Kiarostami wondrously captures the indecision on the young boy’s face as he contemplates his choice. When asked to put down his homework and run an errand to the bakery, Ahmad seizes the opportunity, slips Mohammad’s notebook under his shirt, and takes off for Poshteh, the nearby village.
What follows is the boy’s determined search for his friend through the alleys of Poshteh, back to his home in Koker, and back to Poshteh after dark for one last attempt. The camera fittingly captures the boy often peering around corners or framed through doorways effectively highlighting his curiosity as he inquires about Mohammad’s whereabouts. Time and again, Ahmad finds himself ignored by most adults and even chastised by his own grandfather for no particular reason. It seems though Ahmad did disobey his mother’s orders, it’s the adults in the film who are more often morally compromised than the young boy. Parents deal harshly with children throughout, one man flippantly tears a page from Mohammad’s notebook though Ahmad has denied him the request, and in one scene, Ahmad’s grandfather even confesses to an acquaintance that children must be occasionally beaten so that they learn discipline at a young age. When the elderly friend aptly asks, “what if the child does nothing wrong?” the grandfather advocates making something up to ensure that he or she will learn some lesson by force.
As the night grows darker and the wind begins to howl, Kiarostami reveals that this issue is not so black and white after all. There are reasons for some rules, and there are likely some good reasons for why an eight-year-old boy shouldn’t be wandering the streets unaccompanied after dark. So, though he does not reach Mohammad before turning back for home, he instead decides to complete his friend’s homework for him to ensure he won’t be punished the following morning. Here, Kiarostami surfaces another moral question for his young protagonist. And, though Ahmad’s decision is ultimately rewarded when the schoolteacher offers Mohammad a “good job” the next day, the film doesn’t so readily promote cheating as a form of advancement, but rather raises the question: how far should we go to protect those around us? Appropriately, then, some have read Kiarostami’s seemingly simple work as a metaphor for challenging societal authority when needs of brotherly loyalty should morally trump established rules and regulations. And yet, as it is a Kiarostami film – even an early one – he does not offer his opinion outright, instead allowing his audience to decide for itself whether what the boy has done is right or wrong.
At its core, Where Is the Friend’s Home? is a delightful film for viewers of all ages. Its strength lies in its deceptively simple question of morality that is wide-reaching enough that it may well effect children and adults, men and women, and Iranians and people worldwide. It beautifully gives voice to a group of people so much of the world tends to ignore, and successfully argues that the problems that children face are often just as complex as those of adults. Kiarostami remains one of the best directors who can extract believable and heartfelt performances from children – even non-actors! And, Friend’s Home is likely the best example of this rather admirable trait of a filmmaker who seems to have an abundance of them.